Ryan Lassan Photography/For Club and Country
A slightly different approach to the Film Room from the Indy Eleven game. Instead of one specific play, I’ll look at Ropapa Mensah’s performance in his first league start and longest regular-season appearance of the year. The goal: Answer a specific (and common) question. Why doesn’t Ropapa Mensah play more?
I want to note ahead of time that this may come across like a burn reel. That is absolutely not my intention. I’m trying to point out areas of weakness that give a coach pause in playing him as much as fans (who justifiably love the guy) may want.
I’ll begin with how the teams lined up, because to a large degree, the freedom that the front three were given plays a role in how Nashville SC generated scoring chances (or more often in this game, didn’t).
The teams nominally took the field in these formations:
That’s a 3-4-1-2 for Indy Eleven, and a slight changeup to the typical 3-5-2/5-3-2 for Nashville: there’s a lone striker up top in Tucker Hume, and both Lebo Moloto and Ropapa Mensah were deployed nominally as pinched-in midfielders in front of Matt LaGrassa and Derrick Jones, for a bit of a box look. That requires the fullback/wingbacks to get upfield to provide width to the formation, which Taylor Washington and Kosuke Kimura are both comfortable doing.
The front three was actually pretty fluid, though: at times Moloto and Mensah were deployed more like true wingers (giving a 3-4-3 look) with the ability to swap sides as the situation dictated, and at others, Mensah pushed up next to Hume for the more typical 3-5-2/5-3-2 that we saw last year, with Moloto as the playmaking No. 10.
So what’d we see?
For starters, some of that fluidity in the formation led to problems when both Hume and Mensah were trying to play up top. Here, Hume is sticking centrally as a lone striker, while Mensah pushes up next to him… and then slides on top of him, intercepting a cross that was intended for Big Bird and turning it into a non-chance.
His initial run does draw the defense in, opening up acres of space for Kimura to run into, but he has to be able to make that off-ball run in a way that opens space for Kimura without crowding space that Hume is occupying.
We also see a sign of the tactical immaturity that can be frustrating: after he gets the ball back to Derrick Jones, he hangs out in a pocket of space that actually should be exploitable after Neveal Hackshaw (the Indy player with the afro) stepped up to make a play on the ball. However, he doesn’t angle his run to remain in an onside position, so Jones can’t play him the ball in a dangerous area.
Here’s another play that shows a key weakness of Mensah’s (nice dime by Liam Doyle, by the way) :
If he can swing through with his left foot, that’s a legit scoring chance after his first crossover on Hackshaw. However, he doesn’t trust himself with the left, and tries to cut back once more onto his right, exposing the ball to Hackshaw. The defender gladly pokes it away to end the scoring threat.
Mensah’s left foot is a major weakness, and unlike some of the other areas he’s lacking, it’s not going to go away with simple game reps. It’s something that needs to be worked on hard in training sessions and during the offseason. He’s a guy who wants very badly to succeed, and I’m certain that left foot will improve when he puts in the work (it’s also easy to forget he’s just 21 years old – there’s a long career ahead of him).
However, when he’s deployed as a wide player, as was the case on this specific play, the lack of a left is problematic: he’s on the right so that he can cross with his strong foot, but the inside foot has to be able to shoot, at the very least to keep the defense honest (but preferably to hit #bangerz). We see a similar weakness with fellow winger Alan Winn, who plays primarily on the left – so he can shoot with his strong foot – but has added at least enough credible crossing ability with the left that he can’t be overplayed like Hackshaw does to Mensah here.
Here are a couple plays that are pretty similar to each other, with a mix of good and bad moments:
On both of those plays, he makes athletic or technical moves that not many on the team are capable of (I would say only Daniel Ríos can bring the ball down as smoothly as he does in the first one with any degree of consistency, and while Kharlton Belmar isn’t as strong, his spatial awareness might allow him to make the second play consistently thanks to his speed).
Each of these gives a taste of what makes Mensah such a tantalizing prospect: he has the ability to make that first part of the play, and of course we’ve all seen that he has a natural nose for goal. Both of these instances, however, show off some combination of poor decision-making or a lack of trust in his athleticism. That brings up the biggest fault in his game, at least early in the year: he has arrived from the offseason with his shape… a work in progress, we’ll say. He has the speed to get both of these runs into much more dangerous territory, but doesn’t trust it – and my assumption is that, at least in part, it’s because he’s not quite in game shape (though he’s extremely close, so I bet it’s this second one) or because he’s so recently arrived at game shape that he doesn’t realize he can turn on the jets and burn these guys.
Look at the space he should be taking:
Neither of these is a bad play, per se, but that doesn’t make it the right play, either. Ironically, they’re both plays that Ropapa would have made last season and might have drawn the ire of his coaches – Indy keeper Evan Newton is even visible out of his net in the second, and 2018 Mensah may have had a go from distance here. There’s something to be said for coaching a little more discipline into his play without losing the aggressiveness desire to score that makes him the player he is.
These are a combination of working into fitness and a lack of game reps (largely brought about by the fact that he’s still working into fitness). Like last season, his effectiveness could get a lot better over the course of the year.
It’s important to note that the above are just a few plays, and there were less-obvious positives (and probably even more less-obvious negatives, which have been part of what holds him back) mixed in, as well. there’s plenty of obvious positive in there, too.
We all know he’s capable of great things, even when it comes to areas outside goal-scoring. Last year’s team may not have had a hold-up striker in position to feed this Moloto run, with the vision to make the pass:
This is what is so tantalizing to fans (in addition to his natural inclination toward goal-scoring). Knowing that he’s capable of this but unable to do it consistently thanks to a combination of factors – inexperience, tactical awareness, fitness – is certainly frustrating for his coaches.
If he can continue to progress, and I think he will (again: 21 years old. Youngest guy on team. Third season in USL), there’s a special player in there.