By Peter Staunton
Imagine Barcelona without Lionel Messi.
There is no way they could have been as successful as they have been without the Argentine in their line-up. Pep Guardiola's tenure as coach at Camp Nou brought the best football of Messi's career and elevated him to his position as one of the best players on the planet.
Guardiola designed Barcelona around Messi. He simply did not slot him in and hope it worked. As Samuel Eto'o, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa learned, Messi was the main man. Irreproachable. Guardiola won 14 titles with Messi as his key player.
And so to Bayern Munich. Guardiola had a new template in mind for what were then the European champions when he took over from Jupp Heynckes in 2013. Key to it all would have been Thiago Alcantara. The midfielder, signed from Barcelona, was the only player Pep asked for. "I spoke to club about my concept and told them why I want Thiago," Guardiola told the press prior to the signing. "He is the only player I want. It'll be him or no one. We the need the special quality that Thiago brings."
In order to progress Bayern from what they were and to take them where he wants them to be, Pep needs Thiago. "It's not about repeating something but creating something new," the player told Four Four Two when he joined.
There have been only glimpses of what Thiago can bring to Bavaria. He has played 16 times in the Bundesliga and has not kicked a competitive ball since March. In the games he played he was supreme. He immediately took command of Bayern's play on-field. He demanded passes, won the ball back and decreed where colleagues should be running.
Then he put passes to their feet. He set a Bundesliga ball contact record in February against Eintracht Frankfurt, touching the ball 185 times in 90 minutes. Pulling the strings, Thiago led Bayern to a 5-0 win. That is the sort of controlled dominance - with sudden menace - that Guardiola needs for Bayern but which he has been lacking.
It's not unusual to look at Bayern and feel they are missing something. Moves run out of space. Gaps appear for counter-attacks against them. Some players already at the club had been slow on the uptake and some others have been deemed ill-suited and moved on. Thiago alone will not solve all those issues but this system was designed with him, specifically, in mind. If you want to know how important Thiago is, or should be, for Bayern consider the following.
They won the Bundesliga title last season on March 25 against Hertha Berlin away from home. Thiago was injured in the very next game on March 29 against Hoffenheim. He partially tore his knee ligaments - the first occurance of what has become an injury nightmare. That 3-3 draw ended a run of 19 straight wins in the league. Thiago went off after 25 minutes and Bayern could not win without him.
They failed to win six of their next 10 matches as Thiago recuperated. They tumbled out of the Champions League, losing heavily to Real Madrid, and were humbled in the league by Borussia Dortmund. At the time, the wind coming out of Bayern's sails was attributed simply to a lack of motivation due to wrapping up the title. But a deeper reading could be that they were missing the man who was beginning to make them tick in Pep's image.
And it might never come to pass that Pep can play exactly how he wants at Bayern.
The recurrance of Thiago's knee injury this week is a personal tragedy for the Spain midfielder but it means Pep's Bayern will never be Pep's Bayern. By the time he returns - well after the mid-season break - Bayern will more than likely have the league won and it could be too much of a risk to reintegrate him into a Champions League team at that stage.
Without Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez already, Pep would have been waiting eagerly for the return of Thiago. With him back in the team, those criticisms he has faced may have subsided. Bayern would have been back playing the type of football he was brought to the club to provide. But asking them to play how Pep wants without Thiago would be like asking Barca to play without Messi. Unthinkable.
Guardiola signed a three-season contract at Bayern. His time at Barcelona showed he is unlikely to let the grass grow under his feet. After next season he will be off for his next challenge. And so what he had in mind for Bayern, and by extension what he had in mind for Thiago, may never truly reach fruition.
And what a shame it would be if Thiago becomes one of those great unfulfilled talents due to injury. He has the potential to become the best player in the world. He is part-Busquets, part-Okocha. He has, however, already suffered four knee ligament injuries in quick succession and missed the World Cup with Spain.
By the time he returns it will have been a year since he kicked a ball in anger. He needs more football. Football needs more of him.