Borussia Mönchengladbach, 2019–
There are few sights in football that evoke nostalgia quite like some of football’s most recognisable names reappearing on team sheets across Europe. Justin Kluivert, Federico Chiesa, Enzo Zidane, Timothy Weah, Giovanni Simeone, Ianis Hagi, Devante Cole and Daniel Maldini are all following in their fathers’ footsteps, and Marcus Thuram – son of the 142-cap France international Lilian – is showing that he could be one of the best of the next generation.
Thuram Junior attracts extra attention – and with it, expectation – because of his family name, but his position as one of Borussia Mönchengladbach’s most important players has little to do with his father. Marco Rose is the manager who has overseen his best performances, and prior to Rose agreeing to join Borussia Dortmund at the conclusion of 2020/21, when Thuram was 23, he said: “Marcus is a footballer who benefits greatly from his physique and stature. Nevertheless, he's also a fine technician who can always deal with situations in tight spaces. Marcus is far from the end of his development. There's a lot more to come from him.”
Thuram is both a goalscorer and a creator rolled into one. He made the majority of his appearances as the left-sided forward in Rose’s 4-2-3-1, but he is by no means a traditional wide player. He provides a threat in behind and spends significant periods in central areas, almost like a second striker. Despite often starting on the left, Thuram was quite regularly Gladbach’s most advanced player, and spent more time close to goal than their centre-forward – usually Alassane Pléa.
He does not seek possession, and instead waits for his opportunity to strike. He only really seems interested in what happens close to goal, but that is part of what makes him so dangerous. He often goes through long periods without touching the ball, but still poses a regular threat on goal. In a 3-1 defeat by Bayer Leverkusen during 2019/20, Thuram had only 30 touches of the ball in his 77 minutes on the pitch but still scored. In the 4-1 win over Union Berlin that soon followed, Thuram had the second-fewest touches of all of the Gladbach players who played at least 80 minutes. He still played a crucial role, however, by scoring twice.
It’s not uncommon for an attacker to be less involved in play than others – Jamie Vardy, who frequently has fewer than 30 touches in a game but remains one of the Premier League’s most potent marksmen, is one example – but it is a little unusual that Thuram plays such an insignificant role in build-up play given he regularly plays, nominally at least, as a midfielder. When he is involved, there is pressure on him to make his contributions count. Thuram’s movement is one of his greatest strengths – his bursts of pace and explosive moments are often too quick for his opponents. He holds his position well, and he does not always get drawn towards play, but instead adopts positions that makes it difficult for defenders to see both him and the ball. Then, when a chance presents itself, he springs into action and sprints in behind (below).
He is extremely effective at unsettling defenders through what have become the trademark flicks with which he disguises passes into an advancing teammate’s path. To do so, Thuram slows down as he makes a run across the front of an opponent, drawing that player out of position as they remain close to him and hoping to prevent him from turning. In the knowledge that he has created space in the position he and the relevant defender have vacated, Thuram is adept at then swiftly flicking the ball into that space with a cleverly disguised and extremely quick movement.
He then continues his run in the opposite direction and draws defenders further out of position with what is essentially a dummy run. Doing so can create space in tight central areas (below), but can also make larger spaces towards the left after Thuram has drifted infield, often inviting Gladbach’s attacking left-back Ramy Bensebaïni to overlap.
Defenders often attempt to remain as close as possible to Thuram to deny him the chance to dribble if he succeeds in controlling the ball. He is big, but his close control is as brilliant as his dribbling, so he can find his way out of pressured situations with impressive ease. He takes numerous small touches when he dribbles, and uses the outside of his foot to do so, meaning he is constantly poised to flick the ball to a teammate with very little backlift or to simply continue to dribble – making him very difficult for defenders to read, and someone who draws a large number of fouls.
Role for Gladbach
The 6ft 3ins Thuram naturally poses a significant threat from crosses. As well as providing an extra goal threat, he also represents a very useful outlet for Gladbach's goalkeeper Yann Sommer and their defenders if they need to play a long ball. Given Thuram usually plays on the left, he commonly encounters full-backs in the air, and therefore enjoys more success than he might against a centre-back – a tactic Roberto Martínez sometimes used during his time at Everton when he often positioned Romelu Lukaku wide to challenge for high balls against a smaller full-back as a quick route upfield.
Much of Thuram’s role in Rose's team involved him complementing others until the moment arrived when he could make a key contribution. His infrequent involvement in build-up play is a good indication of his footballing intelligence. Opponents move with play, so his willingness to drift away from it or to simply stand still means defenders can lose track of him, and that he therefore often provides the element of surprise, so it perhaps makes sense that the majority of his goals are scored off of one touch and after he has ghosted into a position in the area on the blindside of his opponent (below).
He has also demonstrated the ability to lay on easy finishes for teammates – often by isolating a full-back, beating them for pace on the outside. and playing a square ball across goal for a straightforward finish. Such assists offer yet more evidence of his intelligence and selflessness – and his Gladbach teammates reap the benefits.
Thuram is starting to show that he belongs at the top a of major European league. With the right coaching and guidance, he could easily keep improving at the impressive rate he has shown so far.
Author: Tony Hodson