As things started to fall into place early for Romain Métanire, the hope that Francisco Calvo would fall into the same vein of form was a reasonable one – athletic, aggressive, best suited wide, he had the potential to be a difference maker on the flank. Once the former captain was moved along to Chicago, however, it set up the easiest wish for Loons fans in the summer transfer window: find Métanire, but, you know, on the other side. So when reports suggested that, yes, Minnesota’s shopping list would be headlined by help at left back, it made plenty of sense. Equally logical: that the team would subsequently bring in a player whose form in France’s second division showed promise that could translate to the United States.
Such is the track record of 30 year old left back Wilfried Moimbé, the free agent whose agreement with Minnesota United was announced Tuesday. Moimbé has been a journeyman during his career, with stops at eight different clubs in a career dating back to his 2007 cup of coffee as an academy player for Bordeaux. When in the lower leagues, he’s been part of stout defenses and has provided sparks to the attack on the left hand side; however, the skepticism has come when he’s tried his mettle elsewhere.
Moimbé’s work as a left back for Ligue 2 side AS Nancy last season might not have been revelatory – the team finished 14th in a season blemished by losing and failing to score in seven straight games to start the year, a stretch ended shortly after his signing was announced. But it was solid to say the least: Nancy allowed 31 goals in the 24 games where he appeared in the starting lineup, four of which came after he left a shellacking by Lorient injured in the 16th minute. His team went from being bottom of the league as late as mid-February to playing the latter 31 games on a pace to finish in the top ten, and he even scored once – warning: I would make sure you’re sitting down before seeing this one.
Wilfried Moimbe for Nancy v Red Star pic.twitter.com/G8DH1RxnvP— James Dart (@James_Dart) November 24, 2018
2018 was a return to success in Ligue 2 for Moimbé. After loans to Reims and Ajaccio while under contract at Bordeaux, he took a consistent starting spot with Tours between 2010 and 2013, marked two assists as his eighth-ranked team scored the second most goals in the league in his final season. That form took him to Brest, where his goal and four assists over two seasons helped his club to a pair of top seven finishes – both times on defenses whose goals allowed totals trailed only the league winners. His success there took him to the top league in the summer of 2015, signing with Ligue 1 side Nantes as a rotational left back and midfielder.
That season and a handful of appearances the following year unfortunately is about all that we have for a solid statistical picture. With the caveat of a relatively old sample of just under 1500 minutes, Moimbé stood his ground against the big boys. His tackle numbers charted favorably (2.0 completed per 90 to 0.7 dribbled past), he suffered a fair amount of fouls to his number committed (1.8 to 1.3), and he was good for 2.0 clearances and 1.2 blocks per 90. He wasn’t a high usage passer, only marking 31.5 per 90 minutes, and had average to poor accuracy numbers, completing 70.6% of his passes with only 40% of his long balls and 22% of his crosses finding their targets, but did chip in ten key passes, good for 0.64 per game and one total assist.
That stretch unfortunately is also where things turned sideways. After indifferent performances in Nantes’s poor close to the 2015-16 season and coaching upheaval, the summer 2016 signing of Lucas Lima in his spot meant Moimbé found playing time at Nantes all but non-existent for a year and a half, leading him to take a free transfer to English third-division side Oldham. The reports from his time there were none too kind: while Oldham kept a 4-2-5 record in his 11 starts to avoid relegation, he saw red twice, earning one by attempting to punch Gillingham’s Tom Eaves (settling for a heavy hair pull) off the ball and conceding a game-tying penalty.
However, his time at Nancy showed off the skills he can bring to the table. Moimbé is relentlessly quick to the ball in attack and defense, showing elite closing speed to make up for attacking eagerness with last-gasp tackles and clearances. His killer balls and crosses land on postage stamps for his attackers, though he’s more adept at finding targets than leading runners to find the ball in space. His work with Nancy should have yielded better assist tallies with a group of more clinical finishers, as a number of key passes went straight from the shooter’s foot to the goalkeeper. I have some concerns about his positioning; he causes a lot of recoveries from being overly aggressive getting forward, but is fast to get back to the ball.
From a talent perspective, there’s one big question: is Moimbé the equivalent of the so-called AAAA baseball player, the guy who can be a lock-down defender in a lower league but who also fails to adjust to those marks at the next level? If so, that would place him in the same category as his countryman Métanire: able to impress at mid- to upper-tier clubs in Ligue 2, but limited in his chances to break through against tougher competition. When you consider the skills that have impressed in his game tape, the comparison is a lot more apt.
If he is in fact the left-sided Métanire, signing him to a half-year contract with an option for 2020 (as reported by The Athletic’s Jeff Rueter) could be a steal for the Loons. Chase Gasper has been solid at left back over the last month, leading the match in tackles in his last two starts against RSL and Dallas, but his green points have been evident at times. The penalty that Vito Mannone conceded against Dallas came when Gasper failed to yield on a deep run, forcing Mannone to slide out of his lane and into the attacker’s path; additionally, he’s shown the late-game exhaustion typical of rookies adjusting MLS’s pace, a problem exacerbated by fitness concerns that kept him out of the early part of the season.
What Moimbé can offer is the ability to attack from more than the right flank. Minnesota ranks dead last in Major League Soccer in its proportion of attacks coming from the left, and is the only team with a double-digit difference between its higher and lower use-rate flanks. That sort of imbalance makes guarding against the Loons more predictable, which helps explain why opponents shoot from their right flank against Minnesota more than anyone else in the league. A dynamic attacking force can keep teams honest, especially if that attacker can then find his way back to snuff out shots.
The pause I have about bringing in Moimbé, though, is what would happen if we get the model that failed to mesh in with Oldham. His skill set plays well with how Adrian Heath wants to use full backs, but if the problem was adapting to surroundings in a different country he’ll be doing so with another recent misfit in Robin Lod. Their playing style could work together in attack—namely, Moimbé can overlap into the corner areas that Lod won’t trod on—but defensively I fear that Lod’s low work rate would make Moimbé run full-field wind sprints for ninety minutes a match. Moreover, Lod’s issues at Gijon were explained away as a failure to adapt to the Spanish style of play; putting two players on the left flank with adaptation issues and telling them to manage unfamiliar attackers could spell disaster.
Make no mistake: Minnesota’s hope in signing Wilfried Moimbé is to find the left-sided Romain Métanire. Moimbé’s track record—where he played, how he succeeded, and how he fell short—is all but identical to his teammate en droit. But instead of the risk coming from gauging Ligue 2’s quality compared to MLS, Moimbé’s question mark is whether he can adapt right away with a teammate en gauche set to struggle for the same reasons. For a team needing upgrades on the path to a playoff run, Minnesota must hope that Moimbé’s English misadventures were a learning experience rather than a rule of thumb.