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What Did We Get With Jan Gregus?

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Spain v Slovakia - UEFA EURO 2016 Qualifier
Jan Gregus (#6) duels with Spain’s David Silva (#21) in a 2015 match. The Slovakian midfielder signed as Minnesota’s newest Designated Player on Thursday.
Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

First, let’s dispense with a couple of jokes:

  1. Any self-respecting Minnesotan would strongly prefer if his name was Jan Grejduk.
  2. Now that we have Gregus, we need to sign more players from the same liquor brand, like ex-Montreal Impact right back Bacardi Sagna.

With the humor sorted out, Minnesota United have picked up their third Designated Player in club history, signing FC Copenhagen midfielder Jan Gregus. Reports from The Athletic’s Jeff Rueter put the transfer fee in the seven-digit range, a fairly steep price for a usually cost-averse club. In exchange, though, the Loons got a 27-year old with regular playing time in one of FIFA’s top 30 national teams, UEFA Champions and Europa League experience over the last three seasons, and time as a starter with Scandinavia’s biggest club.

Unfortunately, his time in Denmark and for the Slovakian national team doesn’t give us a very accessible statistical picture, as the Danish Superligaen doesn’t readily put out its stats packages. There is a good amount of footage of his performances for Copenhagen on YouTube from their Superligaen and Europa League fixtures, as well as from Slovakia’s UEFA Nations League play. After watching many awkwardly scored clips, you’ll find he’s a solid pickup that fits the tactical mold that Adrian Heath has cut for his double pivot midfield.

I’m not the first to say that Gregus plays a similar style to Sporting Kansas City’s Ilie Sanchez, but for both him and Seattle’s Gustav Svensson it’s a really apt comparison. Gregus plays the holding midfield role with more technique than brute force, opting to intercept passes and block balls versus crunching into tackles. He’s a bit more passive defensively, giving players in his zone some space to maneuver, but moves quickly to close on the ball off of passes and mistakes. Put it this way. Whereas your prototypical #6 is a mugger, Gregus is more of a pickpocket: one uses more violence, but both take your wallet.

Also like Sanchez, Gregus prefers to sit a bit deeper behind the attack, finding routes to cycle passes long to the wing and restart play if the attack breaks down. He looks happy to move the ball quickly, taking few steps on the dribble before launching accurate long passes—in this Europa League cycle, Gregus completed his passes at an 82% clip. You won’t find him too often pushing the line forward, though if in place he’ll lead a counter. He instead mainly worked out of frame as Copenhagen advanced into the final third, allowing the team’s electric attackers like Viktor Fischer work their magic. With Slovakia, it’s even more pronounced, hanging behind the team’s elite #10, Napoli’s Marek Hamsik.

What should set him apart from most MLS defensive midfielders is his size. At 6’2.5”, Gregus would have been in the top five by height of last year’s central midfielders. The Loons have chronically lacked midfield height, with no one in the middle topping out over six feet in the MLS era. That should help the team improve on its second-worst aerial differential (duels won minus lost) last season. Theoretically that should help on free kicks as well, but Gregus’s dead ball passing accuracy and willingness to take belting shots outside the box could make him MNUFC’s primary set piece taker. With Copenhagen and Slovakia, Gregus was a mainstay on taking corner kicks, though as the season progressed he’s been more of the fake option on free kicks with the recent rise of Rasmus Falk.

The concern among Loons fans that I’ve seen is that his play for Copenhagen has been more as a two-way central midfielder, perhaps influenced by how Transfermarkt refers to him as a CM versus a DM. The concern for the Loons needing a #6 is warranted, but for Gregus it’s a bit overblown. Copenhagen press further up the field than Minnesota does, setting their midfield block high knowing opponents will need to soak up their forward pressure. Such pressure naturally pulls even defensive midfielders up. The other key aspect is that Copenhagen placed more of the “destroyer” responsibilities with Greek international Zeca, who joined in the summer of 2017. With Zeca handling more of the hard fouls, Gregus was tasked more with the technical defending that he naturally provides.

One reason to panic slightly is his history of getting second yellows after getting on the referee’s radar early. Per Transfermarkt, Gregus picked up 13 yellow cards in his 2.5 season run with Copenhagen, but was sent off three times for a second yellow, all of which came in continental play. In a February 2017 match against Ludogorets in the Europa League round of 32, Gregus was subbed in at the 71st minute, got hit with a yellow after an 88th minute tactical foul, then was carded again eight minutes later for kicking the ball away after he fouled an opposing player. Second yellows for petulant fouls are never ideal, and it’s fair to hope he can maintain a cooler head in MLS.

All told, the transfer seems in line with the type of midfielder that Adrian Heath prefers. Whether it be from the dribble (like Ibson) or from the pinging long ball (a la Fernando Bob), Heath has typically looked for his midfield to act as a distribution point to set the attack to run forward. Part of the impetus for Rasmus Schuller to play as a defensive minded #6 despite his clear preference to get forward was that Minnesota needed someone to move the ball from defense; being forced to defend as much as he did was simply having to cover for Ibson’s eccentricities. Gregus’s role for Copenhagen was like Schuller but in reverse: take someone who prefers to stay home and have him work further up into midfield.

For the Loons, expect Gregus to give that distribution without abandoning his space on the field. I’d still assume the team will play a low block, and Gregus will be given more responsibility to clean house in front of the back four. The key for him will be to track runs from MLS’s deep crop of pacy forwards and attacking midfielders. All signs suggest that he’ll be athletic enough to keep them in front of him, shuffling them out to the flanks or winning the ball away in space.