Setting the Table Week 30: Higuain and Alessandrini / by Eric Walcott

By Eric Walcott (@ericwsoccer)

Welcome to Setting the Table. Each week we take some time to focus on the best chance creators in MLS from the last weekend. If you want to see the best chances that were wasted check out Lowered Expectations. Here we focus on chances that ended with the ball in the back of the net.

#5 Maxi Urruti to Santiago Mosquera, FC Dallas, 41:25, 0.427 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 1

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Can someone, preferably a Vancouver Whitecaps defender, explain to me how on a set piece, where all your tall defenders should be well positioned to defend a ball into the box, 5’6” Santiago Mosquera gets his head on this ball to score? There’s a couple goals in this week’s column that confused me and this was one of them. It’s a nice enough ball in from Maxi Urruti but there’s no way he’s aiming for Mosquera. He’s just lofting into the mixer and hoping it finds someone like Matt Hedges (more on that later).

Adding to the “this goal should never have happened” narrative, FC Dallas are one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to generating chances from set pieces. Their 1.8 xG is 17th in MLS in 2018 for chances generated from set pieces.

It also seems worth pointing out, though irrelevant to this goal, that New York Red Bull are basically lapping the rest of the league when it comes to generating chances from set pieces. NY is sitting on 6.2 xG from set pieces, while Columbus is second in the league at 3.9 xG. 

#4 Federico Higuain to Gyasi Zardes, Columbus Crew SC, 16:25, 0.48 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 7

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Player Season Shots xG KeyP xA xG+xA
Federico Higuain 2018 2.06 0.27 3.62 0.35 0.61
Federico Higuain 2016 2.59 0.25 2.87 0.31 0.56
Federico Higuain 2017 2.13 0.25 2.34 0.25 0.50
Federico Higuain 2015 2.47 0.26 2.57 0.23 0.49
production per 96 minutes

In a normal week this pass from Federico Higuain would win my favorite assist of the week award. This week it will have to settle for favorite good-and-obviously-intentional assist of the week. I could watch this highlight all day long. That touch from Higuain is just inch perfect and he makes it look SO EASY.

From a pure numbers standpoint, Higuain is actually having his best season in Columbus since about 2014. On a per 96 minutes basis, 2018 will likely end up being his best season that we have data for (our per 96 data only goes back to 2015). I haven’t watched enough of the Crew lately to be an expert, but for some reason this surprised me. His production hasn’t stood out as much this year, so I assumed he’d dropped off a bit. I was wrong. 

#3 Romain Alessandrini to Emmanuel Boateng, 51:46, L.A. Galaxy, 0.583 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 2

 Note that these chalkboards from  MLSSoccer.com  didn’t record Allesandrini’s pass, which is why his assist isn’t shown above.

Note that these chalkboards from MLSSoccer.com didn’t record Allesandrini’s pass, which is why his assist isn’t shown above.

Romain Alessandrini is going to be the star of this week’s column, but I don’t really want to give what our data generously calls an assist, but what is probably better described as “failed dribble attempt followed by a laughable attempt at defending” any more column inches than I already have, so feel free to watch this gif, laugh at the Seattle Sounders for just a moment, and then let’s move on.

#2 Michael Barrios to Matt Hedges, FC Dallas, 86:47, 0.599 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 2

 Note again that these chalkboards from  MLSSoccer.com  didn’t record Barrios’ pass, which is why his assist isn’t shown above.

Note again that these chalkboards from MLSSoccer.com didn’t record Barrios’ pass, which is why his assist isn’t shown above.

I said above that in a normal week Higuain’s assist would win my assist of the week award, and it certainly in my mind was the most impressive, but this assist from Michael Barrios is my favorite this week. When I first saw this I thought it was somewhat of a lucky play, that Barrios happened to get his head on this ball and deflect it into a dangerous spot so Matt Hedges could posterize the entire Vancouver defense for the game winner. Then I watched it again, and again, and again.

After seeing it a few times, I think they drew it up this way (maybe that was obvious to you and if it was, good for you). Barrios is pretty open, which isn’t a shock because he’s not really in a very dangerous position. If that ball is played to his feet the defense is decently positioned to keep him from doing much with it from that spot. But he’s also open enough to easily win the header (despite being 5’2”) and put it inside the 6-yard box at the back post, right where he wants it.

Speaking of Michael Barrios, we were talking about FC Dallas’ tactical setup in the post Mauro Diaz era in our Slack channel recently, and resident FC Dallas fan Phil Luetchford described it as “send a long ball to Barrios and get him running at a defender. See what happens” (@luetchy10 if you disagree and want to yell at him on twitter).

Michael Barrios Min Shots Goals xG KeyP Assts xA xG+xA
With Diaz 943 2.1 0.0 0.22 2.44 0.1 0.36 58.0%
Without Diaz 1300 2.0 0.4 0.22 2.22 0.22 0.37 59.0%
Overall 2243 2.1 0.3 0.22 2.31 0.17 0.36 59.0%

I took a look at the underlying numbers and nothing jumped out in terms of Barrios’ expected goals, expected assists, or passing since Diaz’ departure. The only real difference in expected numbers is that Barrios’ xPassing% is lower, which could be the result of taking on more of the creative burden and trying riskier passes in Diaz’ absence. What does jump out is an increase in Barrios’ actual production since Diaz was transferred. While his xG and xA have remained almost identical, you can see below that all six of his goals and three of his four assists have come since Diaz left.

Not entirely sure what that suggests other than reinforcing that if FC Dallas fans were worried early in the season about Barrios’ production, they should keep listening to anyone who was saying “he’s creating chances and getting good shots, the goals will come.”

#1 Romain Alessandrini to Ola Kamara, L.A. Galaxy, 39:36, 0.858 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 9

I said above I would give Romain Alessandrini his due, and here it is. This is a great overall team movement by the Galaxy, and it gives another opportunity to praise Alessandrini as one of the bright spots in an otherwise bleak L.A. Galaxy season. Alessandrini is 9th in MLS in 2018 in xG+xA per 96 minutes (from open play) at 0.69. The fact that the Galaxy have three of the top 13 players in MLS in xG+xA per 96 minutes and sit 7th in the West with just a 22.5% probability of making the playoffs is, frankly, shocking. I won’t beat a dead horse, but it’s even more shocking when you think about the fact that they have the most expensive backline in Major League Soccer. It gets a lot less shocking when you think about the fact that they are paying Michael Ciani $650k this year and didn’t scout him before signing him (as Ian talked about last week in xNarratives). Rather than rehash all of this I’ll just say go back and read Ian’s column, then pour one out for guys like Alessandrini who are among the most exciting players in MLS and are having their efforts wasted by a series of bad front-office decisions.

Save of the week: John McCarthy against Krisztian Nemeth, Philadelphia Union, 87:12, 0.843 keeper expected goals

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We end this week with this huge save from John McCarthy to preserve what was then a 1-0 lead for the Union. The win put the Union’s playoff probability up to 99% in the ASA model and the fact that they did it against one of the top teams in the league with a mostly rotated squad is a good sign for the Union going forward. It will be interesting to see how the Union bounce back from a tough U.S. Open Cup loss, but at least this year, unlike in their 2014 and 2015 USOC Final losses, they’ve still got something to play for.

That’s all for this week’s Setting the Table. Thank you for giving me the chance to discuss these great chances with you. I hope you enjoy another great weekend of soccer and lots of great chances created!