Nashville SC made waves last week with the signing of striker Aké Loba from CF Monterrey. Owner John Ingram dropped a club-record $6.8 million on the Ivorian attacker, a club record and the 21st largest incoming transfer in MLS history.
Loba is fairly versatile. He’s primarily a central striker, who can be effective on his own or as a lone forward, both of with Nashville have used under Gary Smith. He’s also capable of playing on either wing, but prefers the left where he can play “inverted”, cutting onto his favoured right foot to shoot. In fact, even when he plays through the middle, he tends to drift wide left in possession, making diagonal runs from the wing to receive the ball centrally.
A vertical threat
Nashville SC general manager loves the term “vertical threat”. It’s a key attribute he’s looked for in attacking players, particularly wingers. Loba has the yard of pace that puts him into this category.
“He is most comfortable playing on the back-shoulder of centerbacks and trying to get in-behind,” said Jacobs. “He’s got tremendous pace to be able to threaten defenses.”
Loba loves to get in behind and to drift into a centerback’s blind spot, which opens up space underneath as well as passing lanes to split the defense.
Here the final ball is behind, and forces Loba to hold his run, but you can see that he’s looking to get behind the defense.
In the above clip, Loba doesn’t even have to kick into high gear to create space. The mere threat of his pace pulls two defenders to him and opens up space underneath. Perhaps no one will benefit from this more than Hany Mukhtar, who is at his best operating in that pocket just underneath the strikers.
Able to link play
While Loba is primarily a back shoulder runner, he can drop deeper at times to link play, getting into the space in front of the backline to get on the ball and connect with the midfield.
We’ve seen this from other Nashville strikers in the past, but Loba is better able to interchange quick passes and keep the ball moving forward, instead of slowing possession down and losing momentum.
This is the kind of quick passing interplay that puts Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal at their best, and having Loba add to that should raise their level.
An effective partner
While he is fully capable of playing on the wings, Loba’s best moments for Monterrey came when he was partnered with a more traditional target forward. Rayados‘ wealth of class strikers both benefited Loba when he got on the field and limited his time on it. Playing off of Rogelio Funes Mori and Vincent Janssen.
Pairing Loba with a more traditional back-to-goal forward occupies the centerbacks on balls over the top and allows Loba to drift in behind.
Nashville have another DP striker on the roster; Jhonder Cádiz. Although Gary Smith has preferred a single striker system, he’s played a 4-4-2 in the past. In USL he also utilized a 3-4-1-2. Nashville has the personnel to effectively operate in a back three, and doing so would allow Cádiz and Loba to see the field at the same time, potentially getting the best out of both.
Direct on the ball
Loba is reminiscent of Randall Leal on the ball. They both possess strong close control and a sudden burst of acceleration that allows them to round the defender into space. Loba is perhaps even more aggressive on the ball than Leal, though, consistently looking to get into the box and either create a chance or draw a penalty.
It can be choppy and somewhat unorthodox at times, but Loba consistently looks to turn quickly and play the ball forward.
While he doesn’t have the rocket of a shot we’ve seen from Leal, he’s opportunistic around the 18, and he only needs a half yard of space to get off a shot.
Patient in the box
Loba is a patient runner in the box. A lot of times, strikers tend to attack one of the posts and make a hard, direct run towards goal on every cross. This can certainly be effective, and Loba does pick moments to make these runs, but he also picks moments to hang back while the defenders continue their momentum. By staying relatively still, he opens up space for himself.
In the above clip against Mazatlán, Loba simply stays in the centerbacks’ blind spot. It’s what we used to call a “static run” versus a “dynamic run”.
He does a similar thing here against Puebla, and gets a goal as well. However, instead of staying static for the entire time, he makes a run toward the near post until the defender turns his head, and then hangs back to create a yard of space for himself. He gets the goal with an opportunistic and somewhat unconventional finish, another hallmark of his game.
Again, it’s a really simple run and finish from Loba. He sees that the rightback is out of position maintains his run to stay in the centerback’s blind spot. He lets the cross and the defenders own movement do the work for him to find himself wide open on the back post.
Loba’s greatest asset is his understanding of space. It’s why he’s consistently able to get open in a crowded penalty area, and he anticipates where the ball will be instead of re-adjusting to catch up to the ball. It’s how he scored the bulk of his goals in Liga MX, and it’s why Nashville broke their club record to acquire him.
All of Loba’s attributes translate well to MLS, and with the type and volume of chances Nashville are creating, he shouldn’t take long to start finding the back of the net. Loba has all the tools necessary to succeed in MLS, and at 23 his best years are still well ahead of him.
After watching the last 15 matches he played for Monterrey, it’s easy to see why Nashville bided their time and waited for him to come available. He should raise their ceiling significantly and be a consistently effective goal scorer in MLS.