At the beginning of the year the Seattle Sounders took advantage of the changing rules in China to nab Gustav Svensson. At the time it seemed like he was merely a depth signing. Now, just over a third of the season has passed and the Swede is a key player on the team, with a role that is still evolving.
Brian Schmetzer has used two formations. In his baseline 4-2-3-1 Schmetz has used Svensson as right back, centerback and defensive midfielder. In the more recent near-Christmas Tree, Svensson played as a holding midfielder. There are still questions as to where Gustav best suits the Sounders, especially as they (hopefully) enter a period of strong health and availability. Four Sounder at Heart writers are here to try and answer those questions.
Gustav Svensson has outplayed Roman Torres and should start
There is little doubt that Roman Torres has had a significant role on the team over the last 16ish months - he did win us an MLS Cup, after all, with what was probably his finest showing in a Seattle uniform.
It’s also pretty hard to argue that his 2017 season has been anything like those 13 matches in 2016. He started the season spending as much time in the offensive half as the defensive half, and his positioning really hasn’t gotten any better in his five appearances since (not counting his appearance as a forward). In what is likely a related development, his stats are down significantly across the board.
In the team’s preferred 4-2-3-1 the CBs are asked to play wide and separated, with central cover from a CDM, to account for attacking fullbacks. This means they spend less time in the middle defending against crosses, and more time outside defending against dribbles. They are also asked to contribute significantly to developing the attack, which requires accurate passing and well-developed vision. None of these are particular strengths of Torres’ (were we asking for a traditional pair of tall trees at CB I would absolutely be making the inverse argument here).
The only significant category Svensson lags behind 2016 Torres is in aerials won (2.1 v 1.6), and for a CB who, by design, contests the ball much further away from goal, this stat is less concerning than it might otherwise be.
Where Svensson does excel is in the most valuable categories: winning 81% of his tackles (T-2016: 75%), intercepting 2.7 passes per game (T-2016: 2.1), passing accuracy of 94% on short passes and 64% on long passes (T-2016: 85% and 47%), and providing a key pass every other game.
It’s nice to think that plunking an imposing figure in the back next to another imposing figure is good enough to put the fear of Mazinger in any offense. That’s no longer how the CB position functions on this team, and it limits the team’s ceiling going forward. It’s necessary to consider total contribution to the cause, and this season Svensson clearly fits what the team needs better than Torres.
Torres earned the MLS Cup and will return to the form of late 2016
Roman Torres’ 2017 has been less than stellar but he isn’t the captain of Panama for nothing. Torres is a big enforcer of a CB. Svensson’s play in 2017 is almost a mirror of Torres’ 2016 stat line. They play two different styles and end up with about the same tackle percentages, clearances, blocks and interceptions as each other. The largest difference is in aerial ability. Two inches taller is the smallest detail for it; on average Roman wins about 66% of his aerial duels, while Goose wins just shy of 50%. In his Sounders career, Chad “Air” Marshall averages a slightly better 75% than the two, but with a midfield that is designed to push teams wide by virtue of Roldan and Alonso preventing teams to go through the middle, air superiority is crucial.
For a style of play that involves high amounts of physicality, Torres commits the same number of fouls as Goose’s conservative style. Torres plays within himself, only receiving three yellows and zero reds in his time in Seattle. Torres does a good job at using his size to disrupt attacks and make players essentially go around him in a manner that Goose doesn’t.
Svensson has played wonderfully at CB but Torres brings an attitude that, paired with his massive frame, disrupts attacks without having to make the tackle or a foul. His aerial ability is second only to Marshall and gives the Sounders a major wall in front of Frei that ensures when the midfield pushes teams wide to force a cross, there is someone there to head it away. The only downside to Torres is that his passing is worse than Svensson, but trading a few inaccurate long balls (the main difference and Torres plays more long balls) is an acceptable trade-off to keep air dominance.
Sunday’s Christmas Tree-ish thing should stay; Gustav Svensson is a great deep defensive mid
It’s been called a 4-3-2-1 (versus RSL) and a 4-4-2 (versus Columbus, Portland, and Houston), but in reality the Sounders have basically been playing the 4-3-2-1 for the last four matches. Twice the central midfield has been Ozzie, Roldan and Shipp. Alonso, Roldan and Flaco combined against Columbus.
The two most effective versions of the Christmas Tree have been the one used against RSL and the one used against Houston. In the RSL match, with their top choice attackers and Shipp in the midfield, Seattle bested RSL 3.11 - .65 by xG. Against Houston, they didn’t have two of their top attackers but used a midfield with Roldan, Ozzie and Svensson to best Houston 1.77 to .53 by xG. The best lineup probably combines these two lineups. A backline of Jones, Marshall, Torres, and Evans; a midfield of Ozzie, Svensson, and Roldan; and an attack of Dempsey, Lodeiro, and Morris.
As a defensive midfielder against Houston, Svensson completed 89% of his 82 passes (the second most on the team). He led the team in tackles (6) and interceptions (5). He was second to Marshall in aerial duels won (5). His tactical awareness and defensive ability allowed the Sounders to attack from multiple angles. Jones and Evans could go forward and Svensson was able to fill the gap between the centerbacks. He could recognize when Evans was staying back and make a run into the opponent's half himself. He freed up Ozzie, Roldan and Lodeiro to dominate the midfield.
We’ve already discussed why the Christmas Tree might be the best fit for Seattle’s talent. Svensson may have already proven why he’s the proper person to fill that deepest midfield spot. Of course, the Sounders could sign a shiny new winger and make all of this discussion moot.
Maybe he should just be the 12th man starting anywhere he’s needed
Sounders fans should be familiar with the concept of the starting quality utility player by now. It was notable when Brad Evans always found his way on the field even if he wasn’t the most talented player.
Evans is now the preferred right back, though he may fill in at centerback or defensive midfield if needed. In some ways this team is built with players like this. Cristian Roldan has held two different central midfield roles, used to be a right mid and has had regular time at right back this year. Delem, Kovar and Shipp are other examples.
Gustav Svensson is the best of these though. He has been wonderful. Rather than be a tossed aside spare part, Svensson came to Seattle and helped where needed. He was... marginal... at right back, but is stellar at centerback and in the holding midfield. That’s why we’re having this entire discussion.
He is a good soccer player in both the defensive and possession elements of the game. Due to a short roster Brian Schmetzer may be best served if Svensson, like several players before him, remains the 12th starter. Deferring the second starting centerback position to Torres gives protection against injuries while reducing the chances of hurt egos (thankfully at SaH we don’t manage players’ egos).
With so few players on the roster there just isn’t room for a lot of specialists. A pure 3rd CB has less value than a 3rd CB that is also the 3rd/4th DM and 4th/5th RB. Gustav is ideal for what the Sounders are right now.
Even if he doesn’t have a defined role, he should still get 25+ MLS starts this year. Injuries happen. Call-ups happen. Fixture congestion happens. When all of that happens, the Gustav Svenssons are the type to take advantage of it and show the team, and league, just what it means to have at least twelve starters.
What is the best place for Gustav Svensson to play?
This poll is closed
Centerback - instead of Torres
Centerback - but as a bench option
Holding midfield - along with Alonso and Roldan