Analyzing Nashville SC’s midfield

MLS’s Secondary Transfer Window closed shut last Thursday with a flurry of activity across the league. Big time signings, trades, and overseas sales highlighted the day. Nashville, having already brought in Aké Loba for a club-record transfer fee, sat out of the last-minute action. General Manager Mike Jacobs can potentially still add to the roster but is unable to register any additional foreign signings for the remainder of the 2021 season. 

Heading into the season and the Secondary Window, I trumpeted the idea that Nashville SC needs to utilize one of its U22 Initiative slots on a young midfielder for the future; a teenage signing who could soak up knowledge from Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy before being asked to become the centerpiece of Nashville’s future midfield whenever McCarty decides to hang up his boots. This sentiment has been shared by others. But lately, I have increasingly heard the idea tossed around that our midfield pairing of the future is already on the squad – Brian Anunga and Matt LaGrassa.

I am here to bring a bit of a reality check to this notion.

By no means do I think Anunga and LaGrassa are bad players. Quite the opposite. Both are vitally important bench options on cap-friendly figures. Anunga and LaGrassa may not individually lead you to championship glory, but they are the type of role players and depth options that every championship squad needs to survive a grueling season in a salary-cap league.  Personally, I hope Mike Jacobs rewards Anunga with a long-term contract to continue filling this role. But based on the underlying numbers, it is a mistake to believe that Anunga or LaGrassa are the heir apparent to McCarty or Godoy.

I’m about to throw out a bunch of statistics. I resort to these because they provide an evidence-based baseline for comparing players. A player needs to meet the eye test as well. But reasonable minds can disagree as to what their eyes tell them.

10,000-foot view

Starting with goals added (g+) provides a 10,000-foot view to compare Nashville’s midfield players. From American Soccer Analysis (“ASA”):

Goals added (g+) measures a player’s total on-ball contribution in attack and defense. It does this by calculating how much each touch changes their team’s chances of scoring and conceding across two possessions.

For example, at the moment a player receives the ball at midfield, their team might have a 1.5% chance of scoring on that possession but also a 1% chance of conceding on the next possession. That situation isn’t very valuable. But if they play a throughball from there into the final third, their team is now in a much better situation and might have a 6% chance of scoring and only a 0.5% chance of conceding. The pass would be worth the difference in their team’s situation before and after it, or (0.060 – 0.005) – (0.015 – 0.010) = +0.050 goals added.

American Soccer Analysis, “What Are Goals Added?”

Below is how Nashville’s midfield stacks up. Among MLS midfielders the past two seasons with a minimum of 1,500 minutes, New England’s Carles Gil leads the way with 0.35 g+ per 96 minutes played. Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy sit at 0.20 g+ and 0.19 g+, respectively. This puts the pair just a hair above the league median of 0.18 g+.  Brian Anunga and Matt LaGrassa come in at 0.12 g+ and 0.11 g+, in the bottom 15th percentile.

While total goals added provides a 10,000-foot view based on ASA’s top-line metrics, let’s dive a little deeper into the numbers. I created player profiles of each of Nashville’s midfielders that help illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of each player’s skill-set. 

The radial player profiles below are comprised of a variety of statistics that can be grouped into three general areas: defensive, possession, and passing. All charts are on a percentile basis as compared to other MLS midfielders from 2020 – 2021 that meet the minimum minutes played threshold. Each colored bar represents two percentile points. If there are no colored bars, the player falls into the very bottom percentile and is the worst among all qualifying midfielders. The bolded white lane in the middle is the league median percentile for the category.

Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy

Before analyzing Brian Anunga or Matt LaGrassa as potential long-term replacements, we need to establish a baseline. What does league average look like? What do McCarty and Godoy provide Nashville?

Nashville’s captain is an elite defender. McCarty’s goals added (g+) from interrupting is tied for 5th overall among MLS midfielders. “Interrupting” actions include tackles, interceptions, blocks, clearances, recoveries, and contested headers. It “impl[ies] that the defensive. action may not win the ball, but it always interrupts play, which can be valuable.

In the red-colored defensive subcategories, McCarty largely puts up above-average numbers showing well in his ability to win 1-v-1 battles. This, along with McCarty’s ability to retain possession, contributes to his stellar duel winning percentage, 4th highest, trailing only Samuel Piette (Montreal), Carles Gil (New England), and Darlington Nagbe (Columbus). 

Over the last two seasons, McCarty scores as a relatively average passer. His goals added (g+) from passing actions ranks a tick above league average. His pure passing completion percentage ranks high among MLS midfielders. McCarty’s Pass Score (over/under the expected completion rate) is quite high in the middle third of the pitch ranking in the 77th percentile. What’s most surprising is McCarty’s number of Key Passes, those passes that lead directly to an attempt on goal, per game. He ranks in the 65th percentile, despite playing as a deep-lying midfielder without corner or free kick duties.

The larger MLS world criminally underrates the contribution of Anibal Godoy. He’s been an above-average contributor in all phases since joining Nashville and serves as the team’s vice captain, with particular influence over the team’s Spanish-speaking players. 

Though not at the same level as McCarty, Godoy performs well in a variety of defensive metrics. His goals added (g+) from interrupting activities is in the 79th percentile of MLS midfielders. This is largely fed by his high number of interceptions and possession-winning tackles per game. 

In possession, Godoy receives and retains the ball well for a central midfielder. But where Godoy has really shined is in his underlying passing statistics. He has been downright elite in both the defensive and middle third of the pitch. His Pass Score in the middle third of the pitch over the last two seasons is over five percentage points over expected (xPass: 88.3%, Actual 93.4%), the top mark in MLS.  It gives Nashville an extra two possessions per game over the contribution of an average MLS midfielder.

Brian Anunga

Brian Anunga is hitting the start of his prime. Nashville acquired the 25-year-old Cameroonian from USL Championship side Charleston Battery for just $50,000. Anuga has contributed over 1,600 minutes of MLS action, the equivalent of playing every minute of half a season. While not the biggest sample size, it does give us enough data points to begin to create a player profile that fairly represents his game.

Defensive

Anunga hangs his hat on his defensive contribution to the team. The eye test will tell you that he covers space well for Nashville as Gary Smith’s first midfield option off the bench. The defensive metrics back this up. 

Anunga’s goals added (g+) from interrupting actions is elite. On a per 96-minute basis, he trails only Osvaldo Alonso (Minnesota). As g+ attempts to combine all defensive actions into a single category, it is great to see Anunga rank this high compared to the rest of the league. 

Within the more specific defensive subcategories, Anunga generally ranks above average. He significantly outpaces the average MLS midfielder in interceptions per 96 minutes, tackle win rate against opposing dribblers, and tackles that win possession for Nashville. 

The one outlier is Anunga’s duel winning percentage in the hybrid defensive / possession category. Here, he ranks near the bottom of the league. Duels are one-on-one events that occur on the pitch. Aerial duels are the traditional 50/50 jumping battles that occur when the ball is in the air. Ground duels, however, are asymmetrical events. One player has the ball, and the other attempts to steal the ball away. 

When you think about Anunga’s game, it makes sense why he ranks so low in this category. Standing in at only 5’11”, Anunga is not Nashville’s dominant aerial presence called on to win 50/50 headers. There are plenty of taller threats on the roster to handle these duties. As for ground duels, Anunga is hurt by the asymmetrical nature of these duels as he is far more often playing the defensive role than as an attacker with the ball at his feet in a 1-v-1 battle. 

Anunga is unquestionably a very good midfield defender. His quality defensive traits allow him to replicate the defensive cover provided by Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy when either of Nashville’s veteran holding midfielders miss time. While Anunga is an elite midfield defender, the underlying numbers suggest serious shortcomings offensively.

Possession

In the modern game, a first-choice midfielder needs to serve as a link between the defense and attack. A midfielder can break opposing defensive lines by either dribbling past defenders or passing through them. Unfortunately, Anunga provides neither at an average MLS level. 

In possession, the eye test tells you that Anunga is strong on the ball. He is quite capable of shielding the ball and laying off to other Nashville players to retain possession. These little moments are important in a match. 

However, the advanced metrics are not kind as Anunga rarely contributes with the progressive carries (carries that move the ball at least five yards closer to goal, excluding the defensive 40% of field) and dribbling actions that bypass defenders and move the ball forward into attacking positions. The Cameroonian ranks only in the 21st percentile of ASA’s goals added (g+) from dribbling activities which includes carries, take-ons, miscontrols, and dispossessions. While he can body off opposing defenders, Anunga does not provide the significant value-added plays with the ball at his feet to bypass defenders and advance Nashville toward goal. 

Passing

If Anunga wants to breakthrough as a regular MLS starter, he will need to vastly improve his passing contributions.

ASA’s goals added (g+) from passing activities ranks Anunga in the lowest 5% of MLS midfielders. His goals added contribution is dragged down by his low number of Key Passes (passes that directly lead to a shot on goal) and the lack of verticality in his passing as sideways and backward passes rarely significantly increase your expected goals from a given possession. 

In the middle third of the pitch, Anunga’s average pass travels one foot backwards. It’s the second lowest verticality rate in the league. The league median is 12 feet toward goal. The high prevalence of back passes severs the link between defense and attack forcing Nashville to either bypass the midfield with long balls or build up through the wingbacks potentially falling into opposing defensive traps utilizing the sideline as an extra defender.

Given Anunga’s defensive prowess and lack of added offensive value further up the pitch, you would ideally deploy him as a ball-destroying #6. But in modern soccer, even deep-lying defensive midfielders shoulder significant responsibility in helping to play out of an opposing high press. Anunga’s passing completion percentage and Pass Score (measured as over/under the expected pass completion rate) fall below league average in the defensive third. 

Anunga Wrap Up

The numbers currently do not project for Anunga as a first-choice XI midfielder in MLS. He falls well short of replacement level in many offensive measures that help Nashville build its attack. Having just turned 25-years old this week and only a season and a half of MLS play under his belt, there may still be room for Anunga to level up as a passer. If so, he could be a long-term replacement for Dax McCarty. But as of now, Anunga’s passing statistics do not project him as an MLS first-choice midfielder. 

But that does not mean he is not valuable to Nashville. He provides elite-level defensive cover as a depth option. At only $81,375 in annual salary, I consider Anunga, dollar-for-dollar, as one of Nashville’s most valuable players.

Matt LaGrassa

Let’s get the initial disclaimer out of the way. Matt LaGrassa lacks the necessary minutes to otherwise qualify for these categories. He has contributed only 770 minutes in his MLS career. He has only 50% of the minutes necessary to reach my minimum threshold. There is bound to be a lot of noise in his stats as one stellar or poor night could cause a significant jump in his per game outputs. As you will see, game state also creates significant noise in the statistics as LaGrassa often features as a late game substitute. 

Either way, I wanted to still provide a player profile for him as well to begin drawing some insights to his game. I won’t spend as long on LaGrassa based on the volatility in the numbers and his age. At 28 years old, he is already solidly in his prime years and will start his gradual downslope in just a few seasons. As good as Dax McCarty has looked in Blue and Gold, there is still the potential for a couple more solid seasons out of Nashville’s captain. That would put LaGrassa on the wrong side of thirty. 

Generally, Matt LaGrassa fits in well as a depth option for McCarty and Godoy. Like Anunga, he is a plus defender with an above-average goals added (g+) from interrupting actions. His numbers indicate an extremely high number tackles that win possession per game, but this might be a function of game script. Often used as a late-game sub, he finds more of his minutes in game states where he is required to hunker down, defend, and wrestle away possession before getting ready for the next wave of attack. 

The game state likely also affects his possession and passing numbers. In possession, he would be tied for the league’s lowest goals added (g+) from dribbling actions with an average of less than one progressive carry (a carry that moves the ball at least 5 yards closer to goal) per 96 minutes played. 

LaGrassa’s passing statistics appear similarly skewed. The high verticality rate of his passes is likely a byproduct of late game clearances. Even taking into account the type of low-probability balls from the defensive third, LaGrassa’s Pass Score (over/under the expected pass completion rate) in the middle third of the pitch sits below MLS average.

In totality, LaGrassa’s statistical profile appears fairly similar to Brian Anunga – plus defenders with weaknesses offensively compared to a replacement-level MLS midfielder. 

Overview

I do not think that this can be reiterated enough. Brian Anunga and Matt LaGrassa are not bad players. They are extremely valuable role players on league minimum contracts. They are the type of glue guys that help build championship level clubs. 

The mistake is in believing that Nashville’s midfield of the future is settled with the pair. Nashville absolutely should begin succession planning by finding a promising young midfielder or two that can be groomed and integrated slowly. 

That being said, I hope one, or both, Anunga and LaGrassa prove me wrong. Stick this up in their locker and use this as motivation. I would gladly eat crow as both appear to be top class individuals and excellent representatives for Nashville SC.

Leave a Reply