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Thiago the Distributor: The Athletic’s new analysis explains what Liverpool will miss

Liverpool will miss Thiago in the coming weeks after he suffered a hamstring strain in the first game of the season against Fulham.

Jurgen Klopp’s team will be without his ingenuity, his control, his needlework passing, his spatial awareness. With Thiago absent, there is a lot to miss.

But what is it that Thiago actually does? What is his role at Liverpool?

He is a Distributor.

What am I talking about?

Well, The Athletic has expertly crunched the numbers to creatively formulate 18 new tactical roles that help categorise defenders, midfielders and forwards.

So, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson are no longer attacking full-backs. They are Progressors.

What is a Progressor? It is a player who attempts long balls and progressive passes as well as crosses. And one who is active in possession at both ends of the pitch.

Fabinho is no longer a defensive midfielder but Box to Box instead. And not box to box in the traditional sense. A Box to Box player under this renewed definition is one who defends low but also gets upfield to receive progressive passes. They are not heavily involved in possession and are usually cautious or protective when on the ball.

This also means Mohamed Salah is no longer a winger — he is now a Wide Threat, which feels so much more fitting when you read the definition. A Wide Threat is someone who stretches the back line and gets into the penalty area. The player may also do some crossing but likes receiving the final ball as much as playing it.

Wide Threat sounds a lot more like the Salah we know than the term winger ever has.

Feel free to spin the wheel and look through some more player roles. The wheel doesn’t actually spin, but what it does do is categorise players into roles that more accurately describe what they actually do.

I spy Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham listed as an Orchestrator. What is an Orchestrator?

It’s a player who prefers midfield circulation as opposed to finding the final ball. They enjoy shorter, higher-percentage passes and are not afraid to do some defending.

Now, back to Thiago and our original question: what is a Distributor?

A Distributor is a player who favours longer, more direct passes and switches, and one who is more active in the opponent’s half than their own.

In this way, Thiago probably blurs the lines a little. Last season, he was also a Builder just under 25 per cent of the time. And being a Builder is a role he is familiar with, having played mostly as one in his farewell season with Bayern Munich.

Builders serve as the main circulation hub in the build-up and also as a defensive stopper at the base of midfield, such as Declan Rice for West Ham United or Rodri for Manchester City.

As we can see, Thiago’s role at Bayern in his final campaign in Bavaria differs from his two years so far on Merseyside. Thiago was a Builder as they won the Champions League in 2020 in what was his final game with the German club but at Liverpool, the onus to build is not on him in the same way.

His pass to Joshua Kimmich in the build-up to Kingsley Coman’s winning goal in the Champions League final against Paris Saint-Germain is a useful example of his work as both Distributor and Builder.

Thiago picked the ball up in his own half before weaving it through to Kimmich at the very start of the move.

When he joined Liverpool, he was a Distributor from the off with a hint of Builder thrown in. That glimmer of Builder grew more so last season but did not overtake his main role as Distributor alongside Jordan Henderson, who did the same job on the right of midfield.

While Henderson was often operating on the right, Thiago was on the left. He was there to play those progressive passes as he moved from left to right. He also did a bit of mopping up alongside Fabinho when he could.

During the 2021-22 season, when he really came into his own at Liverpool, it was operating in his preferred left half-space and releasing passes from there on his right foot that got the best out of Thiago.

This is in slight contrast to his first season at Anfield, where he played across multiple positions in Liverpool’s midfield three. Squad injuries meant he failed to establish a consistent role for himself across the 2020-21 season — as you can see,  his touch locations are understandably more distributed.

One of Thiago’s best games of the 2021-22 season was against Manchester United at Anfield in April. Liverpool won 4-0 and Thiago was in his absolute pomp all game.

It was like a tutorial on how to be a midfielder.

Here’s one pass to Henderson from deep that takes four players out of the game.

And here’s another pass to Henderson, this time in the opposition half, that takes four players out of the game.

And look at his positioning in the build-up to Alexander-Arnold’s goal against Manchester City in the Community Shield last month.

All of the above examples see Thiago spraying passes within that left half-space across varying progressions through the field.

Ultimately, Thiago has been hard to label. We have called him a midfielder because that is what he is. But now we know he is a Distributor with a blend of Builder and Box to Box thrown in. These terms suit him more than “midfielder” ever have because they explain and define what Thiago is and does for Liverpool.

He is more than a midfielder and our new data model liberates him from such previous confinements.

(Additional contributor: Mark Carey)

(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)

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