It’s been a rollercoaster week for Liverpool fans.
From rumours of an Al-Ittihad push for Mohamed Salah before the deadline to the carnage of Darwin Núñez’s incredible brace at Newcastle. More troublingly though, was the news of another Ibrahima Konáte injury and a potential extended suspension for Virgil van Dijk after his reaction to seeing red in the North East. Central defence is already an area that fans are uneasy about.
Jürgen Klopp himself knows it’s a problem area too, saying earlier in the week: “In an ideal world, we have six, seven, eight centre-halves and cover for absolutely everything… No, we need to be lucky with injuries, there is no doubt about that.”
The problem for the German is that relying on luck in that department is betting against the odds. The previously mentioned Konáte missed 15 games last season and isn’t expected to be back until after the international break from this one. Joe Gomez has missed 233 games across his career (according to Transfermarkt) and Joël Matip’s injury history page on the site reads more like a novel than a short story.
READ MORE: Why Liverpool simply must sign a new defender this summer
The cold reality of things is that at any given moment this season, Liverpool could have their centre back ranks halved.
Defensive reinforcements have been rumoured, and the most persistent of these rumours is Belgian centre back Arthur Theate.
The Liège-born defender is 23 years old; he began life in his homeland bouncing around the academies of Eupen, Genk and hometown club Standard (Liège). After becoming frustrated at the lack of opportunities at the latter, he left seeking first-team football – which he found at Oostende. After two years in the Belgian Pro League, he moved on loan with an obligation to buy to Serie A and Bologna (after they’d already try to buy him six months previous). It’s in Italy where he started to establish himself, becoming a regular fixture in Siniša Mihajlović’s side – making 31 league appearances as they comfortably finished 13th.
Rennes came calling last summer, making Theate the most expensive Belgian defender ever in a €20m deal. From there he’s gone from strength to strength, and is now being linked to clubs like RB Leipzig, Fulham and, of course, Liverpool.
I’ve looked at the defender in more detail to see what he’d offer Klopp’s side.
Physical Profile and Positioning
Theate is not the most physically imposing central defender out there, but he’s also not on the weaker end of the scale. He stands at 191cm tall (6ft 3in in feet) and is well built out (he’s listed on FBRef at 81kg). He doesn’t tend to engage in many duels (more on that later), but when he does, he is able to handle himself on the physical end for the most part.
Positionally, he has developed something of a specialised role in the last two seasons. At Oostende, Theate predominantly played in a four at the back system. Most of his minutes came as the left sided centre back, while he did also have a smattering of game time at left-back. In his two seasons after leaving his home country, though, he has played in two three at the back systems and has played exclusively as the outside left centre back at both Bologna and Rennes.
Here’s a look at his heatmap for the 2022-23 Ligue 1 season (via SofaScore):
Arthur Theate heatmap, 2022/23 (SofaScore)
Rennes were a successful side last season, finishing fourth (good enough for a Europa League place). They tended to dominate possession against most sides they came up against (55% possession average across the season) and were one of the more pass heavy teams in the league – ranking fifth behind PSG, Lille, Lyon, and Lens for passes attempted per 90 (557.7). As we can see from above, Theate operated in the increasingly popular left centre back/left back hybrid role in modern three-man central defences systems have created. Rennes playing style (and Bologna’s to an extent) suited the Belgian’s strengths and shielded some of the weaker points of his game. So, let’s get into those.
All data used below is from Opta via FBRef and percentiles are compared against positional peers in Europe’s top five leagues, Champions League, and Europa League in the last 365 days.
There’s an obvious place to start when it comes to where Theate’s strengths lie – in his passing game. He is a high-volume passer, attempting 71.98 per 90, which ranks him in the 90th percentile. For comparison, this would rank him above Matip (68.81) and only slightly below Gomez (76.64) and van Dijk (75.26). The best part of Theate’s passing game is that he passes the ball with purpose, he is always looking to move the ball forward and has variety in the way that he can punch the ball down the left-wing or into central areas and is even an excellent long-range passer – he attempts just under 10 per 90 (9.96 to be exact) and completes an incredible 7.15 per 90. This visual below from @pranavm_28 on twitter gives you a good idea of just how good he is.
Those sweeping long balls from left to right have been a staple of Klopp’s time at Liverpool, being able to hit Salah in an instant after drawing sides towards the left-hand side creates space for the Egyptian to be devastating in. If you’re looking for progression in your central defenders, then Theate is one of the best in the business. He ranks in the 98th percentile for progressive passes (6.63 per 90) and 95th percentile for passes into the final third (5.68). He isn’t the type of defender that will waltz up the pitch on a regular basis (a la Joël Matip), he will sit in and distribute rather than try and get into those dangerous areas himself.
Ball security was a concern during his stint at Bologna, but it’s something he appears – touch wood – to have solved in northern France. His 82.7% pass accuracy from 55.3 pass attempts per 90 in 2021/22 jumped to 89.4% from 74 pass attempts per 90.
He’s also a strong carrier of the ball, able to bring possession out of his own half. He averages over one carry into the final third per 90 (1.11), ranking him in the 91st percentile. It’s something that all of Liverpool’s current crop are asked to do on a consistent basis – either to beat the first line of any press or as they are facing a deep block.
Defensively, Theate is a proactive defender. He likes to engage with his man instead of standing off them. While he isn’t a high-volume tackler (averaging less than a tackle per 90), he goes after his man, stepping up to pressure them either into a mistake (i.e. a poor touch or pass) or to force them back the way.
As mentioned, Theate’s defensive style is more aggressor than observer. While this comes with obvious benefits, it also has its downsides. He can often get caught out positionally as he rushes on to a man who easily beats his press (quite reminiscent to Andy Robertson in a sense). Theate isn’t slow but he does leave himself quite a bit to do on a regular basis. Poor positioning has been the kryptonite of Liverpool’s defence in the last year or so, Theate would likely not come in and remedy this completely.
His most glaring downside – and one Klopp has tended to put a big emphasis on during his tenure – is aerial ability. He wins 60.2% of his aerial duels, which comes to an average of 1.99 per 90. For reference, Konaté wins 76.7% (2.67 per 90) and van Dijk wins 74.2% (3.11 per 90). Theate has actually improved aerially during his time in France, last season he won 64.2% of aerial duels, but during his time at Bologna he won just 50% (1.45 per 90). This season – with the caveat that we are just three games in – he’s won just 45%.
These are troubling numbers for someone that is on the taller side of the centre back scale. Scouted Football’s report on Theate in 2022 goes into the matter in more detail, but essentially the Belgian struggles from a standing start in the air, winning considerably more duels when having a running start to generate power for the header.
Suitability to Liverpool
If Theate was coming in to be a central defender in a back four for Liverpool, I’d have major concerns. His short career so far has been spent in largely back three systems, and these tactical setups help Theate with the deficiencies in his game – particularly in the air as he’s often partnered with more aerially dominant defenders.
The outside centre back role also allows him to buy into his aggressive nature, pursuing the ball and forcing turnovers with the knowledge that he has cover behind him (this also comes in possession, he’s allowed more time on the ball due to situation he’s in).
Yet the likelihood is that if Theate was to come to Anfield in the coming days, he’d likely be a challenger to Andy Robertson in the new hybrid role at the club, and for that role he’s well suited. The setup may be slightly different but the angles he’s defending and space he’s occupying during build-up would be similar. He’d be more suited to the role than Robertson is, as Theate naturally hangs back and holds position when in possession – something the Scotsman has been criticised for doing the opposite of.
My concern would be that if there are injuries at centre back, Theate coming in to fill the void left by a Matip, Gomez or Konaté would not be favourable. His flaws would be exposed, and his weaknesses are exactly the things that have made Liverpool so chaotic – adding to the issues rather than fixing them.