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Let’s Talk About “Let’s talk about strikers...”

Christian Ramirez laid waste to, well, certain critics

July 18, 2018 - Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United forward Christian Ramirez (21)  strikes the ball and scores a goal in the 5' during the Minnesota United vs New England Revolution match at TCF Bank Stadium. 

(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)
Minnesota United forward Christian Ramirez (21) strikes the ball and scores a goal in the 5’ during the Minnesota United vs New England Revolution match at TCF Bank Stadium.
Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography

So our editor Eli Hoff posted a controversial tweet on our account a couple nights back. You probably read it, the one ranking the strikers and putting Christian Ramirez bottom of the list?

I thought it was some good-natured trolling at first. Then I checked our Slack channel and learned that he planned on writing an article based around it. Once my eyes stopped rolling, I decided to see if there was a good argument to be made for a player with 18 goals in 51 MLS appearances to be worse than a player whose highlight reel shows skill at penalties, a high draft pick with eight shots and no goals, and a top draft pick who is hamstrung with accusations from senior team members that he’s unwilling to put in the effort required to stay healthy. After reading it, I was unimpressed enough to dive into the comments.

There’s an interesting case to be made in the piece that Christian Ramirez isn’t suited for a counter-attacking style; at the least, it’s alluded to. But it was lacking in some critical areas. I specifically had three questions. First, why is Ramirez the issue when the offense more broadly is misfiring? Second, what exactly is different with how he’s played this season? Finally, and most importantly, why wouldn’t a vintage Ramirez work from a stylistic perspective? Aside from his evident reaction, Ramirez’s performance against New England modeled just why he’s valuable in Adrian Heath’s system.

It’s no secret that Christian Ramirez isn’t scoring in bunches; his five goals in 18 appearances is well outstripped by his 14 in 30 last year, and, per WhoScored, his minutes per goal has gone up a full 76 minutes from last year. He’s only taking less time between shots because of his six against New England, with considerably fewer shots in the most advantageous of areas—14 of 60 in the six-yard box last year with eight converted compared to just two (both goals) out of 33 in 2018.

Christian Ramirez shoots a header off during Minnesota United’s 2-1 victory over the Houston Dynamo
Tim C McLaughlin

Looking at expected goals, however, one notices that Ramirez’s reduced productivity is no singular trend. AmericanSoccerAnalysis showed the team coming into the New England match at a meager 1.29 expected goals per game, tied for fifth worst in the league. While the Loons were actually worse in 2017 at 1.09 per, a full 20% of the team’s expected goals have come from Darwin Quintero. Absent him, the Loons are behind the pace of last year.

Year over year tallies of xG/96 suggest more widespread drops. Ramirez has dropped off by 26%, but Abu Danladi is off 31%, and Kevin Molino’s game and a half—including two goals—actually had him off 33%. Among the team’s 15 returning players, Ethan Finlay, Miguel Ibarra, and Ibson are the only three whose year-over-year increases outpace 0.01 xG/96 this year. Ramirez currently trails Quintero, Finlay, Ibarra, Mason Toye, Molino, and Frantz Pangop in xG plus assists per 96, but Pangop’s case is inflated heavily by the low sample size, and Toye so far has failed to register a single goal despite creating 1.5 expected ones; Ramirez, in contrast, had scored four against 3.69 expected after their last data run. In other words, while his numbers are down, he’s been comparable to the rest of his teammates.

With that out of the way, let’s go back to how Ramirez worked in 2017, courtesy of this agent-produced supercut of his goals and assists:

Sick beats. I noticed a few key trends in watching that again. First off, six of those goals come from a pass from the attacking midfielder, be it Kevin Molino or Johan Venegas, and five of those saw Ramirez ahead of the rest of the team. Ramirez also scored another three leading the line with a pass or cross from another player, as well as a couple of balls where being so far forward allowed him to be opportunistic (witness his goal against NYCFC, for instance). Only two of his goals involved some sort of hold up play on his part, though his four assists each came from layoff passes where he either led the line or was supported by wingers.

With the amount of through balls that Ramirez connected on last year, it’s been jarring to see him emphasize hold up play this year, relying on back passes in and around the center circle. I went through each match and counted up his passes, coding out how many passes went backward and whether the pass originated from the final third or from the center circle. For the year, he’s attempted 253 passes, with 114 (45.1%) being a back pass; just 33.2% of his passes have been from the attacking third, compared to 24.9% just from inside of the center circle. In his 18 games, only four saw him take more than 50% of his passes in the final third; only two of them (home against San Jose and Dallas) saw him attempt more than 10 total passes. On the flip side, he’s had eight games where he’s taken at least a quarter of his passes just from the center circle, as well as eight where a majority of his passes went in reverse.

Christian Ramirez’s passing map against Houston Dynamo, 7/7/2018, one of the more stereotypical matches where his play was strictly holding up in midfield.

Hold up play like this hasn’t been a hallmark of his play since joining Minnesota United. He’s tended to be the furthest player forward, latching onto crosses or long ball, explaining his many shots in the penalty area and six-yard box in 2017. The difference appears to have been a tactical change starting perhaps as early as the season opener in San Jose. When brought on late, Ramirez played a bit further up field than other times in the season, but his offensive contribution was an assist that came from putting his back to goal at the top of the box and leaving a short touch for Kevin Molino. He made similar plays to set up Ethan Finlay’s goals in Orlando and in the home opener against Chicago, notably heading the ball on to Miguel Ibarra down the wing at the half line, setting up a cross to Ibson for the opener.

The introduction of Darwin Quintero’s ability to open space on the dribble and take long shots reduces some of the need to camp in the box and finish chances. Even in El Cientifico’s first game against Portland, 12 of Ramirez’s 23 passes were layoff back passes, with only six passes total from the final third. In his 13 appearances since Quintero’s introduction, Ramirez has only taken more than 40% of his passes for a game in the final third four times, with only 32.5% of his total passes in the attack. Instead, he’s been the outlet for the defense as they relieve pressure and bypass the midfield.

But that doesn’t answer the fundamental question I have: why play like that? If Ramirez gets on the end of long balls well in the center and beats center backs via positioning, why not play to that as the Loons become a counter-attacking side? Relying on Quintero to continue chipping every keeper in the league isn’t a good long term strategy—Matt Turner adjusted quickly last night—so it would make sense to have support forward to capitalize on mistakes, i.e. Nick Rimando’s howler last season. Francisco Calvo now has reign to play forward and take killer balls; having a target further up the field would stretch the opponent’s back line, allowing Quintero more space to maneuver through the defense. At the very least, putting a scorer in a better spot to take shots would help a team currently sitting last in the league in shots per game and second-last in shots in the box per game.

The model might just be what Ramirez did last night on his goal.

With Darwin Quintero marginally tighter into the midfield, Ramirez sat on the back shoulder of Andrew Farrell during the goal kick. After a clearing header from Brent Kallman, Ramirez’s run to press Jalil Anibaba’s misplay caught both center backs and keeper Matt Turner in no man’s land. The one touch finish was reminiscent of his teammate’s chips, but more importantly, a heads up play like that doesn’t happen without keeping both strikers forward. With the minimal press that MNUFC utilizes, it’s refreshing to see a play like this come off—almost as refreshing as a free Surly.

As Eli mentioned earlier today, “We could only assume that we would be choking on our own words Wednesday night.” It wasn’t just in the celebration, though. The way Christian Ramirez snapped into attack to create that goal was a break from the system that Adrian Heath has set up, and it’s not surprising to see that it worked well. I’ve yet to justify why Ramirez has been played out of sorts this year when playing to his strengths still works within both a controlling style—get someone to finish chances after they’ve been deliberately built up—or the new countering style. He can poach mistakes and score, he can get to the end of crosses and long balls, and he can work his way off the ball into the right spaces, provided that he has license to do so.

Ignoring the way that he’s played, how drastic of a shift it was, how it was symptomatic of broader issues with the Loons offense, and combining that view into an assumption that his lower amount of results was related to quality provides more reason to choke than rhetoric. There’s plenty of room for Christian Ramirez to improve, but last night was a sign that he’s on the right path. After all, he’s a Loon, not a duck.