Profiling Bologna's left-sided Belgian defender
Who is Arthur Theate?
Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ of talent is coming to the end of its time. Since the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Thibaut Courtois and Toby Alderweireld have kept the Red Devils in and around the top spots in international football (despite never winning any major honours). Some of the country’s more attacking players still have a couple of years left in the tank, but the backline is slowly starting to disappear from the scene.
Kompany retired in 2020 and Vertonghen is likely to do the same in the next year, while Alderweireld no longer plays at the highest level of club football. Reinforcements are thin, but one player who could potentially step into the shoes of these departing giants is centre-back Arthur Theate.
Theate was born in Liege, Belgium but started his career at the KRC Genk youth academy before switching over to Standard Liège. He went on to represent the Standard U-17 team before playing for Genk at U-19 level, and finally representing both clubs on the U-21 stage. In July 2020 he made the move to KV Oostende and made his senior debut in August.
After playing in 37 games across all competitions in 2020/21, Bologna swooped in to secure Theate on a loan deal with an obligation to buy set at 6 million euros, triggered in June 2022. Speculation about his future had linked him with West Ham and AC Milan this summer, but it seems certain that Theate will remain at Bologna for another year at least. The fact that his new contract has been signed on for only 3 seasons suggests both player and club are in unspoken agreement that he is likely to move on in the near future.
Arthur Theate's style of play
A statistical profile of Theate from this past season provides an initial look at what type of player he is. The stats for which he ranks highest include interceptions, pressures and progressive actions, indicating that he is likely an active defender who is more than competent with the ball at his feet as well.
He ranks on the lower end for his ability in the air, his tendency to commit fouls and his pass completion rate, which suggests he may still have a certain degree of rawness to his game that as not been ironed out yet. Of course, this is only a surface impression, which will need to be backed up by more focused analysis.
In this season’s Serie A, Theate started 28 of Bologna’s 38 league games, making 3 more substitute appearances for a total of 2424 league minutes. Barring a couple of cameos where he played at left-back, the majority of these minutes saw him play on the left side of a back three, mainly alongside Gary Medel and Adama Soumaoro.
In possession, Theate takes up the role of connecting the defence to the midfield, either by making line-breaking passes aimed straight at the feet of his midfielders, or by looking to beat an opposition forward and lay the ball off. He also tends to start from a wide position (almost where the left-back in a back 4 would play), with the wing-back on that side moving higher up the pitch, a phenomenon borne out in his season heatmap from 21/22 (courtesy of Sofascore).
For a centre-back, Theate has an excellent weight and direction of pass. His passes often instruct the receiver on their next action, an invaluable skill. There’s also an ease to his ball-striking, and a tendency to generate a good amount of power from minimal backlift. In addition to making him look elegant, this usually gives him an extra half-second or so to process any extra information, and adapt if required.
Theate also possesses a good switch pass, often aimed at the widest player on the right flank, which he uses sparingly for the moment. Perhaps in a team that emphasises dragging the opposition to one side and quickly switching, this skill may come to the fore a bit more.
While his passing is a cut above that of the average centre-back’s, Theate’s ball carrying is something that truly sets him apart. He is deceptively quick and skilful, particularly in tight areas, and possesses a burst of acceleration from a standing start. Combined with his ability to beat a man one on one, this means he can often take opposition players by surprise, and uses this to start attacks by driving into midfield before choosing the right time to shift the ball to a teammate.
Even in more advanced areas, Theate displays very solid ability with the ball at his feet. With 4.08 passes into the final third per 90 (according to FBRef), he places in the 83rd percentile for centre-backs in Europe’s top 5 leagues. In addition, with 3.23 progressive passes and 3.86 progressive carries per 90 minutes, he ranked in the top 25 percent of centre-backs for both measures. For reference, Virgil van Dijk put up 3.30 and 3.19 respectively.
Defensively, Theate is very much in the ‘dog’ mould of a centre-back, with his athleticism and speed across the turf making him a good example of the archetype. His recovery runs, especially when defending counter-attacks, have helped Bologna on numerous occasions, and his proactiveness often allows him to snuff out opposition attacks early on.
Theate is a very physical defender as well. Sticking tight to an opponent and putting them off their game is one of his biggest strengths, along with his tenacity. Even if beaten a couple of times, he usually bites back quickly.
It must be said that a lot of Theate’s game is accommodated by Bologna because they play in a back three; with 2 covering defenders, some of his weaker moments can be hidden, or dealt with. While his proactiveness shows itself to be a strength at this point, there is a chance that it turns into a weakness if and when he plays in a two.
Even now, there are times when he can get caught out of position after attempting to win the ball higher up the field, leaving yawning gaps behind him. These will be reduced to an extent with a system shift, but that would likely come with a curbing of his natural instincts to be active, a trade-off that may or may not be worth it.
Much of this is team-dependent, but there is one weakness in Theate’s game that is not, and that is his ability in the air. A quick glance at the numbers paints an ugly picture; with a 45.9% success rate in aerial duels, he ranks in the 3rd percentile for centre-backs in Europe’s top 5 leagues. Add this to the fact that he is 6 ft 2 in tall (different sources have him ranging from 186 to 191 cm), and it is a puzzling phenomenon.
The issue with aerial duel statistics, however, is that what is defined as a ‘success’ and ‘failure’ is often subjective and may involve an element of retaining possession, which can make them misleading. Especially as a centre-back, disruption of an attacker is of paramount importance, something Theate is good at when the ball is on the ground.
Beyond the numbers, though, Theate still doesn’t cover himself in glory when it comes to competing aerially. With a running start, he wins a good number of his duels, but starting from a stationary position seems to make it difficult for him to dominate opponents. Some of his errors are down to misjudging the flight of the ball, but others see him be outmuscled by a physical forward, both of which could be causes for concern. He can also tend to get a bit handsy when jumping, which intelligent forwards will use to buy fouls and win free-kicks in dangerous areas.
Forecasting Arthur Theate's future
Theate is already playing close to his potential ceiling, in a mid-table side in Europe’s top 5 leagues. A step up is still very much possible for him, however. Whether said step-up will be to a side playing 3 or 4 at the back may have a large bearing on its success, but he does possess enough quality to play for sides like West Ham or AC Milan.
His flexibility as either an outside centre-back or a full-back will make him an attractive depth option for top sides as well. In fact, he would fit a side like Brighton & Hove Albion like a glove at this point in time; a side that dominates possession, has a strong defensive framework, and could have a spot opening up for him (were Marc Cucurella to leave). He is also likely to be a fixture in the national team for years to come, and can be expected to steadily build on his thus-far 3 senior caps.
One of Arthur Theate’s primary strengths is his ability to progress possession in build-up play as a ball-carrier and passer. He is also a fast and physical defender capable of covering space.
Arthur Theate can struggle in the air, owing to some technical deficiencies as well as some difficult judging the flight of high balls.