By Brian Maurer
Charlotte FC’s year two start has been underwhelming. Expectations were set high by local fans and by MLS pundits. Seven games into the season the Black and Blues have only been able to claim five points. What’s worse is only one of those points has been claimed at home, where Charlotte FC were able to count on regularly accumulating points during their inaugural campaign. What has happened since last October? And how can it be fixed? With limited roster flexibility and only two weeks before the window closes there is unlikely to be any more roster additions to help course correct the early struggles.
The solution will need to come from within. One of the main areas that a potential solution can be found is in the midfield three. This is where the largest impact game-to-game is made. Last season, Christian Lattanzio adjusted the lineup to fit Karol Świderski into an attacking role which provided the necessary attacking impact Charlotte FC needed to push towards a playoff spot late in the season. Looking back on Lattanzio’s tenure maybe a solution can be found to what an ideal midfield trio looks like for Charlotte FC to right the ship this year.
To find Charlotte FC’s “ideal” midfield trio I designed a little experiment where I looked at all the different trios Lattanzio has used. I then divided them up into all of their pairings, and then I also looked at each player individually.
All of the xG data used for this analysis came from American Soccer Analysis.
In Lattanzio’s 27 games as manager there were 14 midfield trios that included players that are no longer on the roster so I removed those from my analysis. In Lattanzio’s other 13 games Lattanzio used 9 different midfield trios. I calculated the xG for (xGF) per game, xG against (xGA) per game, and points per game (PPG) of each midfield trio to try and get a sense of how each trio contributed as a whole. With so few games though it was difficult to get a sense of how these midfielders influenced the game as a trio which led me to splitting the xGF, xGA, and PPG stats into all of the midfield pairings used.
Example: Jones/Bronico/Świderski - 3 games (.62+1.14+1.03) = .93 xGA/game
In 27 games under Lattanzio, 81 different midfield pairings can be made (e.g., if the trio is Jones/Bronico/Świderski then there are 3 pairings Jones/Bronico, Jones/Świderski, and Bronico/Świderski).
I removed 37 of these 81 pairings from my analysis as they either contained players that are no longer on the roster or it was a pairing that was only used once. This left me with 44 usable pairings for analysis.
Once I had all of the different pairings separated out I calculated out the xGF, xGA, and PPG just like for the midfield trios.
Example: Bronico/Świderski - 5 games (.95+1.97+2.62+1.16+1.38) = 1.62 xGF/game
After having all of my different pairings separated and data calculated I wanted to try and get an average of what each individual midfielder's impact was regardless of pairing. To get an estimate on this I averaged out each midfielders xGF, xGA, and PPG stats across all of their pairings they were involved in.
Example: Bronico - (1.8x5) + (1.6x10) + (1.5x2) + (.8x10) = 9+16+3+8 = 1.33 PPG weighted average from the 4 different pairings Bronico was involved in.
Below are the results of what I found:
Rankings of midfielder trios, pairings, and individuals based on chance volume (xGF)
Rankings of midfielder trios, pairings, and individuals based on defensive stability (xGA)
Rankings of midfielder trios, pairings, and individuals based on overall results (PPG)
The clearest conclusion is that Lattanzio has been rotating his midfield around quite a bit since he took over as coach midway through last season. The fact that of his current active players only one trio has played together in the midfield three times indicates that Lattanzio is struggling to find a consistent solution he feels he can count on.
That trio (Jones/Bronico/Świderski) also looks to be the strongest performing group, but Lattanzio has not used them together since the end of last season. It is also difficult to draw definitive statistical conclusions from any one trio as all of the samplings are so small. It should be said that the Jones/Bronico/Świderski trio is undefeated out of three starts (3-0-0).
Once we break down the trios into the pairings some of the statistical rankings look a little more interesting. One of the clearest conclusions is that Jones’ participation as a starter helps increase the defenses stability and lowers opposition attacking volume (based on xGA). What is more interesting is that when Świderski and Jones are in the midfield together Charlotte FC have allowed the least xGA.
This could be because Świderski adds additional pressure to opposition as an attacking presence, which could reduce the amount of shot taking opportunities opponents are taking. Instead of creating attacking opportunities Charlotte FC opponents are defending attacks headed by Świderski, and when opponents do get attacking opportunities Jones appears quite capable of also reducing those attacking opportunities as well.
From the attacking side of things Świderski’s presence has a clear impact on increasing Charlotte FC’s attacking volume (xGF). This should come as no surprise as this is Świderski’s primary role with the club. What is a bit more surprising is that incorporating Bender into the midfield over Jones does not seem to increase attacking volume.
This could mean that when Charlotte attempt to go with more attack minded midfield trios (e,g., Bronico/Bender/Świderski) the team lacks so much defensive stability that it ends up also impacting what they can do in the attacking third as well. Selecting more attack minded midfielders over Jones seems to only cause a decrease in defensive stability, rather than an increase in attacking volume (which is the desired effect).
Overall, the amount of definitive conclusions that can be made from this analysis is limited due to very small sample sizes, however it is interesting to keep an eye on the trends. The biggest factor in the coming weeks is going to be whether Lattanzio can decide on a midfield three that he feels confident in putting out on the field week after week so that they can build chemistry together.
My conclusion on who those three should be (based on data) is Jones, Bronico, and Świderski. This group is also undefeated so the least Lattanzio could do is play them together until they lose (or at the very least until Westwood is fully fit and healthy).