POSITION PROFILE: Attacking Midfielders

We’re continuing our Position Profile series with a look at Nashville SC’s attacking midfielders. (NOTE: This is an edited and updated version of a piece that was originally published at SpeedwaySoccer.com)

Hany Mukhtar is Nashville’s highest profile signing to date, the first Designated Player in club history. The 25-year-old German youth international is coming off the most successful spell of his career, and was signed for a nearly $3million transfer fee by Nashville. In 3½ seasons at Brøndby IF in the Danish Superliga, Mukhtar scored 24 and assisted 23. He’s a dynamic, two-way midfielder who covers a ton of ground on both sides of the ball.

Mukhtar played primarily as an advanced midfielder in a 4-3-3 setup in Brøndby, where he thrived on taking advantage of half-spaces in the final third to pick up the ball in the pockets, playing quick 1-2 passes with his forwards or using his pace to create shooting opportunities for himself. He’s dangerous from distance with either foot, as well as being opportunistic inside the box. He looked like a natural fit underneath the striker in Gary Smith’s 4-2-3-1 early in the season. Although the end product didn’t show up in either match, the industry was there.

Randall Leal was somewhat overshadowed by Mukhtar’s signing, but he’s viewed within the club as a similarly important piece of the roster going forward. He was a consistent starter for Saprissa, one of the dominant sides in Liga FPD, and he’s established himself as a regular member of the Costa Rican national team.

Leal is a creative attacking player. For Saprissa, he most frequently started on the left, where he would stay wide to receive the ball in space before carrying it inside to pick out a line-splitting pass or take a shot. He’s versatile, capable of playing anywhere across the front four, but looks most comfortable inverted on the left. Leal is the second DP on Nashville’s roster, although he’s in the range to be bought down with TAM to give NSC even more flexibility.

In Nashville’s first two matches, Mukhtar and Leal lead the team in xG+xA (expected goals plus expected assists), and I’d argue they passed the eye test as well.

While the club views Leal as a playmaker, they see David Accam as a vertical threat. A Ghanaian international, Accam is arguably the fastest player in Major League Soccer, and will look to stay on the back shoulder of the defense and get in behind to receive passes through the lines or over the top.

After a very successful spell as a Designated Player with Chicago Fire, Accam was traded to Philadelphia Union and then Columbus Crew, where he was never able to regain the form he had in Chicago.

2017 was clearly the high point of his MLS career, but after dropping off significantly in 2018, he bounced back a good bit in 2019.

With just over 1,000 minutes in 2019, Accam was in the 70th percentile of MLS wingers for expected goals per 96 minutes played, and in the 75th percentile for successful dribbles per 96. He finished the 2019 season with six goals and three assists, despite playing sparingly in Columbus. With a larger role for an expansion team, Nashville will hope he can get back to his best form.

Behind Leal and Accam on the depth chart, things get a bit interesting. Jimmy Medranda can play in any role across the front three, as well as deeper in midfield and at left back (he was covered in more depth in our defenders profile). Dominique Badji spent a good bit of time on the wings with Dallas, but from what the club has said, they view Badji as a 9, not a winger.

Similarly, Abu Danladi is capable of playing on the wings, but is naturally more of a center forward. Danladi is similar to Accam in terms of pace, and on the wings he is a back shoulder runner and a vertical threat. If Accam is unavailable at any point, Danladi would be a similar replacement, but staying healthy has been a major struggle for him.

Alan Winn was brought up from Nashville’s USL team. Winn played 1,372 USL minutes in 2019, and finished the season with three goals and one assist. Winn can play on either flank, and has good acceleration and close control. At times, he can hold onto the ball too long, missing chances to pick out a teammate or passing up on a shooting lane. However, he has the tools to develop into a solid player at the MLS level and provides good depth for Nashville off the bench. If he can add end product to his 0.35 xG+xA/96, he’ll give head coach Gary Smith another option. His cameo in Nashville’s 2-1 loss over Atlanta showed his potential.

There are others who could fill in on the wings like Taylor Washington, Daniel Lovitz, or Alistair Johnston, but at the moment it seems like it would take injuries or a formation shift to push them into a more advanced role.

At this point in the season, we haven’t been able to see Nashville’s attack develop like we would have expected. The early signs are promising, though. With the flexibility to buy down Leal, the club could potentially add two DPs, and have shown interest in bringing in a DP winger in the past. Their attacking midfield has the players to stay competitive this season, and with offseason additions they’ll become even stronger.

Thanks to our friends at American Soccer Analysis for the data. Make sure to follow them at @analysisevolved and check out their work at americansocceranalysis.com.

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