Anunga photo courtesy Major League Soccer
Nashville SC has taken a measured – but very serious – approach to scouting the USL ranks to add talent to the roster. Central midfielder Brian Anunga was the lone player signed directly from a Championship club (other than those from NSC’s own franchise), earning a transfer fee for Charleston Battery.
Other editions: No minutes and gone • No minutes and back • Jimmy Medranda • Brayan Beckeles • Handwalla Bwana • Jack Maher • David Accam • Alan Winn • Matt LaGrassa • Eric Miller • Derrick Jones • Jhonder Cádiz • Taylor Washington • Abu Danladi • Jalil Anibaba • Dominique Badji • Daniel Ríos • Tah Brian Anunga • Alex Muyl • Hany Mukhtar • Aníbal Godoy • Alistair Johnston • Randall Leal • Dax McCarty • Dan Lovitz • Walker Zimmerman • Dave Romney • Joe Willis
While Anunga was a very good Championship player (I was very high on the signing), a 23-year old making the top flight for the first time – with a handful of more-experienced players ahead of him on the depth chart at the position – was reasonably expected to have a bit of a transition period moving to the MLS level. With Aníbal Godoy and Dax McCarty written in ink on the starting XI and Derrick Jones the primary backup (and Matt LaGrassa a more-familiar piece on the depth chart, as well), playing time looked a little sparing at the year’s outset.
Nonetheless, Anunga is a young, talented central midfielder with a hard-nosed defensive game. That’s going to play in any system, particularly one that values discipline and bite like Gary Smith’s. A few depth minutes here and there as he got used to a higher level of play, with an eye toward a bigger role in subsequent seasons was the idea here.
17 appearances • 1051 minutes
0 goals, 3 shots (0.09 xG)
0 assists, 2 key passes (0.40 xA)
426/496 passing (85.9% • 85.6% expected)
9.3% of touches on-field
+0.08 Goals added per 96 minutes versus average central midfielder
|Tah Brian Anunga 2020|||||||||||
|Dribbling G+||Fouling G+||Interrupting G+||Passing G+||Receiving G+||Shooting G+|
Anunga outperformed any preseason expectations in a big way. Jones was used primarily in more-advanced positions (his combination of physical and technical skills was an awkward fit for any one spot in the 4-2-3-1, likely hastening his departure), while Anunga quickly moved past LaGrassa on the depth chart. When either Godoy or McCarty went down (and too-frequently this season, one or both were unavailable), he was first man in.
Not only did Anunga look like he belonged at this level, he thrived. He was an outstanding defensive CM, as expected. No matter who he was playing with in the midfield line, he tended to be the more-defensive option (or most-defensive of three CMs, on a couple occasions), and both Godoy and McCarty had a little more freedom to get involved in the attack.
Look at that interrupting score! Among guys who played at least 1,000 minutes on the year, Anunga was a top-10 most disruptive player in MLS last season (while only Minnesota’s Osvaldo Alonso and Vancouver’s Janio Bikel were ahead of him from a midfield position). He was able to be that penultimate line of defense ahead of his backline, and provide a little cover when those guys got forward, as well.
The flipside of that is… most of the other components of Goals Added. Passing – given that it’s an area where CMs can be pretty productive – is a particular area for potential improvement. While he completed a greater percentage than expected (according to ASA‘s model), the high expected number means these were not exactly line-breaking passes. Additionally, with only three shots and two key passes, he was not involved in the offense basically at all.
I think we’ve seen a pretty solid baseline for Anunga’s future: he’s going to be a stout defensive presence no matter what. He even cleaned up some of his disciplinary issues from his USL days, with a single yellow card on the season (he averaged a yellow every 328 minutes with the Battery, and picked up a couple straight reds, as well).
Now that he’s had a season to acclimate to pace and style of play, it’s time to take the next step forward in his game when the Boys in Gold have possession. He doesn’t need to be Andrea Pirlo. He doesn’t even need to be, like, Michael Bradley. But he was very safe in his decisions, and while he managed to complete even more than those expectations, a little more ambition in his passing would be nice. In terms of pure attacking with shots or assists… they’d be nice complements, but not particularly necessary here.
If he does take that half-step forward, it portends great things for the (slightly more distant) future, and a good chance that he develops into one of the better holding mids in the league.