Nerdy By Nature: Thiago Alcantara?
With all the smoke surrounding the rumor of Liverpool looking at Thiago Alcantara (including American Scouser’s very own Jordan Gerrard discussing it here), I thought it would be a good time to dig into some of the numbers to see what Thiago is good at – and whether he would be a good fit for the club.
Let’s start by looking at a “radar” stat outlay from 2018-2019 provided by StatsBomb:
If you’re new to radars, here are a few tips: typically, the further you go in any stat from the center, the better. And if you hit the edges, you’re getting into world class area. Numbers are generally the player’s average per 90 minutes.
As you can see, what we’re looking at is a guy who is world class as a passer. I want to dissect a few of the numbers.
Deep Progressions – 11.1 – Per 90 minutes, he is averaging 11.1 passes 10+ yards past where the ball was at any point during the previous six passing attempts. That means he is finding open teammates well down the field and getting the ball to them quickly. With a quick-strike offense like the one Liverpool operate, this could be lethal. He was doing this on a very good (although not fully-firing) Bayern team. That Bayern team was still being run by Niko Kovac, who was clearly in over his head. Their quality allowed them to still win the league, but they were not operating at their proper best, and yet Thiago still managed these numbers. Now imagine him doing this with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson on the wings and Salah and Mane forward? There is so much speed on Liverpool that when Thiago starts seeing guys open down the field, he could get the ball up the pitch extremely fast. This will only help LFC create more opportunities.
Successful Dribbles – 1.84. When Thiago gets the ball at his feet, he is still always looking to get forward quickly. Not only can he find a pass from anywhere – he is excellent at finding open men down the pitch – but he can also do it himself if need be. His 1.84 dribbles per 90 min. is very good. His 85% success rate also indicates that he was not just trying a bunch and racking up high numbers through volume. 85% success would immediately make him the most accurate dribbler on this current Liverpool team among the regulars (counting only those with 5+ dribbles this season). Now, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah attempt far more and quite honestly, that makes sense – we don’t want our center midfielders preforming all of our dribbles. However, when teams are committed to the low block (think playing six defenders including a fullback and winger down at the defensive line), we need a central midfielder that can attack by himself. Thiago can create problems in the middle of the field, which will cause gaps to open for guys like our front three.
Turnovers – 0.8. If Thiago plays 90 minutes, he averages less than 1 turnover a game. For a guy who is always thinking about going forward, this is excellent. He will turn the ball over more than a Jordan Henderson; because Henderson is a safer passer, his only turnovers usually occur when he tries stuff inside the box. Thiago has more turnovers because he is trying to play longer passes from everywhere. Thiago – as indicated above – will do a lot to progress the ball down the field. In a role like that, his turnover numbers are quite excellent, especially in light of the fact that he is still taking the ball away from other teams at a world-class level: he is averaging 2.2 interceptions per 90 min. That is a guy who is killing other teams’ progress and immediately turning it into a counter up the pitch.
One of the key issues to look at is pressing. As you can see, he only averages 3.1 pressure regains per 90 min. If you look at Henderson or Gini Wijnaldum this year, Henderson averages almost 7 and Gini averages 4.8; both are far better at pressing. But a question that’s worth asking is whether it is Thiago or Bayern’s system? He was the second-best presser on the team with a success rate of 32.7%, but when you compare the amount to Liverpool’s press, it is not even close. In 2018-2019, Thiago made 388 pressure actions – making him the fourth-highest presser at Bayern. That number would make him seventh on this current Liverpool squad. Liverpool just presses way more. So the question is: is he an average-to-not-great presser, or would he excel in a system that gives him more chances?
Based on the numbers, I would say that the big issue was volume. A full season at Liverpool and he would up those numbers considerably. If he ended a season as our fourth highest presser, at the current moment, that means he would have almost 100 more pressing actions than he had with Bayern.
Issues / Concerns
On the field, I unable to think of anything. He is nearly the perfect playmaking central midfielder who also plays defense – and certianly does not shirk his responsibilities there. If I had to identify a red flag, it is a single one: injuries. Ignoring his time at Barcelona (where he was rotating with several other players), he was a surefire starter for Bayern, where he has only started 30 games (during a typical 34-game Bundesliga season) once. Over the past five seasons, he has played in about 75% of eligible games for Bayern. Looking at a 29-year-old to play in a midfield that already has Henderson, Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – all players that have had injury issues – would be a risk. There is no explaining away the injury history, which makes it a definite concern.
On another hand, if you look at the construction of the roster, having Keita, Henderson, Thiago, Wijnaldum and Oxlade-Chamberlain all play 25-28 games over the course of the season, it may be better for a team that is competing yearly in four (or more) competitions. Having the four of them rotate through midfield positions means everyone will theoretically be fresh all the time. Plus, it would allow us to bring on players like Curtis Jones – who is ready for a more pronounced role but (in my opinion) not yet ready to play 25-30 games a year for a top-four team.
My assessment is simply this. Thiago, with no injury concern – even at 29 – is a £75M-80M player. Adjusted for COVID, it might be £60M. To get him for £30M is a steal. Klopp and Edwards would have to know you they would not be getting an everyday player – but the numbers show me that he is absolutely worth it at that price.
What do you think?