Between the $6M transfer fee and the Designated Player tag attached to Nicolas Lodeiro, expectations are high for the Sounders newest — well, technically 2nd newest — addition. The Uruguayan playmaker has a pedigree better than most in MLS and coming straight from being one of Boca Juniors most influential players to the Sounders in many ways represents a paradigm shift for MLS. This is MLS going toe-to-toe with the biggest clubs in South America for talent and winning. For the Sounders though, this is not a player being brought in for name. This is a valuable player who can re-define the Sounders on the field.
If you’ve never watched Nicolas Lodeiro before, there are two things that strike you as a first impression: a) his work rate and b) did I mention his work rate? While the term is one of those rather nebulous ones that is devoid of real meaning — see world-class — for Lodeiro it’s true. Lodeiro doesn’t stop moving. He’s a player who picks up the ball running an incisive angle, before dropping quick pass, and sprinting off in a complementary angle to open the defense. His work for Boca Juniors highlights this.
In this example, Boca had River Plate on the backfoot as the lone striker brings down the ball. Lodeiro is ostensibly playing the the left wing in this match but he frequently dives into the midfield. In this case, he recognizes the space makes the incisive run and passes with accuracy at pace. But more than the just winning the ball, the attack pivots from being left sided to attacking down the right in two movements. The River Plate midfield is stacked on their right and Lodeiro’s effort pivots the point of attack.
The other catch here is what happens after the play. Lodeiro makes the pass and then pivots to make towards the River Plate defense. This is important for one very crucial reason. This makes him a numerical advantage in the zone above the box. Rather than occupying the position to ensure they maintain possession, he attacks the backline, forcing the River Plate midfield to track him. That’s going to limit the amount of men River Plate can contribute to shutting down the attacking winger on the far side and that may preferentially create an advantageous 1v1. It also serves a secondary function though and one that’s potentially the most advantageous to the Sounders. He opens space on the left wing for the advancing fullback and supports those forays forward.
In this circumstance, Boca Juniors are attacking down the right and are also playing with 10-men. Lodeiro has moved inside and is occupying a central role. Boca wins the ball and plays a nice 1-2 through traffic before pushing the attack out wide left. Combining in the middle with the advancing midfielders, he again creates a numerical advantage before rapidly shifting the focus of attack.
With the attacking fullback closed down, Lodeiro then exercises the rest of his skills making and inside-out run in behind the fullback to receive the pass. This draws the attention of the River Plate centerback who cedes position to close down the play. On this partcular play, River Plate are forced back but the main effect of Lodeiro’s movement is thus; drop into the midfield and create numerical superiority and rapidly shift the direction of attack.
Nothing in this skillset is particular impressive for most attacking midfielders in the middle. But Nicolas Lodeiro is doing this from wide areas and is capable of both supporting the attack in the middle and working in concert with an aggressive attacking fullback on the left. This is where his work rate makes him a far more dynamic player that one alone. It’s like Mauro Diaz only with twice as much running, which makes him twice as hard to contain. Add Joevin Jones attacking prowess on the left and Alvaro Fernandez and Erik Friberg’s quick midfield passing into the equation, and you have the recipe for a quick, potent Sounders attack.
The highlights of what Lodeiro offers in the offensive third aren't necessarily indicative of how the Sounders will use him. In addition to playing from the left wing, he's equally at home in the middle as part of a midfield trio that advances in a box-to-box role. They could place him in the midfield band of 3 and play him moving inside-out. That would work better in harmony with a player like Clint Dempsey who drops off the main striker. I'm personally partial to that idea (see the formation with Valdez below) since it gives Lodeiro vision over the entire field and, as the two examples above highlight, he's very adept at finding the pass at pace and then finding the run to open the defense. If the Sounders can get Dempsey involved higher up to break the holding midfield they can use Lodeiro's runs to get past opposition midfields entirely.
Luckily, the Sounders don’t have to pick and choose. The addition of Alvaro Fernandez who is adept at playing this box-to-box role makes it so the Sounders don’t have to pigeon hole their most dynamic player. They can play Lodeiro wide on the left wing and allow him to flex creatively while utilizing Fernandez or Friberg to do the bulk of the two-way work. If they need more overwhelming attacking power -- aka Oalex Anderson — the Sounders can push the Uruguayan deeper and still maintain midfield control and their creative ability.
Nicolas Lodeiro is a diverse player and I expect to see him play most of this season from wide areas moving in. If that’s the motif the Sounders use, there’s no reason not to expect them to shift back to the 4-3-3 they employed at times this season that used Alonso, Friberg and Roldan. But neither are they restricted to that formation and the 4-3-3 that dominated most of preseason and the month of March could also be in the works. The Sounders may finally have options that work.