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The case for inverting Tito Villalba

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In the famous words of Beyoncé: To the left, to the left.

ATLANTA UNITED

This is going to sound like a huge lie, but as soon as Tito Villalba collected the ball in space late in the match at Orlando City my heart filled with optimism, hoping he would let loose a right-footed rocket. That’s exactly what he did and you know the ending to that little story. After the delirium of the amazing game-winning goal had settled, a sense of “I told you so” replaced that optimism.

Tito’s skill set is very interesting for a winger. As a player who plays predominantly on the right side and prefers his right foot, he cuts inside an extraordinary amount. In fact, in 20 matches this season, he’s attempted just 17 total crosses, less than one per match. An even more amazing stat, he’s only successfully completed two of those 17. For reference, Tyrone Mears and Anton Walkes have combined for 49 attempted crosses this season. It’s clear to see that Atlanta United rely on their fullbacks to do the majority of their crossing into the box.

This trend was noticeable through the eye test, but the statistics really spotlight just how little Tito is used as a traditional right winger. Over the last several months, I’ve bugged any and everyone who would listen in our secret Dirty South Soccer conference room about playing Tito on the left wing.

For the newer fans of the sport, a winger who plays on the opposite side from his dominant foot (right-footed player playing left wing) is called an inverted winger. Yamil Asad is a perfect example of this. He’s a right-footed player who has constantly been deployed on the left and is used most as a linking player instead of someone who constantly crosses in like a traditional winger.

This brings us back to the goal against Orlando. With Asad subbed, Tito switched to the left and the move won Atlanta United the match. He was able to cut in (as he most often does) but instead of being on his weaker foot, he was in a perfect spot to unleash a hellacious blast that rocketed into the top corner.

This isn’t the first time Tito playing on the left had resulted in magic. Earlier this season against New York City FC, he found himself over on the left in a similar spot. This time it was closer to goal. Asad plays him in and he’s able to cut onto his right foot and curl a perfect finish in for what would win Goal of the Week:

Tito is tied for the team lead in goals, while Asad leads in assists. Whatever they’re doing seems to be working, however, we haven’t seen Tata switch wings very often. When things aren’t going well and the attack is stagnated, managers often like to swap their wingers. Pulling from strictly my memory bank, I can remember very few times during play where Tata has tried this tactic.

With Villalba’s proclivity for cutting inside and shooting, playing him on the left more instead of Asad, who is more apt to hold up play and pick out passes, would make a ton of sense.

We don’t have much of a sample size at all to judge how Asad would do with a swap. Perhaps he’s not comfortable on the right side of the field? We just don’t have the information that the coaching staff does to make these decisions. Let’s get that straight. I’m not pretending to know more than Tata Martino about his own team. This is simply pointing out that Tito Villalba’s skill set is a perfect mold to be played as an inverted winger.

Several times this season he’s gotten 1-on-1 chances with the goalkeeper on the right side of the field only to have a bad angle and pull a shot wide. I’m confident that if he had those same chances as an inverted winger, cutting inside, he’d have at least a few more goals to his name than he already does.

I’m not here begging for the lineup to be changed. But, it would be nice to see Tito get put in a position that suits his strengths. So, yes, I would really like to see him get more chances to play on the left and cut inside. No, he won’t score world-class strikes every game, but there’s a distinct possibility he could improve his chance conversions as an inverted winger.

tl;dr — Tito Villalba should play on the left more. Thanks for reading this nerdy and meaningless rant.