Thiago Silva has been a familiar face in top-flight football for a long time now. His earliest days were at Alvorada Futebol Clube in Brazil and, after a move to Serie B club Esporte Clube Juventude, Thiago Silva made way into European football joining FC Porto. A really big transfer to AC Milan came in January 2009 after his return to Brazil to play for Fluminense but, three years later in July 2012, Thiago Silva made the move to the club where he would later become a legend, PSG. At the age of 35, and on his 8th season at the club, Silva continues to be a big part of the team and that shows in his performances as well as in his leadership skills, which earned him the captain armband overtime.
The question then becomes: How good can we say Thiago Silva still is and how was his performance this season for PSG?
In this tactical analysis, we’ll be trying to answer those questions, take a look a the player’s contribution to the team at various levels as well as his strengths and weaknesses.
Attacking contribution: build-up starter
PSG like to build their play from the back and, most of the times, do it in one of three configurations: a 2-3-5 shape or a 3-2-5 shape when using a 4-3-3 system or, a 2-2-5-1 shape when using a 4-2-2-2 or 4-4-2 system. While these shapes have Thiago Silva in a different company in the first line of two or three players, his task is always to start the build-up for his team. Thiago Silva looks to get the ball either to one of the two midfielders or directly to one of the players positioned in between the opposition’s midfield and defensive line. His approach is inevitably conditioned by how the opposition are pressing. If the opposition is pressing tight on the midfielders, he knows a more advanced player (usually a winger) on the ball side will come a bit deeper to receive, and if not, he is able to give the ball to his midfield partners. If he can’t do either due to the lack of an available passing lane, he will carry the ball forward himself.
He does all this especially well, recognises perfectly when and to whom he should pass the ball, as well as when he needs to drive forward himself, forcing the opposition’s press to be activated so he can then find a passing lane to play the ball to a teammate.
In the image below we can see one of the referred situations where Thiago Silva recognised that he had to carry the ball upfield. He then held off the pass until he had an available passing lane. He is able to do this with extreme confidence as his ball control and awareness are very good. He plays a through pass to Juan Bernat who is providing full width and making a run in the left corridor (out of the picture). With this pass, PSG are able to progress in the field and get in behind Metz’s defensive line creating a dangerous situation.
Thiago Silva’s passing abilities are very impressive and so are his stats. Averaging 78.57 passes (per 90min) with a 95.72% completion rate ranks him 1st on both indicators amongst Ligue 1 centre-backs. That might not be surprising seeing that PSG dominate Ligue 1 for some seasons now, but if we compare him to other centre-backs in the European top leagues we find that only Adama Soumaoro that plays for Genoa has a higher passing completion rate (97.89%) but averages much fewer passes per game (50.97).
He also excels at progressive passes, averaging 11.81 (per 90min) ranks him 4th amongst Ligue 1 centre-backs and, with a staggering 89.1% completion rate, the Brazilian is a real weapon when it comes to breaking lines and finding teammates that are higher up the pitch. Comparing him with other centre-backs from European top leagues that have played a similar amount of games, we find that his accuracy rate on progressive passes his the highest one proving exactly the point in question.
Last but not least on this topic, is Thiago Silva’s ability to play long passes, especially those used to switch the play to the opposition’s “weak side”. His passing ability enables him to play long balls across the field and, doing that quickly, is a great way of catching the opposition outnumbered on the far side, to play teammates in behind the defensive line or simply to find an available passing lane. In the image below we can see Thiago Silva spotting the space for PSG’s right-back Colind Dagba to run into and playing a long ball across field into that space.
Defensive contribution: a true commander
Thiago Silva is what we can call a true commander of the defence. With plenty of experience on top-flight football, he is able to guide and help his teammates on defence wether it is by correcting their positions or covering the space behind them. He is also in charge of controlling depth, PSG maintain a quite high defensive line and they aim to reduce the space between it and the midfield line. Those, alongside with the natural tasks a defender should perform, are the responsibilities Thiago Silva has in PSG’s defence.
To be able to cope with all of this, and he is very much able to do so, Thiago Silva can count on his amazing reading of the game and concentration. Combine those with great reactions and spatial awareness and the whole recipe makes for a great defender. In other words, Silva is able to predict passes and cut-off plays very often and that allows him to remain a top defender despite his age and the natural loss of physical condition. Analysing his defensive stats, we find out he averages 11.38 recoveries (per 90min). This is a quite general metric that shows us actions that end possession for one team and start it for the other. Of course there are plenty of ways to get the ball from the opponent, as such, the following recoveries map from Wyscout can give us more insight.
The amount of recoveries achieved through his positioning shows exactly the spatial awareness he possesses as well as his concentration and experience not to get dragged out of position. The recoveries by interceptions show us his ability to react and read the game very well. We can also see recoveries by counter-pressing and tackling which will be addressed in dedicated points.
In terms of numbers, he averages 5.09 interceptions (per 90min) which is not very high in comparison to other centre-backs from top European leagues, but something else has to be taken into consideration. PSG are a very dominant team in terms of possession, and in general as well, in the vast majority of the games they play. In teams like this, players tend to display lower numbers in defensive metrics. Possession adjusted stats are a way to try and take into account those factors and produce numbers that are more accurate for comparison purposes. Thiago Silva’s PAdj interceptions number is much higher at 8.1 (per 90min) and even though it is impossible to translate all the differences that stretch as far as the league and the teams that play in it in a certain year, it shows us that he is quite good indeed all things considered.
In the image below taken from the Champions League match at home against Club Brugge, we can see a great example of all these characteristics coming into play. Club Brugge are starting a counter-attack with some numbers and could potentially create a very dangerous situation. Thiago Silva reads the play and is able to react quick enough to intercept the pass intended for Club Brugge’s striker, stopping the counter-attack and regaining possession for his team.
His defensive contribution, as well as his duties, don’t end with what was said. Thiago Silva has also got a very good tackling technique, and that allows him to dispossess his direct opponents very effectively. In fact, he is able to time both his stand and slide tackles very well, resulting in a clean and elegant disrupt of play that is very pleasing to the eye. This means of course that Silva is able to win plenty of 1vs1 situations, with his intelligence and experience playing a big role in this success, compensating for the natural decrease of his speed and physicality as he gets older. An analysis of his stats shows us that he averages 3.85 defensive duels (per 90min), a low number that is again explained by PSG’s dominance in the game, and his win rate on those duels is a solid 70.42%.
In the image below from that same game, we can see an example of Thiago Silva’s excellent tackling technique. Club Brugge’s striker is in a privileged position to score and Thiago Silva’s reaction to that is a perfectly timed and executed sliding tackle, in an area where anything other than data could be fatal, that disrupts the play and saves PSG from potentially conceding a goal.
Role in defensive transition: passive defending and counter-pressing
As it was already mentioned sometimes in this scout report, PSG tactics are very much possession-based and they often play a very high defensive line in order to force the opposition back into their own half. This high line is also vital to reduce the space that the opposition has to play when PSG don’t have the ball, as well as to something called passive defending. Passive defending is a concept associated with counter-pressing and it is related to the shape a team should adopt for players to be in optimal positions to react to possession losses. The players behind the ball line form the team’s passive defence. They are the ones who end up having less attacking duties and that are facing the game, because of that, if they are well positioned and react quickly they will be able to stop counter-attacks with counter-pressing.
In PSG’s case, and with their build-up shape being a 2-3-5 or 2-2-5-1 most of the times, the two players that are in the last line are the centre-backs. This means that they will be the players who participate less in creating attacking plays once the ball is further up the pitch, serving mainly as the back support to a potential switch of play or to recycle possession. For this reason, Thiago Silva and his centre-back partner are the ones with greater responsibilities when it comes to passive defending, as they are the last line PSG have to stop any counter-attack.
To be successful at maintaining the right positioning to counter-press, especially when you are the last line of defence on a team like PSG that exposes itself a lot, it takes very good spatial awareness and game reading skills, as well as quick reactions to stop counter-attacks. If we take a look again at the recoveries map above, we can see that Thiago Silva has a lot of counter-pressing actions that lead to recoveries and that some of them are very high up the pitch. In fact, of the total 395 recoveries, 145 were made through counter-pressing, highlighting the role Thiago Silva has in passive defending, keeping in mind that more than half of those (75) where made either on the central or final thirds.
In the image below taken from the PSG-Dortmund game, we can see an example of Thiago Silva’s counter-pressing. Dortmund are trying to counter-attack and Erling Haaland is making a dangerous run in behind Meunier. Thiago Silva’s counter-press is effective and he robs the ball from Thorgan Hazard, as a result, possession is recovered and the danger ceases to exist.
Role in offensive transition: moving the defensive line up the pitch
When PSG win the ball back they will try and counter-attack capitalising on their fast and very good attackers like Kylian Mbappé. While not involved in the counter-attack itself, Thiago Silva still has a role to play together with his defensive partners: moving up the pitch to keep up with the counter-attack so that they are compact and in their optimal passive defensive shape to react if necessary. This translates into minimising the space between the lines, moving as a unit, and being in the right position in order to achieve optimal vertical and horizontal compactness.
Moving up the pitch as a unit to keep up with the counter-attack not only makes it easier for the players to be able to react to losing possession but is also important for the counter-attack itself. If Thiago Silva moves up and is in his correct position then, if the counter-attack is delayed by the opposition, his teammates have an available passing lane in him.
If the team chooses not to counter-attack then Thiago Silva will hold his position according to PSG’s usual build-up shape, so he can act again as the build-up starter from deep.
In the image below we can see an example of Thiago Silva leading the defensive line moving up as PSG are on the counter-attack. In this particular play, not many players were involved in the attack itself but the team still needs to move up in order to are prepared to provide support for the one attacking or to be able to press high up the pitch if possession is lost.
Injuries have already bothered Thiago Silva quite sometimes throughout his career, starting with a muscular problem in the 2011/2012 season that had him stop for 45 days. In the 2019/2020, he suffered from a hamstring injury that seems to be a somewhat common problem for him, as he has had that same injury 4 times in his career now. This particular problem had him stop for 49 days in 2013 and again for 42 days later that year. The hamstring injury would strike again in 2014 having him stop for 67 days. Apart from this, the other major issues he has had where a hip injury that caused a 46 day stop in the 2016/2017 season, and a meniscal injury that caused a 50 day stop in the 2018/2019 season.
All things considered, we are now able to answer the questions that were posed at the beginning of this scout report. So, how good can we say Thiago Silva still is? The answer has to be very good. This tactical analysis has shown us that despite his age, and the natural decrease in his physical attributes, Thiago Silva is still able to maintain a level that ranks him amongst the top defenders in Europe and he can thank his experience and intelligence for that.
Of course he, like any other defender, is not perfect and will make mistakes but considering his age, the usual performance decrease that is commonly seen in players that reach it and, the demands of the modern game, Thiago Silva is a true example of how determination, hard work, and being smart can make up for other things. It’s true that his speed has decreased, and he is more prone to losing races against attackers but, as we’ve shown in this analysis, he has coped with that pretty well and is still able to perform at a level high enough to play at PSG and in the Champions League.
The 2019/2020 season was yet again one with trophies for Thiago Silva and, at the age of 35, he might just be getting closer to his retirement although he is still a fantastic player and athlete in general.