Kaka, Higuain, and the Effect of the Aging Playmaker / by Kevin Minkus

By Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus)

Yesterday, Kaka announced he would not be returning to Orlando City in 2018. Though unfortunate, the move makes perfect sense. Kaka will be 36 for most of next season, and he’ll end 2017 having played the fewest minutes in his MLS career. His production is down markedly on a per-90 basis:

YearMinutesxG per 90Shots per 90xA per 90Key passes per 90
2017 1474 0.24 1.7 0.17 1.9
2016 1955 0.44 2.9 0.29 2.2
2015 2439 0.32 2.1 0.2 2

Kaka put in a great run in MLS, and his service to Orlando, an expansion team that needed a star, has been fantastic. But, as with most stars who come to the league on the wrong side of 30, eventually his age caught up to him.

A good chunk of Orlando’s struggles this season can be pinned down to Kaka not really being Kaka. Jason Kreis is on the way to fixing the team’s defense. Their 2016 side surrendered 60 expected goals, and 60 actual goals, while this year they currently sit at 44 xGA and a maybe unlucky 51 actual GA. But their offense, which was at times incredibly dynamic in 2016, has struggled. They’re fourth-worst in the league in expected goals. Much of this comes from not having a player who can create chances.

The Lions are the only team in the league without a player with more than 35 key passes, and they have the largest proportion of unassisted shots in the league at 12.6%, three percentage points higher than the next highest team. So they’re not creating shots via assists. As assisted shots are about 7% higher quality than unassisted ones on average, this means they’re hurting their overall shot quality. Further, the shots they are creating from assists are already of poorer quality - Orlando’s assisted shots are about 12% worse than the league average assisted shot. These are pretty gaping deficiencies, they amount to a sputtering offense, and they’re a direct consequence of betting on Kaka and coming up short.

(All that said, I think Yotun is the answer, or at least a big part of it. He’s currently averaging 3.5 key passes per game.)

This speaks to an issue that virtually all MLS clubs are susceptible to:
It's incredibly hard to deal with a down year (or an injury, or international duty, or a swing and a miss in the transfer market) at a position as important as the number 10. Teams don't have the depth of resources to have a starter-caliber, or even just a spot starter-caliber, number 10 elsewhere on the team to slot in when their all-star goes down.

Typically this means teams play a different system when faced with this problem. FC Dallas nabbed Javier Morales in the offseason to fill in for the injured Mauro Diaz, and they still spent most of the first two months in a deep 4-4-2, looking to hit teams on the counter, without any one main chance creator.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Clubs need to be flexible tactically. But they probably play worse when it's forced upon them. Kreis, a man committed to the diamond, and hamstrung by poor spending from the previous administration, didn’t have the ability to be flexible when Kaka fell off, and he suffered for it.

With that in mind:
A week ago, on the other side of the conference in Columbus, another aging Designated Player  was making an announcement. Federico Higuain announced he’d re-upped his contract for one more season. Columbus supporters were mostly pretty happy with the news, but others around the league were a bit more surprised. I certainly was. Higuain will be 33 next season, and has missed time for injuries each of the last two years. He’s outperforming his xG and xA by about five total goals.

If Kaka’s fall was off a steep cliff, Higuain’s is a bit more gradually sloping. His per-90 numbers are down from his 2013 peak, when he was robbed of making the Best XI, but they’re still okay:

YearMinutesxG per 90Shots per 90xA per 90KP per 90
2017 2059 0.25 2 0.23 2.4
2016 1607 0.25 2.5 0.31 2.8
2015 2724 0.24 2.4 0.22 2.5
2014 2488 0.39 2.6 0.25 3.2
2013 2592 0.4 3 0.35 4.1

As Ben Baer points out, though, Columbus’s current eight-game undefeated streak has been in a lot of ways fueled by Pipa. He has six assists in that stretch, and he, and Columbus, are playing their best soccer of the season. This recent performance certainly factored into the Crew’s decision. He’s also a club legend at this point, and pretty universally beloved.

But there’s also a side to the decision that I think addresses the pit Orlando City fell into with Kaka.

Given his gradual aging curve, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect Higuain to perform in 2018 at a level similar to where he is currently, especially given his lack of defensive responsibility in Gregg Berhalter’s system. But, even if he isn’t totally healthy, or the age curve hits him like it did Kaka, Columbus already has an excellent fill-in in Justin Meram.

Meram has spent about 550 minutes playing in the middle of the park in Higuain’s absence this season. He’s not as good at it as Higuain, but he does the job in a pinch:

PlayerMinutesxG per 90Shots per 90xA per 90Kp per 90
Meram 554 0.13 1.1 0.15 2
Higuain 2059 0.25 2 0.24 2.4

The Crew can minimize their risk in bringing back Higuain, and thus avoid the problem Orlando City’s Kaka problem, because, in Meram, Columbus has a player that if needed slots well into that central role without having to run a vastly different system. Sure, Meram's true position is as a narrow winger rather than a center-mid creator, but the team has the ability to play functionally about the same whether it’s him pulling the strings or Higuain. For Berhalter, one of the league’s more dogmatic coaches, this is important. Berhalter actually surprised me this year with his tactical range, but his basic tenets are functionally and philosophically the same regardless of who’s on the field. It’s true that they look a little different whether it’s Meram paired with Manneh in a narrow 3-4-2-1 or Higuain in the middle of a 4-2-3-1, but he doesn’t totally eschew his preferred style of play in the way Oscar Pareja did early this year.

So having Meram as insurance caps the cost to re-signing an aging Pipa. The benefit from doing so is that it allows Columbus to maintain a lot of stability in the attack, during an offseason where there may be a decent amount of defensive turnover. At this point, the front four should be fixed at Meram - Higuain - Pedro Santos and Ola Kamara. In a league as unpredictable as MLS, this stability can go a long way. While that group has been only above average offensively this year, trading some room on the ceiling in exchange for a higher floor probably makes sense, especially when missing your number 10 can cost you a whole season.

Columbus is incredibly lucky to have Meram, a guy that can more than adequately play the number 10 for Higuain. I think there are two more systematic approaches though, to solving the problem of one of your key players getting injured or leaving or having a bad year.

The first is to do it with youth. In the best case scenario, a team would have a young player waiting in the wings, who can get minutes and develop when the starter is out, and the team can mostly continue to play within their system. If the prospect isn't going to pan out, the team can see that before they start making long-term roster decisions around him, and instead adequately plan to bring in a replacement for their current star down the road. Solving the problem with youth also seems to solve some of the issues teams might have with giving the keys to the offense to a domestic prospect, for example, as that prospect instead gets the opportunity to ease into it.

The second solution is to play a system that relies on as few singular linchpins as possible. Obviously a team is always going to depend on its stars, but if you can depend on them less relative to other teams, you have an advantage in resilience. This year’s Toronto FC is a great example. Yes, they are probably the deepest MLS team ever, but the way they play their 3-5-2 minimizes their reliance on any one player. So when Jozy Altidore or Giovinco are out, they might play a little bit differently, but not everything changes to accommodate those absences.

In lieu of either of these solutions, which take time and money and know-how to implement, being blessed with a backup 10 like Meram works perfectly fine. And, while I was initially skeptical, I think under this lens Columbus’s move to bring back Higuain for one more year is a smart one. If he doesn’t work out in 2018, the Crew can fairly easily drop Meram into his place, and be fine for it. It’s not as flashy as signing a new DP #10, but it’s also not as risky. It’s won’t vault them into MLS Cup contention, but it also ensures they don’t fall too far back from the pack, either.