What is going on with Darlington Nagbe? / by Harrison Crow

by Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

I'm not the first person to bring this up, and I'm sure I won't be the last. The year that has followed Darlington Nagbe's 2013 break-out year has been a convoluted mixed bag of results. It's not as if there hasn't been success. I am probably one of the few that believes there has been success. Unfortunately, many will point out his lack of productivity in terms of goals and assists.

Looking upon the surface, it's an oddity that a guy who was a double digit goal scorer the year previous is still awaiting his first goal of the season after his team has completed 32 of 34 games. Will Parchman developed a theory at the end of August on what was/has been happening to Nagbe.

“Nagbe is moving less. That’s the crux of the issue. The reason his dip in form is so puzzling on its face is that Nagbe is largely doing the same thing he’s always done on the left – he pinches in, makes his home in that left-leaning central channel and attempts to play quick exchanges with his central midfielders and strikers.

The problem is that Nagbe isn’t doing this anywhere else right now. He isn’t dragging defenders on top of one another by pulling across the line to his right. His one-on-one moves aren’t biting as much as they were last year. And he’s largely become predictable due in no small part to his general lack of motor.”  (Will Parchman)

This is all very interesting and probably very apt observance from a tactical perspective. I think however that may be over complicating the matter. As pointed out by Shay Awosiyan back in July, the issue may be a bit of an easier solve.

“His problem this season is his unwillingness to have a crack at goal. He has less shot attempts than games played. He has only fired 18 shots and only eight have been on target. Last season he started every league game and attempted to score 62 times. Because of his ambitious approach, he found the back of the net nine times and helped create four goals.” (Shay Awosiyan)

Obviously these are two very different points of view. And while I think Will Parchman is a very smart analyst, I tend think the simplistic answer rather than the tactically inclined one is more likely. It’s not to say that Nagbe is not roaming and/or dragging defenders around less. He probably isn't and really it could explain why he is gun shy. But an important take away is that there haven’t been any real changes in the quality of the team attack of the Timbers. In fact you could make the assertion that it's improved. As by goals scored they've already passed their mark set last year, and right now it’s the third highest tally in Major League Soccer.

If the Timbers attack as a whole was struggling that may play to the idea that there is something tactically amiss with Nagbe, and that would play into faults with the attack as a whole. But that hasn’t been the case. Likewise, just chalking it up to being gun shy is also something that I'm not sure is valid. Looking at the numbers we can see that while his shot attempts are down but his shot leverage has remained the same (0.073 to 0.078) between the two years. That’s to say that he’s taking shots on average from similar placement, beyond the 18 yard box.

That could very well mean his lack of goals scored is to be attributed to lesser attempts and the absences of luck. The more shots that he takes the more likely it is that a shot finds the back of the net. With his shots being down (28 touches per shot to now 38 touches per shot) it’s minimized the opportunities and compressed the chance for luck to influence the play and explains why the ball just hasn’t found its way past the keeper.

Nagbe’s shots created per 90 minutes are relatively similar scaling only slight down from 3.5 to 3. The real key difference in the ratio being that of key passes to shots, which was at 0.7 and this season has changed to 1.3. The idea is that he’s made a change in play style becoming more of a facilitator and creator than a finisher or goal scorer. He does special things and is one of those players that has game changing talents.

I would worry less about his goals scored and more the ones he creates. It’s clear to me that his lack of goals is about luck and a change in how he influences the Timber attack than a real stumble in ability. The only concern should be that he continues to creating shots, regardless of how he goes about doing it.

Nagbe’s role with Caleb Porter's squad has been altered in some way and the only things that I am genuinely interested in knowing is whether or not that’s been done on purpose through some inherent scheme that’s changed his shot-taking responsibility, or if it’s just a byproduct of how this season has flowed and a result of early struggles that have left Nagbe less confident. Perhaps the truth is buried somewhere between these two thoughts.