In case anyone is wondering, this post was largely conceived and composed "before" the Timbers game…. and, yeah, I figured there was a chance the game could change the narrative.
After recovering from his freak preseason jump test injury and returning to the Seattle Sounders’ starting XI, Patrick Ianni was Djimi Traore’s CB partner in the backline for four straight games – largely to fan acclaim. It is difficult to argue with the results: the Sounders were 3-1-0 in those starts, with the only loss being the difficult away match against Houston, when whoscored.com rated Ianni Seattle’s best player, and indeed placed him in the week’s MLS best XI. This rating caught my attention, as nothing about the Sounders defense worked in the first half hour of that particular game
Ianni’s most immediate competitor for minutes, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, has had a few poor games. Hurtado’s playing time is the clearest remaining casualty of the 4-0 debacle against Los Angeles on May 27th (to be fair, he only had a particularly significant role in the first of those 4 goals). The feeling among fans appears to be that Hurtado is error-prone, and has never regained the form that made him an All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year finalist in 2009, thanks in part to the injury that limited him to 9 games in 2010.
I have felt that Hurtado and Ianni are very similar centerbacks – neither have exceptional size, but both contend well in aerial battles. They are relatively mobile for MLS central defenders, and are aggressive and capable tacklers. Hurtado is perhaps a touch faster, Ianni a bit better in the air.
Thus far I’ve invited two questions…
What separates Ianni from Hurtado?
What rates him on the Toronto and Houston games?
Fortunately, for the sake of brevity, it’s the same answer.
What’s in a clearance?
When you breakdown whoscored’s brief stats on Ianni and Hurtado, the differences are mainly slight, and minimized all the more by the small sample size on Ianni’s starts. Nevertheless we get stats which match up to Sigi’s decisions. Hurtado is good for an extra interception per game (4 v. 3) and both make a couple tackles (this has been ticked up by Hurtado’s 5 tackles and, according to whoscored, a MOTM performance). They foul at similar rates. They are beat on the dribble at similar rates. If there’s a significant statistical difference (I’m lying, 4 games isn’t significant) – Patrick Ianni clears the ball twice as often (12 v. 6). Ianni had a statistically strong game against Houston, in part, because he cleared the ball 22 times.
So, what does OPTA consider a "clearance" and what happens as a result? We can get at that question, partially, by breaking down the events. 5 of those clearances occurred in the first 30 minutes to which I previously referred.
4:47 Tally Hall kicks just past the halfway line, where the ball is flicked on. Ianni is slightly quicker to the ball, outside his marked defender, and pokes it to Rosales.
8:46 Off a throw in, the ball is chipped from midfield towards Will Bruin, and Ianni wins the aerial challenge, but the header goes back to Houston. The ball goes out for Davis on the wing, who sends the entry pass to Bruin. Ianni closes the space and gets a touch on the ball, allowing Traore a chance to clear, but the richochet goes right to Bruin for a thankfully missed scoring chance.
19:53 Ianni is quicker than Davis to a poor Cory Ashe entry pass on the side of the box, and clears to midfield and back to Houston. This is where the "fail" vs. "success" clearance tends to mislead, because if he had cleared to touch this would be labeled green rather than red… instead Ianni cleared to space with the defense solidly in position, and the attack further back than a throw-in would have allowed.
24:03 Ianni wins an aerial challenge with Barnes on a long pass, the header successfully finds Dempsey past halfway, where he takes a heavy first touch and loses possession.
27:30 Ianni touches a pass out for a throw in ahead of Bruin’s run.
We have a set of one-touch breaks in play with a range of success. The only variables read are whether the play is made with the foot or head (foot is 5/22), whether possession is exchanged (8/22 to Houston), and whether the ball is sent out of play or not (2 more). These measurements are often less than useful. Against Dallas, in a performance that was altogether one-sided, 6 of Ianni’s 8 clearances "failed" and one of the others was out of play. Over a single match, as with Houston, overinterpretation is problematic. For example, Ianni didn’t have a good game against Houston (no defender did) but abundance of information smooths out the problem for us. 35 of the 49 clearances he’s made in those 4 games were headers, and 25 went to the opposing team (not counting out-of-play). For all of his 6’1" frame Patrick Ianni is very good in the air, and quite efficient at finding entry passes over the top.
I’ve seen several variations on the theme of Hurtado being susceptible to individual instances of error. Typically fans take goals and assign blame selectively (hell, I did the same thing earlier in describing the Galaxy goals). The problem (or one of the problems) is that goal scoring chances are not very easy to come by and still don’t always yield the desired result. If such behavior forms a trend, however, we might expect it to show up. This data is gleaned from ESPN game logs (MLS and CCL matches), and I’ve found those to be occasionally unreliable so feel free to correct me if you see error.
In 2012, the Sounders used 5 different centerback pairings, and only 3 of those are substantial enough to be particularly relevant: Hurtado-Ianni, Hurtado-Parke, Ianni-Parke. I’ve broken down defensive performance in goals allowed per game (GA), goals scored (GS), and the expected rates of both (xGA, xGS) based upon the opponent, adjusted for home/road meetings (these last numbers excluding CCL matches). Also note that I’m parsing these out based upon the starting cbs, neglecting substitutes.
Hurtado-Parke, 22 games: 1.59 GS, 1.00 GA, 1,30 xGS, 1.31 xGA
Ianni-Parke, 10 games: 1.50 GS, 0.80 GA, 1.29 xGS, 1.43 xGA
Hurtado-Ianni, 6 games: 2.17 GS, 1.00 GA, 1.71 xGS, 1.21 xGA
This suggests a few things to me, but foremost is that the Sounders’ defense was generally effective in preventing goals, at least, throughout 2012. Opponents scored 0.4-0.5 fewer goals per game than their average performance. It might also suggest that Ianni-Parke was the most effective pairing, reinforcing conventional wisdom
No defensive statistics exist in a vacuum, particularly any as simplistic as those above, and many other factors contribute to defensive performance, and these are those I tested. Gspurning starting made a difference of 0.53 goals allowed per game. Alonso’s absence was good for 0.23 goals allowed. Scott starting as a fullback yielded an extra 0.1. In strictly MLS games:
20 games with Hurtado-Parke, 9 lacked Gspurning (1.33 goals allowed), 5 lacked Alonso (1.20), and 9 had Scott starting as a fullback (1.33).
10 games with Ianni-Parke, 4 lacked Gspurning (1.00), Alonso started each one, and 3 started Scott at fullback (0.33).
There’s something for everyone in this analysis. The slightest of favor might be given to Ianni in the result, but any difference is easily attributable to external factors and defensive performance was quite consistent over the year regardless of the cb selection and our perceptions of it. As I’ve set this up as a cb comparison, it’s an ambiguous result, but…
… in 15 games of 2012, the Sounders started exactly the same cb pair as initiated the previous game. The team score 1.80 goals per game in these matches, and allowed 1.20.
In 23 matches, they changed a centerback, and conceded only 0.83 goals per game while scoring 1.17. The latter number is likely expected, as the team was often rotating personnel due to fixture congestion, and the effectiveness of the team relies upon familiarity and consistency to a degree. That makes the former statistic all the more impressive, and this is a topic I’d like to revisit in the future. A rotating cb pair should, presumably, cause problems. One could argue, based on this sort of evidence, that keeping fresh legs in the fight is useful, so long as the legs are in the fight and the feet nowhere near a jump test. Hurtado and Ianni are similar players, but Sigi Schmid has made a common practice of increasing their effectiveness through regular rotation, and I’d like to see him continue that trend.