Little Things from Week 24: Lodeiro's control, Machado about creating space, and Villa's intelligence / by Harrison Hamm

By Harrison Hamm (@harrisonhamm21)

Nicolas Lodeiro doing Nicolas Lodeiro things

Nico Lodeiro is a Touch Percentage Superstar. His 14.4 percent leads MLS players with a significant sample size this season, and he was similarly among the league leaders in 2016 and 2017. Most of his competitors are deeper-lying midfielders who are more likely to get on the ball in safer positions, whereas Lodeiro’s touches are situated primarily in a more congested attacking third.

Lodeiro is everything for this Sounders team, the fulcrum through which they pass and create. As John Strong and Brian Dunseth relayed on the FS1 broadcast on Sunday, Garth Lagerwey and the higher-ups consider Seattle Lodeiro’s team. Only a player with the on-ball proficiency and volume of Lodeiro could deserve that lofty mantle.

Few players in MLS’ recent history have possessed Lodeiro’s willingness to control a game’s shape, and almost no one has been able to do so from the advanced positions that he has. The Uruguayan is everywhere, by design. He’s constantly moving and trying to make himself available for passes. That, his never-ending movement and incisive mobility, is what stood out in 2016 when he arrived midseason and dominated everyone.

Just follow Lodeiro in this clip:

He’s on his toes constantly, poking and prodding and dictating the Sounders’ possession. He’s so hard to mark because he drifts everywhere, and giving him any time on the ball at all could open you up to an incisive through-ball or in-swinging cross.

This style is unique among MLS number 10s. Miguel Almiron, for example, strays from his central position nearly as much as Lodeiro, but he’s much more direct on the ball. Mauro Diaz was selective in when and where he got touches. Lodeiro wants the ball constantly. He wants to shape the game.

Javier Morales, the leader for years of Jason Kreis’s Real Salt Lake teams, was a similar way. ASA’s touch percentage data only goes back to 2015, but Morales recorded the highest percentage of any player since, with 15.5 percent in 2015.

With Lodeiro rounding back into form, the Sounders have won five straight, including a messy home win over FC Dallas, who are still recovering from the sale of Diaz. (Pablo Aranguiz, who got 30 sub minutes for Dallas, looks like the real deal.) If Seattle are going to complete their annual second half climb back into the playoffs, it’s going to be through Lodeiro.

The art of creating space

Adolfo Machado, a center back who often moonlights unnecessarily as a right back, is not the most elegant of players. He could reasonably be described as clunky on the ball, and he usually doesn’t provide much in the way of incisive distribution.

He did, however, provide a nice bit of on-ball skill in the Dynamo’s U.S. Open Cup semifinal against LAFC last Wednesday:

The ability to create space for yourself is one of the skills that separates professional soccer players. Unless you have the ball in a calmer situation far away from the goal, in which case you’re tasked with creating space for your teammates, a more difficult task in some ways, you’re constantly facing immediate pressure. The above is a nice example of how to relieve that pressure.

David Villa, thinking the game

David Villa is smart. We’ve known this for a long time. His time in MLS has been defined by his intelligence arguably more than any of his numerous gifts, and as his athleticism slowly withers with time, that on-field intellect has grown more pronounced.

Villa returned from injury Sunday in Toronto, starting and scoring in NYCFC’s rocky 3-2 win. He was back to doing what he’s always done for the Light Blues. He made good runs, he held up play, he dropped deeper and acted as a creator, and he annoyed center backs with textbook back-shoulder movement.

His most impressive attribute, even beyond his innate sense of goalscoring, is shown when he faces up to goal in the attacking third. In this situation, with NYC throwing numbers forward, he connects what sometimes looks like a jumbled mess. He makes quick passes and senses runners, always thinking one step ahead of the defense.

This pass against Toronto is a great example:

It didn’t look like he originally even wanted the ball here. He appears to motion for Ronald Matarrita to pass backwards. But Matarrita lofts it to Villa, who was trailing the attack, and the Spaniard took one calm touch out of the air and slashed a half-volley pass into the box. It seemed as though he knew what he was going to do the second he saw the ball in the air. His first touch, taken in the direction of the box, indicated as much.

The pass was pinpoint. The degree of difficulty, though, wasn’t exuberantly high. The difficulty of this play comes from knowing exactly where to put the ball so that Maxi Moralez can receive the ball in the easiest possible position given the proximity of the defenders. Villa sees that any pass leading Moralez would be either cut out by Nick Hagglund or too difficult for Moralez to corral. He instead puts the pass just slightly behind Moralez, onto his stronger right foot, to allow Moralez to skillfully turn and hit a shot.

Passes like these are common occurrences with Villa. He combines high-volume goalscoring with creative distributing better than any MLS player:

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On a team without a true number 10 (NYC do it by committee and it works), Villa has to take some of the connecting and distributive duties, and he’s done it brilliantly. NYCFC get a lot scarier with him back.