Remember when we had sports?
It seems like ages ago that Minnesota United played its first two games of the 2020 MLS season, back before the COVID-19 pandemic suspended the season. Now, we’re facing (at least) a month and a half before the league’s targeted return date in mid-May.
With the extra time that we won’t be spending watching live sports, we can revisit those first two games to learn more about the fourth iteration of Minnesota in MLS play.
You can find deep dives into film and individual player performances from the wins over the Portland Timbers and San Jose Earthquakes at those links, but we’re going to focus more on the raw numbers behind the victories.
While soccer isn’t as stat-heavy as other sports, there are plenty of quantifiable bits of information to kick around. Not all of them matter, though, and it’s still easy to get lost in data land.
Now, we’ve only seen two games from Minnesota United so far this season, so an important note: that’s a terribly small sample size. In a 34-game season (or whatever length MLS ends up with this year), two games – both on the road against inferior competition – aren’t an indicator of how the whole campaign will go... especially when resuming after a delay like this one.
Key Number: 1
This isn’t a nuanced statistic at all. It’s the number of starting lineups manager Adrian Heath used in the first two games.
That’s ideal, especially considering both games were fairly resounding wins. Starting lineups will inevitably vary over the course of any season, but consistency is always good.
Aside from the exclusion of Thomás Chacón from both matchday squads, there were no surprises in the XI that manager Adrian Heath drew from. He continued with his usual 4-2-3-1 set-up, using Ethan Finlay on the right wing, Robin Lod on the left and Kevin Molino centrally.
Something quite evident from these first two games, though, was that 4-2-3-1 is a bit of a misnomer for United’s formation.
This is what a very rigid 4-2-3-1 would look like. It’s clearly blocked off by role, and spacing is clean and even. Of course, no team looks like this in a game situation.
Average positioning data, collected by WhoScored, shows us what the Loons look like over the course of 90 minutes. There isn’t aggregate data for both games, but take a peek at a rough combination of average positioning for the starters from the first two matches:
A few takeaways:
- The defense looks pretty similar to a basic 4-2-3-1. Centerbacks Ike Opara (No. 3) and Michael Boxall (No. 15) are in their expected positions, though Opara tended to get up the field a bit more than Boxall did. The fullbacks also pushed up the field, as they often do. Right back Romain Metanire (No. 19), actually had an average position just a few yards off of Finlay in the win against the Earthquakes.
- As is common with a two-player central midfield system, Ozzie Alonso (No. 6) and Jan Gregus (No. 8) played very different roles. Alonso sat back quite defensively, while Gregus was far more of an attacker. More on how this affects the formation shortly.
- There’s less definition in the shape of the attack. Molino (No. 7) occasionally drifted ahead of striker Luis Amarilla (No. 9), and the spacing isn’t quite as clean as on the other half of the pitch. This is good. If United’s (or any team’s) attack looked as straightforward as a 4-2-3-1 suggests, it would be a very dull attack. Opportunities come from players making out-of-position runs to change matchups, pull defenders and create space. Amarilla tracking back shows that he’s involving himself in play and not relying on support from his attacking midfielders.
- The shape could, over time, end up acting as more of a 2-3-3-2 – one of the W-M formations from soccer’s earliest tactical days. I’ll leave you with this look at how Minnesota could organize itself with those levels:
Key Number: 5
We’re beginning to get a little bit deeper here. Five is the difference between Minnesota’s number of goals scored (eight) and expected goals (three). That means, according to American Soccer Analysis’ model, the Loons have scored five more goals than they “should have.”
Expected goals, or xG, isn’t a perfect measure of performance in small samples, but it’s fantastic in the long-run. It’s a lot easier for a team to be lucky/unlucky in one game versus a whole season.
Does this mean United was lucky in those first two games? Essentially, yes. The ASA model actually gives Minnesota an expected goal differential of -0.2, meaning the Loons were outperformed in the xG department.
Of course, it’s real goals that count in matches, not expected ones, so United’s sitting quite comfortably on a two-win start to the campaign with a positive goal differential. But those two victories weren’t quite as resounding as we might have thought...
Key Number: 21.4%
If you watched Minnesota’s first two games, you probably noticed that central midfielder Jan Gregus has a big role in the Loons’ system. You’re right.
Gregus successfully passes or dribbles the ball in 21.4% of United’s possessions so far. That’s far-and-away the largest stake of any Minnesota player starter.
Large as it may be in the context of United, Gregus’ number looks smaller, however, in the context of the league. He’s 32nd in MLS for that particular metric. No player in the league has more than 29.8%, but his league-wide status shows that it’s not like the Loons are simply looking to Gregus when in possession.
While we’re looking at this statistic, a couple fun points: right winger Ethan Finlay (9.9%) has the second lowest level of involvement of any field player, but the team earns a shot on 26.7% of the possessions he participates in. Oh, and when striker Luis Amarilla participates, United gets a shot 33.3% of the time.
Key Number: 13
Does it ever seem like crossing is a fruitless strategy for Minnesota? That was often the case in previous seasons, but the Loons have turned things around through two games in 2020, completing 13 crosses.
That’s the second most in the league – three teams have 14, two have 13. But among that top five, United has the second-best accuracy, needing 40 attempts.
That looks pretty good contextually. And if you’re into rivalries... Sporting Kansas City is 3 for 31 and Atlanta United is 1 for 26.
Key Number: 3.18
This statistic might be the best at reflecting the way Minnesota’s first two games went. It also requires some explaining.
This is vertical passing distance differential. There are a few components: First, every pass has two distances measured by ASA, the distance the ball travels and the distance it actually goes up the field. A diagonal ball might travel 20 yards but end up only 12 yards farther up the field. Twelve yards is its vertical distance. (Sorry to bring you back to the days of the Pythagorean Theorem.)
A team’s average vertical passing distance can then be calculated, as well as that of their opponents. The statistic we’re looking at is the differential between the Loons’ value and their opponents. That’s 3.18 vertical yards per pass more than the other teams, the highest value in the league.
This means United is passing the ball straight up the field more than it’s passing horizontally or backwards, and certainly doing so more than the Timbers and Earthquakes did.
Understand that vertical passing isn’t necessarily good passing – booting the ball 30 yards straight forward at every opportunity isn’t a viable strategy, just as only passing the ball sideways isn’t either. But a higher average vertical pass distance signifies a direct style of play, or potentially even a decisive one.
That’s the word that pops into my mind when I look back at these two games. Minnesota had a strategy (counter, and do it in a straightforward fashion), stuck to it, and got two decisive results.
We’ll see if that continues when the season picks back up.
Stay home, stay safe and stay positive.