Editor’s Note: TiotalFootball did not follow the clearly-communicated template for the Final Exams series, but what he wrote instead was too good to change.
Julian Gressel proved me wrong in 2018, and it’s not even worth dwelling on that. He was incredible.
Gressel did many amazing things in 2018, but the mainstream headline should probably be that he registered 11 open play assists (real assists, not MLS assists). Eleven open play assists in a single season lands him tied for 5th in MLS since 2011 (the earliest year for which I have these numbers). That he also registered 4 meaningful goals (only his last against the Revs in October occurred when Atlanta were already leading, up 1-0 in the first half) should not go unnoticed, nor should the fact that he rocked the woodwork another 4 times. This midfielder can shoot or create shots for others with equal confidence.
In the Eastern Conference finals, Julian Gressel made a gut busting overlap run in transition to draw defenders away from Miguel Almiron, and was rewarded by being played in on goal 1v1 with the keeper. Recognizing the angle wasn’t perfect, Gressel (with his weak foot!) softly laid the ball off into a dangerous area (basically put it right on the penalty spot) for Josef Martinez. When Josef let the ball roll to a late arriving Escobar and the Argentine fired home, Julian Gressel had registered perhaps his most important assist of the year... in a year of some important assists, like this one.
If you are part of a footballing recruitment team looking for a versatile midfielder who contributed in attack, and you are scouting Julian Gressel and wondering if 2018 was just a blip, you might compare his 15 open play goals and assists to his 12+ open play expected goals and assists and feel confident that this was not just a flash in the pan, that there is an observable predictive anchor for Gressel’s continued offensive output, and that he knows how to consistently find shots for himself and others. While it’s unclear how high his ceiling is, he clearly improved from 2017 to 2018, and so he might have some ways to go. One area he could improve upon (and he did improve here in 2018) appears to be in his passing accuracy. While his trajectory is solid, growing from 2017’s 69% pass completion rate to 73% in 2018, analytics-based passing models still suggest for the types of passes he attempts, an average player would complete around 75% of them. This slight under-performance appears to be mostly located in the first two thirds of the pitch. In the final third this year, his numbers were right on par with the models (completing around 67% of these more difficult attempts).
My favorite thing about Julian Gressel is that midway through the season, he was receiving plaudits for his delivery from wide areas, and he was being hailed as one of the best right wing backs in MLS on form, but when push came to shove, and when Tata Martino had every Atlanta United player available for selection (and every conceivable formation to play with) for the playoffs and the MLS Cup Final, he looked out at the squad on a chilly morning in Marietta and plugged Julian Gressel into that starting central midfield role — the Stevie Gerrard box-to-box No. 8 role. Tito Villalba, one of the most talented and explosive players in the league, was left on the bench. Ezequiel Barco, with perhaps the best first touch in MLS, with his crisp passing and swagger on the ball, was also left on the bench. And it wasn’t even that Tata valued Gressel’s pin-point crosses from the wide rank so much that these dynamic wide players just had to make way. No, he just thought that Gressel was gonna shine.
Martino could have started Villalba alongside Martinez up top with Almiron and Nagbe in front of Remedi. That would have been your classic “destroyer-passer-playmaker” triangle with two deadly forwards. That would have made sense to a lot of people, and it would have made me salivate. Instead, Tata determined that in the most important area of the pitch for the most important games, he wanted Julian Gressel. He wanted him both as a ball winner and as an attacking fulcrum, as a clear head in a high traffic area, and as a leader of the high press. If it seems like I’m rambling here, it is because I’m trying not to scream. This is a big damn deal.
Every single time the lineup came out in the playoffs, I kept thinking “Villalba has to be the choice here, right?” Nope. Throughout Gressel’s two year career, he has always been the backup option in midfield. When Nagbe went down this year, Gressel got some time in the middle. When Almiron went down in 2017, Gressel spelled him for a few games. And of course, the first ever Atlanta United game featured Gressel in the center of midfield alongside Miguel Almiron. But it has never felt like it was his position. It just felt like he was the most versatile squad player and could be plugged into these sorts of spots at short notice.
In preseason, I thought he looked rustier than the others. As the season began, he really seemed like a squad rotation player to me. He proved me wrong by starting basically every game. His increase in fitness from 2017 to 2018 — whatever he did in the offseason — needs to be the focus of some content by people with more credibility than me. It was noticeably better this year. Still, when he began to open eyes on the right wing, it felt like “OK, he has found his niche. If he’s going to play crosses like that, then perhaps Tata won’t be able to afford to leave him out of the team and will have to reshuffle things.” But ultimately, that’s not what happened.
The manager played him in the central midfield during the entire playoffs (the kid only plays 90 minutes, nothing less). The team was dominant and won MLS Cup. This was such a middle finger to my perception of Julian Gressel at the beginning of the year. It was an announcement that this player can play the hardest position on the field, that he has the physical, technical, and mental tools to succeed where so few players can hang, that the game is not too fast for him. That he is ready.
Overall Player Grade: A (for “assist”)