Sanna Nyassi is blisteringly fast, but is that all a winger needs to succeed?
Sanna Nyassi has been the main beneficiary of Freddie Ljungberg's absence over the past few weeks. The diminutive midfielder, taking advantage of the absence of the iconic Swede on the right flank, has been able to hold down a regular place in the Sounders lineup, featuring in MLS play, Open Cup matches, and Sounders FC's recent win over Metapan in the preliminary round of the CONCACAF Champion's League. Nyassi has shown the ability to skin whichever unfortunate fullback happens to be marking him, meaning that the Sounders can take advantage of having elite speed on both sides when Zakuani is played on the opposite flank.
The burst of pace down a touchline is one of the things guaranteed to set your typical soccer fans' collective hearts aflutter. It's easy to spot, speed is easy to measure, and the benefits are obvious. Sanna Nyassi provides that in abundance, and you can tell by the way outside backs stay off him that they're terrified to commit to a challenge lest he simply blow straight past them. His raw speed makes him an extremely potent threat to get in behind the defence, and a seemingly valuable asset to the team. Unfortunately, remembering the highs tends to make us forget the lows, and with Nyassi there are many.
First of all, let's take a look at what seems like a strength of his game: one-on-one play. In the past few games, Nyassi's had some runs down the centre which have beaten three or four players using a combination of speed and ball control. This should be an extremely positive sign, but my suspicion is that this new-found ability is about as sustainable as a soggy paper bag in a hurricane. Why? Beating a player one on one typically requires the ability to throw the defender (or cluster of defenders, if they're close enough) off-balance. This is typically accomplished by a series of feints with the ball and body - the current master of the dribble is, of course, the singular Lionel Messi. If you can, compare Nyassi's recent surges with the Argentinian's.
It's striking how lucky Nyassi's been getting. The defenders aren't getting fooled at all - they're getting their tackles in properly, but instead of winning the ball it's been bouncing around and coming back to Sanna's feet three paces down the line. And this is happening two or three times a game. It seems massively unlikely to me that a fringe MLS player has suddenly found the secret of how to get defenders to give him back the ball whenever they take it away, and soon as as the magic runs out, Nyassi will find his runs curtailed far more swiftly than they have been. You can already see his recent success affecting his game, as he's made far more runs straight up the middle recently than he was doing at any other point in his Sounders career.
His positioning is also a concern. Nyassi has a bad habit of drifting inside too far and then committing himself to playing up the middle. This brings him into the orbit of Seattle's key man, Fredy Montero. You could see in the Colorado game (I only watched from about minute 25 onwards, so I missed the best parts of everyone's performances) that Nyassi was taking up space in the middle that really belonged to Montero, which denies the Colombian the room which makes him so lethal. It would be perhaps less of a concern if Nyassi was capable of short, clever passing combinations like Miguel Montano, but the end product of a run, whether passing or shooting, is just not his game.
Simply put, Nyassi isn't very good at crossing on the fly, shooting, passing, or making good decisions. Perhaps the last flaw in his play makes the others look worse, but when he has the opportunity to take a shot, play the ball to a teammate, or just ping it into the box, it doesn't seem to happen when it should. Instead, Sanna seems to delay until the action becomes far less likely to succeed, and then typically botches it. This is fixable, of course, but it requires significant work, especially in the field of football intelligence. Nyassi is young (he turned 21 in January), and I have high hopes for him once he's developed, but right now he's a runner, not a soccer player, at least in my eyes.