Peter Vermes' System and His Favorite Son / by Joseph Lowery

By Joseph Lowery (@joeincleats)

Peter Vermes has his Sporting Kansas City squad working together and playing a beautiful attacking style of soccer. Wanting to play a brand based on possessing the ball and working it creatively into the attacking third, Vermes has had to form a roster capable of carrying out his vision. Last season, with center backs Ike Opara, Matt Besler and CDM Ilie Sanchez, SKC was known for being defensively dominant. In 2017, they only allowed 0.79 goals per game and 0.93 expected goals per game. Both of those numbers were good for first place in all of Major League Soccer. This year, the defensive numbers have slipped slightly; while Kansas City is still in the top three in terms of goals against per game, their expected number has increased to 1.45. Those statistics illustrate the shift in Vermes’ system from a defensive focus to an offensive one. With the offseason additions of Felipe Gutierrez and Yohan Croizet in midfield and Johnny Russell at right wing, Kansas City now has the fire power to play the brand Vermes wants.

SKC is third in Major League Soccer with 579.8 passes per game. They are also top of the league in pass completion percentage (83.3%) and expected pass completion percentage (80.9%). Committed to and capable of keeping the ball, Kansas City has the highest possession percentage in the Western Conference and is second in the league overall with 58.7% possession. The shooting numbers are encouraging as well. KC is in the top five in terms of goals per game (2.00), expected goals per game (1.89), and goal difference per game (0.92). 

All of these statistics point to one thing: Sporting is executing their manager’s vision effectively and has become one of the most dominant offensive units in MLS. 

Now that we’ve looked at some team numbers, we can ask an interesting question. Is there a specific player leading this productive offensive group? Russell has been a revelation out wide and Gutierrez has been brilliant, when healthy. But is there one guy truly at the forefront of SKC’s system? A deeper look into some player specific stats gives us an interesting answer: love him or hate him, Graham Zusi is SKC’s most pivotal player, at least in terms of buildup.

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Many outside of Kansas City immediately dismiss Zusi as a productive MLS player because he wasn’t able to have much success at right back for the United States Men’s National Team. That biased argument is not particularly accurate; Zusi has been a well above average right back in the best back line in Major League Soccer since transitioning to defense. With that said, Zusi is not the most important player in this team because of his defense or his importance in the backline. In Vermes’ system, his players have the freedom to rotate in and out of space in different areas of the field. Out on the right side, Zusi, center mid Roger Espinoza, and Russell all have the freedom to rotate in their own vertical channels. If Russell is wide, the other two players take up space more centrally. If Zusi cuts in, Espinoza and Russell occupy more of the wide area.

It is all based on positional awareness and versatility. Who best embodies those two player traits? We’re back to Graham Zusi again. Because he has spent time at right wing, center mid, and now right back throughout his career, Zusi is the poster child for this type of system. 

Let’s look at some stats that illustrate Zusi’s importance to Sporting Kansas City’s high-powered squad.

Graham Zusi leads his team in Touch% (individual touches divided by SKC’s total touches) with 11.9%. That number puts him ahead of SKC midfielders Ilie Sanchez and Espinoza, as well as center backs Ike Opara and Besler. Looking across the league among all players with 500 plus minutes, Zusi’s Touch% is higher than Diego Valeri, Sacha Kljestan, Federico Higuain, Alexander Ring, and Darwin Quintero. Zusi’s number is also good for second out of all right backs in Major League Soccer with at least 500 minutes played, just barely behind Toronto FC’s Auro (12.3%). As mentioned above, Zusi has the freedom to drift inside and get more involved in the buildup, and this stat clearly shows it.

Total Passes, Score:
Again speaking to the volume of touches that Zusi gets, he sits second in total passes with 883, just behind Philadelphia Union metronome Haris Medunjanin, Yes, that’s right: a right back has played the second most passes in Major League Soccer.

Player Season Team Min Pos Passes PassPct xPassPct Score Per100 Distance Vertical Touch%
Matt Besler 2018 SKC 1,159 D 823 85.4% 80.2% 43.3 5.3 24.2 8.4 10.5%
Alejandro Bedoya 2018 PHI 1,045 M 677 90.7% 84.4% 42.4 6.3 18.0 3.4 10.6%
Alexander Callens 2018 NYC 1,136 D 850 85.9% 81.9% 34.0 4 20.0 4.5 11.1%
Jimmy Medranda 2018 SKC 782 B 617 89.1% 83.8% 32.8 5.3 19.7 -1.6 11.8%
Graham Zusi 2018 SKC 1,159 B 883 81.9% 78.2% 32.1 3.6 19.9 -.2 11.9%

 Zusi also sits fifth in all of MLS with a plus 32.1 Score (a stat that measures the number of passes over/under the expected number). Basically, he completed 32.1 more passes than the average passer would have expected – good for fifth most in the entire league.

To recap, Zusi is getting a plurality of his team’s touches, attempting the most passes, and he’s completing those passes at an incredible rate. But, even with Touch%, Total Passes, and Score we have only seen a portion of Graham Zusi’s true value to Sporting Kansas City.

Passes, Pct%, and xPct% in the attacking third:
Just about a third of the way through the Major League Soccer season, few players have been as involved in the attacking third as Zusi. He leads all defenders in passes in the attacking third with 301 (that number is a whopping 34% of his total passes). On his own team, the only other players even over 200 passes in the final third are Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell, both wide attackers whose position mandates that they spend more time higher up the field. Across the entire league, the only player above him in terms of passes in the attacking third is Atlanta United playmaker Miguel Almiron. If that doesn’t speak to Zusi’s value in Vermes’ system, I don’t know what does.

Digging deeper into final third numbers, we find even more telling stats. Of all right backs with 100 or more passes in the last third, Zusi sits sixth in terms of Pct% (pass completion percentage) with 75.1%. Of players with 200+ passes in the final third, Zusi is fifth with that 75.1% Pct% and sixth with a 70.8 expected pass completion percentage (xPct%). He also has the highest Score among the same set of players, with 13.0. Again, we see Zusi outperforming his peers.

Still, as great as these numbers are, effectiveness is not all about volume and completion percentages. In order to truly be a pivotal, efficient player in any system, you must put up more than just raw possession and passing numbers. Fortunately for Sporting Kansas City, Zusi is doing exactly that.

Graham Zusi is tied for eigth in the league in KeyP (key passes, meaning passes that lead directly to a shot) with 24. Every single player above him in this category, apart from teammate Ilie Sanchez and Whitecaps midfielder Felipe, performs a strictly attacking role for their team. Zusi’s 24 key passes is eight (eight!) more than the next defender on the list, right winger recently turned right back for Real Salt Lake, Brooks Lennon. To put it another way, Zusi has more key passes than 12 separate MLS backlines (L.A. Galaxy, Chicago, Montreal, San Jose, Seattle, Portland, Philadelphia, New York, New York City, Dallas, D.C., Colorado, and Atlanta). How’s that for production?

Although he is yet to register a direct assist (he has one secondary assist), Graham Zusi is tied for eighth (with Nacho Piatti) in Major League Soccer with 3.0 expected assists. This means that he is creating a very high number of chances that are simply not being finished. Yes, we are looking right at you and your -2.8 G-xG number, Khiry Shelton. Looking at the other names near the top of this metric, Zusi is again positionally out of place. The rest of the top 20 players in xA are all central midfielders, attacking midfielders, or forwards. You have to go all the way down to the 24th spot to find another defender (Chicago’s Brandon Vincent).

We have examined volume possession and passing metrics, effectiveness in the attacking third, key passes, and expected assists. All of these stats combine to illustrate Graham Zusi’s unique and valuable role in Peter Vermes’ Sporting Kansas City squad. Right now, SKC are playing some of the most enjoyable soccer in MLS and they looked poised to go far this season, especially if Zusi continues to perform at this elite level.