Evidence of a Central Midfield

Thursday, September 24, 2009 | View Comments
USA v Mexico, FIFA World Cup Qualifier

Essien, Pirlo, Mascherano, Xavi, Iniesta, Kaka. These guys can deliver devastating tackles, brilliant balls over the top, immense pitch coverage, fantastic one-touch passing, penetrating runs, and jaw dropping dribbling. As diverse as their talents are, they all line up in the center midfield and create the backbones of their teams. They are charged either with being the engine for their team or shutting down the other team’s engine. Only in the central midfield can you find this diversity of talents and roles. While the quality of those above midfielders may not be available in the US talent pool, that level of diversity certainly is.

Eight players have staffed the US central midfield in the 13 “A” team games that have been played in 2009. While Mastroeni and Beckerman have played in games with the US “A” team, their time with the MNT is likely coming to a close; Mastroeni because of age and Beckerman because of better options. The rest of the US talent pool in the center of the pitch is young but experienced for their age. Bradley, Clark, Edu, Feilhaber, Kljestan, and Torres average only 23.3 years old but 20.7 caps. They are still developing, but have shown the brilliance of their potential and the mistakes of their youth.

I wanted to see how the US plays with these players on the field in a more concrete way than just by my own feelings about them. Similar to the hockey plus-minus stat, the table below shows each players minutes, the goals scored while they have been in the central midfield, the goals conceded while they have been in the central midfield, each of those numbers per game equivalent (where game equivalent equals 93 minutes with the extra three added for average second half stoppage time), and the difference between the two.


But that’s only part of the story, because these are midfield pairings, who you are paired with matters too. Here’s where the subjectivity of this comes in. I am going to classify the central midfielders into three groups: more useful when the opponent has the ball (defensive), more useful when the US has the ball (offensive), equally useful (balanced). I classify Clark, Mastroeni, Beckerman, and Edu as defensive; Feilhaber and Torres as offensive; and Bradley and Kljestan as balanced. Below is a chart with all the different combinations that the US has played this year.


The two tables show one thing very strongly; Sacha Kljestan has been terrible for the US this year. While Torres’ defensive numbers are not great, the statistical analysis there suffers from an overall lack of minutes and being skewed by the three man center midfield disaster that was the Costa Rica first half. Kljestan has no such excuses. His removal from a lineup has generally been followed by a US goal (Mexico) or two (at El Salvador), while his insertion is generally followed by an opposition goal (Italy and Brazil). Because of terrible play when Kljestan is in the lineup, the Bal-Bal combination has suffered greatly. The other three combinations that the US has frequently used shows a stable trend:


As the more defensive players are replaced by more offensive players, the goals conceded rises; however, the number of goals scored does not significantly change. An analysis of the numbers separated from player bias, stylistic leanings, and form arguments shows that the US should start its matches with a pairing of a defensive midfielder and a balanced center midfielder with an attacking option off the bench to replace the balanced player when a late goal is needed. In that case, there is a slightly higher likelihood of scoring without selling out the back against the counter. In games where an Off has replaced a Def by red card (Italy when Feilhaber moved to the middle after Clark was tossed) or substitution (Mexico, again Feilhaber for Clark) the US has allowed 3 goals and scored 1 in 74 minutes; whereas a Off has never been brought in for a Bal.

Until Edu returns, Clark is the only top defensive midfielder the US has. Likewise until Jones is eligible and healed, Bradley is the only good option as a balanced midfielder. While their play might be ugly, the objective results of their pairing is hard to argue with. In 370 minutes with them on the pitch together, the US has scored eight goals and conceded one or 2.0 goals scored per game and 0.3 goals conceded per game.

Central midfield pairings can be defensive, possessive, creative, attacking, or some combination of these things. The goal should be to find the pairing that gives a team the best chance to win. For whatever reason, the US bleeds goals when anything nearing an offensively minded midfield is played, and those more offensively minded players have not contributed to the attack enough to offset that loss. When healthy and not suspended, objectively the pairing of Clark and Bradley puts the US in the best position to win. That being said, the statistics make a strong case for looking at the pairing of Torres and Clark; as the strike rate with Torres on the field is the highest of any midfielder and Clark’s low concede rate may balance that midfield nicely.

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