Nashville SC

Analyzing Nashville SC’s attacking midfield situation

This is going to be one of the more interesting pieces in this series (previous entries: winger, goalkeeper) not because there are tons of options to talk about, but because there are very few.

While Nashville SC has several players who can play as an attacking central midfielder, there’s only one player for whom you’d consider it the primary position. That would be the club’s lone current Designated Player, Hany Mukhtar.

Hany Mukhtar

yeah, that guy

General Manager Mike Jacobs is putting a lot of faith in the concept of Mukhtar being capital-T capital-G The Guy. That’s the nature of MLS roster rules, sure, but without a ton of obvious depth, there isn’t much of a Plan B in terms of the position, much less the quality at that position.

So, will Mukhtar be The Guy? He’s been productive in Denmark, but there’s been a bit of a fade in the past couple seasons…

Hanyprod

The timeline could also go by season names (with 2019-20 – only half a year, in fairness – the most recent there), but I thought it also important to underscore how the dude is pretty dang young.

Anyway, there’s a bit to unpack here. I scaled it 0-1 so you could get a clearer picture of how much his production has tailed off: while it looks less significant than when it automatically scaled to 0.25-0.75, it’s still a drop in production of about half. There are plenty of explanations available, though: his Age-22 goals/assists per 90 came alongside striker Teemu Pukki, who is currently in the Premier League with Norwich City (albeit not for long, with the Canaries cruisin’ for a relegatin’). On a per-90 basis, it was good-not-elite (No .11 in the league), though on a pure goals+assists metric, his 20 (10 of each) were tied for fifth in the league, with Pukki and fellow teammate Kamil Wilczek Nos. 1 and 10, respectively.

That was also the only year that Mukhtar racked up a boatload of minutes, going from 3,029 in the 2017-18 campaign to 2,459 in 2018-19, to just 845 in the first half of this season (projects to nearly 1,700 over the year). Injuries have played a bit of a role in the per-90 dropoff over the past two seasons. So too has a slight position change at times this year (going from a pure No. 10, creative attacker, to a No. 8, box-to-box midfielder with offensive punch), which goes hand-in-hand with the likelihood of teams minimizing the role of a player they know is on the way out midway through the season.

So we know Mukhtar’s numbers have been good, but at the very least this season, far from great. There are also some explanations – some that may be encouraging, some less so – for the dropoff.

But what does it mean going into MLS? The comparison – per FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index global rankings – says that the SuperLigaen is less bunched than Major League Soccer, and on a slightly higher overall level:

superovr

Brøndby is consistently among the better teams in the league, so the team’s rise above the pack might make things easier for him, but the average team in the SuperLigaen is better than the average team in MLS. Let’s take a look at what will affect his production, but looking at the defenses in the leagues compared:

superD

Lower numbers are higher-quality here, so you can see that, while MLS isn’t that much lower than SuperLigaen on an overall basis, there is basically just one awful team keeping the defensive outputs looking similar statistically.

So we know he should have a slightly easier go of it in MLS, but how much easier? There’s limited data in terms of players hopping directly from Denmark to MLS, and one of them, keeper David Ousted, certainly won’t be informative when  it comes to attacking comparisons.

However, there are a few data points:

fanendoadi

Aside from one data point that is basically “incomplete” (Jorgensen was sent to NYRBII, got only 117 minutes in MLS but had an outstanding goal-scoring record in USL), every player to move from SuperLigaen to MLS since 2012 has had better output Stateside than in the land of Hamlet. (Recent struggles aside, Fanendo Adi was a bordelrine elite producer in Portland). Sample size concerns are obvious, but the trend is encouraging.

So: assuming Mukhtar stays healthy – as discussed above, no guarantee – you’d be expecting something in the range of 0.5 non-penalty goals and assists per 90 minutes (not having xG data is unfortunate for our predictive abilities here, unfortunately). If you assume that both he remains healthy in 2019 and his production in the SuperLigaen this year was limited because of those injuries… he could have a special year.

So, pray to the health gods (not least of which because Mukhtar isn’t the only guy on Nashville SC’s roster hoping to be fully healthy for the first time in a while).

Yes, these pieces are more analytical/numbers-crunch-ish, but the header image gives a little taste of what Mukhtar can do in terms of aesthetically-pleasing offense.

Other options

I’ve discussed a little bit about most of the options here already; they’re largely the winger pool for this team. In approximately descending order of likelihood to fill in at No. 10:

  • Randall Leal: a skilled winger-type who has played as an attacking central midfielder for both Saprissa (where it was very much a change-of-pace from his typical left wing spot) and Costa Rica (where that’s been almost as frequent as on the wing).
  • David Accam: putting him at the No. 10 takes away some of his most important attributes in speed and finishing, but he has quality on the ball and a little more strength than…
  • Alan Winn: a very similar play to Accam at this point but without the same physical strength that comes from maturity (he’s still just 23), and without the finishing ability. Given that a No. 10 doesn’t necessarily need to finish – just needs to pick out the right passes – that’s less an issue, but Winn still has improvement to go.

Other types of primarily central midfielders could also move forward and play as something of a No. 10 (assuming a Mukhtar injury wouldn’t be enough to change formations to a two-striker 4-4-2 anyway). I haven’t written that post yet, obviously, so stay tuned, but I actually think there’s a specific guy who would be slotted in as a like-for-like replacement for Mukhtar: Jimmy Medranda.

medranda

Despite playing mostly a position (fullback) that’s devoid of offensive glory – at best whipping in some crosses on the overlap – he’s been pretty productive offensively, and he’s been a very good passer in the past five years, as well. Like Mukhtar, there are health concerns, but the upside is palpable.

A more in-depth look at Medranda when the central (non-attacking) midfielders get the breakdown.

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