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Is Jeff Larentowicz a better fit than Eric Remedi in Atlanta United’s midfield?

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Ball don’t lie

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

As a central midfielder in Atlanta United’s now settled upon 3-5-2, Eric Remedi is tasked with shielding the vulnerable three-man back line as the team’s wing-backs — the attack-minded Julian Gressel and Justin Meram — often venture forward to combine and provide service in attack. Remedi must stop opposition counter attacks in their early to middle stages before the panicky final moments when an opponent is striding with the ball directly towards the center backs, but also when he’s defending a more patient attack, he must track runners that dart in and around the box and the area directly outside the box (many call this zone 14).

Lately, Atlanta United have been employing an aggressive high-pressing scheme, especially in the brief moments immediately after turning the ball over (hopefully in the attacking third). While the forward players bother the opposition enough to force the ball to be booted somewhat haphazardly for safety’s sake, Remedi is tasked with winning the ball in the middle third of the pitch to restart possession for his team.

In buildup, it is common for Remedi to drop deep, show for the ball, and to be the first progression from the center backs. From here he might look to play a diagonal ball to a wingback, connect vertically with Pity Martinez or Ezequiel Barco (or more modestly to Darlington Nagbe) or if the space is there, he might progress the ball forward on the dribble. Against a team that is actively sitting back in compact lines hoping to counter, Remedi finds himself often on the ball, moving play from sideline to sideline. Depending on the phase of play, each of these actions carries with it the risk of a turnover, followed by the opponent countering with speed at an unorganized, forward-stationed, and still-transitioning Atlanta United unit.

Soccer is hard, and finding the right balance between defense and attack is hard too. 2019 has been a roller coaster in this regard, and the changing availability of personnel has been a daunting challenge for all teams in MLS. In the end though, soccer is about creating shots inside your opponent’s penalty area (or shots that are otherwise 1v1 against your opponent’s keeper), and preventing your opponents from doing the same to you.

A central defensive midfielder’s place in this overall ecosystem is nuanced. One is neither responsible for consistently supplying the critical final ball, nor for getting on the end of service in the box to create shots. At the same time, a central midfielder is on the ball a lot and so is not absolved of a responsibility to distribute well and to contribute to the buildup in attack. But perhaps most importantly, it is because the central midfielder is on the ball so much, that sloppy decision making can inadvertently create shots for one’s opponents. This effect can have a much more immediate and more significant impact on a team’s prospects than the more indirect effect of the central midfielder on his own team’s attacks.

It is an area of judgement, but for the way Atlanta United is set up to play — which often involves a wave of five attackers and Darlington Nagbe — Eric Remedi’s decisions on the ball in the middle third of the pitch carry with them a risk that damages the team’s prospects more than he is able to make up for with his other positive attributes, specifically when compared to the alternative in Jeff Larentowicz.

To start, I’m talking about this, and this, and this, and this, and this. And there are several others, but like, you get the point. These are all quick counters off of Eric Remedi turnovers.

Controlling the ball with one’s feet is hard, and so turnovers are a normal part of the game, even for defensive midfielders who need to keep it tidy. But Remedi’s turnovers are often bad ones. The average MLS midfielder (this designation excludes attacking mids) accidentally sparks an average of a 0.1 goals per 90 minutes for his opponents on possessions immediately following his turnover. Eric Remedi concedes a worse than average 0.14 goals per 90 this way, which looks even worse in comparison to his midfield peers of Darlington Nagbe (0.11), Emerson Hyndman (0.03), and importantly Jeff Larentowicz (0.06). Watching the clips above, you can see why this happens to Remedi at above average rates (or with above average consequences). He is very often vacating the shielding spot in front of his back line to dribble into multiple opposing players in the center of the pitch — opposing players, who can easily (upon winning the ball) look up and see the correct transition pass to make to hurt Atlanta the most.

I’m going to pause and just mention that I absolutely love this guy. He is the man. He has a boldness or optimism to the way he plays that is genuinely fun and exciting. But I must continue on this line of critique.

One might forgive Eric Remedi for the structural risk in transition if he compensated for this weakness in other material ways. If, for instance, there was a bit of magic in his buildup play, a certain crispness or speed to his passing, an immaculate first touch, or a vision of the field that over time manifested itself in the result of possession sequences in which he participated in being more successful than those in which he was not involved. If this were the case, over the course of (at time of writing) 28 games, we might see a modest excess of attacking output in Atlanta United buildup in possessions where Remedi is involved, compared to Atlanta United possessions in which Remedi is not involved.

But in truth, we can observe the opposite. As measured by the team’s average xG per possession (a metric that attempts to quantify the quality of attack based on event-specific information about shots taken), possessions involving Remedi generate roughly 15% less attacking output as those possessions that do not involve him. This places him in the bottom 17% of central midfielders in MLS by this metric. By comparison, Darlington Nagbe unsurprisingly boosts Atlanta’s attacking output by over 80% when he makes a touch on the ball in a possession chain compared to possessions without him. And to bring this back to Jeff Larentowicz, the MLS veteran does slightly better than breaking even. The team’s attacks are immaterially better when Jeff touches the ball, but nothing significant. The above data points are anchored in analysis performed by Cheuk Hei Ho of American Soccer Analysis. More on this analytical framework, which he dubs “With Or Without You (WOWY)”: here.

Quick water break.

There are some video clips above to refresh your memory if you don’t believe in soccer analytics, but if you lend any weight to them at all, they suggest that Remedi’s presence in attack is a detriment to the team’s chance creation, and the risk his involvement on the ball poses to Atlanta United in the form of opponents’ counter attacks is directly harmful, generating above average opponent opportunities relative to his peers.

With the evidence mounting against him in attack, perhaps the defensive phase favors the Argentine. If you believe Eric Remedi is the better defender when compared to Jeff Larentowicz, I may not be able to convince you. Defensive statistics are ripe for misuse in soccer — the most frequent sin being an over-reliance on counting defensive actions and claiming that more is always better, ignoring the fact that different teams face different volumes of opportunities to make defensive actions and different players’ roles demand different levels of engagements in things like tackling and intercepting, etc.

What I can tell you is that before I ever looked at a single statistic, Eric Remedi seemed like a defensive liability to me when I watch the games. To my eye, he is easily pulled out of position, is often found chasing shadows, quickly turned around by a skilled dribble or off-the-ball run, and stabs in recklessly to tackles, frequently missing them entirely. He covers a lot of ground and can be trusted to close distance better than Larentowicz, but it is by no means his strength. It’s also questionable as to whether the team is better or worse off the more he runs sideline to sideline versus staying home. There were a few bright spots in the 2018 playoffs when he man-marked dangerous creators — most notably NYCFC’s Maxi Moralez — out of the game.

Having said all that, let me just summarize some of the more straight-forward defensive metrics as they relate to Eric Remedi and Jeff Larentowicz. Do what you want with them:

  • Remedi’s tackle success rate is roughly half that of Larentowicz. He attempts slightly more tackles than Larentowicz per 90, but he is dribbled past without getting a foot on the ball on roughly 57% of his tackle attempts, compared to Larentowicz’ 32% such that Larentowicz completes significantly more tackles despite attempting fewer.
  • Larentowicz tallies roughly 50% more interceptions per 90 than Remedi.
  • Remedi is in the league’s bottom 16th percentile for midfielders in aerials attempted and won, while Larentowicz is a demi-god in the 93rd percentile of both.
  • Jeff Larentowicz blocks roughly six times as many shots as Eric Remedi.
  • To Remedi’s credit he grabs more loose ball recoveries.

When all else fails, there is Remedi’s flair on the ball. He attempts more dribbles than 80% of central midfielders in MLS - see video clips above. Unfortunately more than half of his MLS peers successfully complete their dribbles at a higher rate.

I honestly love this guy, and we won MLS Cup last year, so I’d be more than content to go down with him captaining the shimmy-ship. Who cares? We’re all going to die in the end.

Still, the case for Jeff Larentowicz displacing him in the first eleven is a strong one.