By Harrison Hamm (@harrisonhamm21)
Luis Gil’s first touch and the beauty of the best players
In the later stages of the midweek 2-2 draw between the Houston Dynamo and LAFC, as the Dynamo chased LA’s 2-0 lead, Luis Gil had a play that demonstrated the importance of the first touch, and how difficult it can be for even professional players to combine the mental foresight and technical ability required to make even simple passes.
It occurred as the Dynamo recycled a set piece, trying to probe their way into a good crossing position. Gil is the player at the top of the box who receives the short pass from Adam Lundqvist (see off to the right).
Gil did well to find that pocket of space — LA were crowding the box by that point, assuring that few passes entered that area. Houston had a number of players in the box as a result of the corner-kick they had just taken and recycled, so the immediate goal of Lundqvist’s pass into Gil was to create space to send a quality ball into Philippe Senderos and co.
As Lundqvist tapped it to Gil, the Swede made a run into the box off the back-shoulder of Joao Moutinho, who then turned to defend Gil, counting on someone else to pick up Lundqvist. A pretty simple give-and-go. Its purpose, though, was a bit more complex: it served to draw players away from Alejandro Fuenmayor (#2), who was standing open on the flank.
A ball from Gil to Lundqvist, fulfilling the give-and-go, would have been a pretty difficult one to execute, especially as Laurent Ciman drifted over. But it also could have given Lundqvist a chance to a square a high-percentage ball to the three players (Senderos, Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis, it appears) hanging at the back-post. High risk, high reward.
Gil originally appeared to be considering that option as Lundqvist’s pass made its way to him. He lifted his leg back in sort of a pump fake action, possibly to give himself the option of lofting a pass to Lundqvist or even ripping a shot-cross in the direction of the players at the back-post.
Ultimately, though, he was caught in two minds: he didn’t know if he wanted to hit a first-time ball or take a touch, likely with the goal of slipping a pass to Fuenmayor on the wing. The Venezuelan had a considerable amount of space to lump in a cross, so that would have been a good, reasonable option. Fuenmayor could have dribbled to the edge of the box to find a better angle, or even combined with Gil or Lundqvist.
Gil’s touch was a weak one, with the outside of his right foot. He controlled the ball well enough to keep possession, but it bounced loosely onto his left foot, which deflected the ball a bit farther away from him than he would have liked. Point is: he didn’t control it well enough to make a quick, productive move.
He was able to get his left foot back around the ball, but he seemed to panic just a bit as Mark-Anthony Kaye, who had approached Gil in an effort to shut off the pass wide to Fuenmayor, closed him down. Gil turned himself away from the goal to avoid the light pressure of Kaye, taking away his best options and forcing a lunging back-pass to Darwin Ceren.
None of this is to speak badly of Gil, who at least did well to maintain possession and has been fine in limited minutes this season.
But the ability to find the best possible play in a given situation separates the game’s highest quality players. Watching the best — in MLS, say, Miguel Almiron, in the world, Messi and Ronaldo — is made better when you consider what a lesser quality player would have done in a certain sequence or possession.
Given Gil’s predicament, Messi, for instance, might have slithered past Moutinho and dropped it off to Lundqvist, who then would have been in an amazing position to square a ball. Ronaldo might have taken a touch and slipped a pass to Memo Rodriguez, standing at the top of the box, and then made a run toward goal.
It’s unrealistic to expect Gil to be like Messi and Ronaldo — literally no one else in the history of the world has been. A league-average MLS player would probably have either done what Gil did (it wasn’t an easy situation!) or tapped it out to Fuenmayor.
It is fascinating to watch games in this way — considering each individual situation players are placed in and watching how they make something productive out of it. It adds a certain beauty to the game, seeing just how good professional players are. Just think what you, the average person, would have done in Gil’s situation. And then think what Messi would have done.
Khiry Shelton’s strengths and weaknesses
Khiry Shelton has been Sporting KC’s first choice striker for most of this season. He’s played 1,139 minutes, leading the line for arguably the Western Conference’s best team, but his lack of goal-scoring production has been well-documented — he has just two goals and two assists, and while he has 4.4 xG, indicating he’s underperformed, that’s still not a whole lot for a pure striker.
There are 47 players who are considered forwards by ASA’s database and have played at least 500 minutes this season. Only one (Marco Urena, 644 minutes, four assists, 4.3 xG) has not scored a single goal. There are 10 players who’ve scored two or less, a few of whom are not quite strikers, like Gerso Fernandes and Josue Colman. Shelton, of course, is one of those 10 players.
Extend the minutes stipulation to 1,000 and Shelton looks worse in pure goal-scoring terms. Of 25 forwards who qualify, only two have less than three goals: Shelton and CJ Sapong. (Jefferson Savarino would have made it three had he not scored midweek, although he’s a winger.)
Urena proved this year that forwards don’t necessarily need to score a ton of goals to be productive. He was one of LAFC’s most important players before going down injured. But he was on a team with elite attackers who scored themselves, and he’s become almost obsolete in recent weeks as Adama Diomande has taken Urena’s skillset and added finishing to it.
Shelton does not have Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi alongside, and he’s not quite Urena in defensive prowess, passing and influential movement. At some point he’s going to need to start putting the ball in the net.
There was one sequence (see above) in Sporting’s 4-2 loss at Real Salt Lake on Wednesday that encapsulated Shelton’s duel soccer personality. His hold-up play was initially on display in a long SKC build-up; he dropped deep, dribbled the ball into the middle of the field and made a good, simple pass that advanced possession. This is good!
Later, once SKC had gotten the ball into the final third, he did this:
Composure just wasn’t there. For strikers who struggle in the final third, it’s often the ability to get off a good shot that’s the problem, not the actual shot. This is a good example.
Laurent Ciman’s fizzing set pieces
Going back to that LAFC-Houston game, this set piece taken by Laurent Ciman was innocuous, but I liked the thought behind it:
Ciman takes LAFC’s free-kicks outside the box, knuckling or otherwise striking the ball with various parts of his right foot. That late winner against the Sounders, a knuckleball that forced an error out of Stefan Frei, is the most notable example.
The above free-kick did not produce much, but if they can get runners in the right spots, these bullets could be pretty effective.