Against Manchester United on Tuesday, Liverpool midfielder Thiago Alcantara looked like he was playing a different sport -- to his opponents, to his teammates, to pretty much anyone that had come before him in the Premier League.
The 31-year-old was moving in a way that other players couldn't. He saw passes that even his teammates didn't seem to think were possible. He was on a different timeline, able to access a different plane of movement. It felt like one of those rare matches where an already-elite athlete reaches a flow state: everything seemed so easy, in a sport and in a league that's so popular specifically because it's so damn hard.
He completed 105 of his 110 passes. He was perfect -- 15-for-15 -- on passes of more than 30 yards. Overall, his passes covered more than 2,000 yards of field space. He led Liverpool in passes into the final third, passes into the penalty area, and chances created for his teammates. And when he wasn't passing the ball, he was moving it himself, or moving for it, or getting it back. He carried the ball 381 yards, almost 100 yards further than any other Liverpool player. He received more passes (102) than any other Liverpool player. He pressured the ball more often than any of his teammates, and he won more tackles, too.
If the 4-0 win over United was the only Liverpool game you watched this season, you'd have a hard time imagining Liverpool without Thiago. Except, well, they've been without him more often than not. The Spain international has appeared in just 44% of his club's Premier League minutes this year.
He is not the only key player who hasn't always been available this season, though. So, inspired by Thiago's midweek midfield master class, we're going to take a look at all of the players in the Premier League this year who have played somewhere between 40% and 70% of their team's minutes, and then we're going to see how things have changed when they've been on and off the field. All data comes courtesy of FBref.
Measurement 1: Points Per Game
We'll just start with the crudest one: How has the team done in matches a player has played in?
Thiago comes out on top -- and not just among the subset of 40%-to-70%-of-the-time Premier League players we're looking at here. No, he leads the way among all players across Europe's "Big Five" leagues, as Liverpool average 2.65 points per game in matches Thiago has appeared in. Over 38 games, that would add up to about 100 points, which, more than anything, puts into perspective how absurd of an achievement Man City's Centurion season (2017-18) and Liverpool's 99-point campaign both were (2019-20.)
Right behind Thiago is Manchester City's Ilkay Gundogan. He's played 53% of minutes and the team has won 2.64 points per game across all of the matches he appeared in. I mentioned this in our Liverpool-City draft, but it's funny how Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have swapped their personal-favorite injury-prone midfielders from when they were coaching in Germany with Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. It's worked out brilliantly for both Premier League sides.
Now, the line between trivia and useful information is blurry here -- and will continue to be blurry for the rest of this piece. There are all kinds of confounding factors with these player-to-team stats -- most notably who are they playing, and who are they playing with? Unsurprisingly, the top 15 players on this list are Liverpool, City and Chelsea players. Remove the minutes restriction and it's all Liverpool and City players at the top. At the same time, all of those players are contributing to the points their teams are winning to varying degrees, so it's not completely useless, either.
Perhaps more interesting, though, are the players lower down the table who appear higher up this list. Arsenal have averaged two points per game in the matches that featured right-back Takehiro Tomiyasu, while the team's average for this whole season is 1.78 PPG. With Tomiyasu and left-back Kieran Tierney (1.91 PPG) currently injured, could that be a decisive factor in the race for fourth? Meanwhile, West Ham would currently be in fourth if they played like they played with 22-year-old full-back Ben Johnson in the lineup (1.94) when Johnson wasn't actually in the lineup.
Meanwhile, please spare a thought for Billy Gilmour. A little year ago, he won a Champions League medal with Chelsea. This season, on loan with Norwich, the midfielder has been a part of a worse string of results (0.35 PPG) than any player in the league. Right above him is Newcastle winger Matt Ritchie (0.38). Correlation does not equal causation, but Newcastle got good as soon as Ritchie stopped playing.