Welcome to Benge's Premier League Table. Every week James Benge ranks something, anything, in the Premier League, breaking down everything frootm the nerdiest tactics to the best kits, to the worst haircuts. This week, he's looking at the most foul-prone player of 2021.
It has been one of the most curious themes of Liverpool's stuttering start to 2021. Why is Thiago, the man who was supposed to bring more guile and craft to the final third, instead spending so much of his time hacking down opponents?
Since his return to the Liverpool side on January 4 no-one in the Premier League has fouled more frequently and the gap between Thiago in "first" and those behind him is dramatic. Even Ashley Barnes, the Burnley striker who sometimes gives the impression he has wasted his afternoon if he hasn't engaged in a running battle with an opposing center back, has more than 50 percent fewer tickings off from the referee.
Indeed the table below, counting up fouls in 2021, might suggest that Liverpool didn't sign Thiago, a cultured playmaker from the Bundesliga, but rather a robust enforcer from a Third Division side in the 1970s.
Among that list Thiago is a curious presence. He is not alone in that regard, since when has Lookman been involved in so much rough and tumble, but the Spaniard's presence is still the most interesting of all. This is a list largely populated with defensive midfielders, center backs and the sort of forwards who are often vying with center backs in aerial duels. There is no other player on this list who really approximates the role one would expect Thiago to be playing in Liverpool, even Mason Mount is as much a high energy presser as he is a playmaker.
This season the 29-year-old has already bettered his 2019-20 Bundesliga foul count in 10 Premier League matches. Having never previously averaged more than two fouls per 90 in any domestic league season where he played over 500 minutes, Thiago is on course for three per 90 in England.
The simple answer is perhaps the most unlikely, that Thiago is somehow struggling to grasp the pace of the Premier League and that his game does not suit Liverpool's. It is already an argument being trotted out by former players and pundits such as Dietmar Hammann, who argued that the Spaniard's possession-first style of play was an ill fit for his new team, and Michael Owen.
"I just don't feel like he's that he's that man at the moment that's offering something," Owen told Optus Sports. "Is it that he doesn't really fit into this team or has he just come in at a bad moment? We'll see but there's something not quite right."
That he is fouling so much would be grist to that mill yet by all accounts when Liverpool have the ball Thiago is doing plenty of what he was brought to do. According to fbref.com only Pablo Hernandez averages more progressive passes, those that move the ball at least 10 yards closer to the opponents' goal, per 90 than the Spaniard. Opta tracks his chances created and expected assists as broadly similar this campaign to what they were last time out in the Bundesliga; that might not be at quite the same heights he hit in earlier year with Bayern but for a player in a new league, who did not have any pre-season with his new team-mates whose recent months have been addled by injuries it is a rather solid start.
So if he is hitting reasonable expectations with the ball why the struggle without it? Well for one thing there is plenty he is getting right when the opposition has possession. He may lead his Premier League contemporaries for fouls in 2021 but he is also third in the top flight for tackles, 12th for interceptions and 10th for ball recoveries. That points to the more fundamental truth about Thiago in his first season at Liverpool. He is not playing the role he was bought for.
He had shown significant growth in his defensive work in his final season at Bayern, on the arrival of his new signing Jurgen Klopp praised Thiago for having the "most steals, ball recoveries and all these kinds of things" in the Bundesliga but only after emphasizing that the No.6 was there to offer "incredible vision" and create for his team-mates. Instead, when he has been casting his eye across the pitch it has not been for the attackers ahead of him but the defenders behind him.
With no Jordan Henderson to anchor the midfield, let alone Fabinho, the responsibility has fallen on Thiago to protect the backline. It is hardly as if he is protecting Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez either, instead he has been shielding one or perhaps two redeployed midfielders or a rookie center back in ever changing partnerships. Meanwhile while Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have tempered their attacking instincts to an extent the graphic above should serve as a reminder that Liverpool need their two full-backs on the front foot
In these circumstances would you not feel compelled to make the foul when you see an opponent breaking into the last third if you were in Thiago's position? That is where a great many of the free-kicks he has conceded have come from, a calculated risk that it is better to risk the yellow card high up the pitch than allow an attack on a cobbled-together defense. Notably of those 21 fouls he has made since the turn of the year just three have come in the defensive third of the pitch.
And so for Liverpool the solution is as simple as it is unreachable. All they need to stop Thiago fouling is the same thing they need to get Alexander-Arnold back to something approximating his best form, to unlock their attack and rebalance their midfield. Add a fully fit Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez to this team, perhaps even just one of them and Fabinho, Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum can get back to doing what they do best.
Then Thiago can do what he is supposed to, bringing those finishing touches to Liverpool attacks rather than opposition counters.