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Tactics and Trends: The curious case of Wolff and Shipp

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Despite solid contributions, neither player has become a mainstay in Schmetzer’s 11.

MLS: D.C. United at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The Sounders returned to their standard Schmetzer-era offensive tactical identity over the last two matches. In both, the team out-possessed their opponents and scored their goals either from set pieces or by creating overloads in wide areas with fullbacks pushing forward. They even got Victor Rodriguez to provide some of the direct wing play from the left that’s been missing since Joevin Jones’ departure — albeit with Rodriguez’s final product more often coming as a right-footed shot than a left-footed cross. And though the defense has gone soft, averaging 2.1 expected goals against over the last four matches, the team looks closer to the ideas that got them to back-to-back MLS Cup finals than they have during any other stretch of this season.

With that in mind, this tactics and trends won’t focus on the overall tactical approach of last two matches, but instead will dissect the tactical nuances that two players bring to the Sounders line-up: Magnus Wolff Eikrem and Harry Shipp.

Eikrem and Shipp are linked in many ways. Both are technically clean midfielders who, according to whoscored, account for the least number of unsuccessful touches per 90 minutes of any attacking midfielder with more than 300 minutes. Both are also capable of providing a killer final ball (see Shipp v. Houston Dynamo, Eikrem v. Toronto FC). Most notably though, both have spent more non-injury related time on the bench than any other Sounders’ midfielder making six-figures.

Though injuries have kept each player out of the starting line-up at various points during the season, they don’t entirely account for the combined eight matches (four each) where the players started on the bench in favor of either Alex Roldan or Handwalla Bwana, both first-year professionals. In addition to being left out for rookies, Shipp has also lost midfield minutes to fullbacks Waylon Francis and Kelvin Leerdam.

When one of the two players does get a start, it’s often at the expense of the other. Eikrem and Shipp have only lined-up once together to begin a match, a 3-0 loss to FC Dallas that was marred by Clint Dempsey’s first-half red card. With all their similarities in mind, it’s easy to view the two as interchangeable parts — plug-and-play midfielders who rely on speed of thought more than eye-popping athleticism to create chances in the Sounders attack.

In reality, the two midfielders contribute subtle but important differences from one another to the line-up. If they continue to compete for the same minutes, understanding their unique attributes and when to use them will be paramount to the Sounders’ success.

The differences

A Wolff in sheep’s clothes

At first glance, Eikrem’s touch is so smooth that he almost looks nonchalant on the ball, like he’s forever playing a warm up rondo even into the 90th minute of a derby match. In fact, after first seeing him train, Cristian Roldan described his game as “very simple”, while Will Bruin put it more colorfully: “He’s so calm and composed on the ball that it makes me calm and composed on the ball, which is… interesting.”

But contrary to first impressions, Eikrem may have turned into the Sounders’ most daring midfielder. In his passing, the Norwegian playmaker consistently looks to unlock opposing defenses, which explains both his impressive 2.4 key passes per 90 minutes (second only to Nico Lodeiro) as well as his surprisingly low 71.7% pass completion (second worst among all outfield players). On the ball, Eikrem completes 1.5 dribbles per 90, ranking fourth among all Sounders and only trailing Bwana, Henry Wingo, and Victor Rodriguez, who all play more of a true winger role than he does. In his finishing, Eikrem also noses his way into dangerous areas, firing off 1.7 shots from inside the box per 90, tied with Lamar Neagle for most on the team.

In total, Eikrem is the only Sounders player who is top five on the team for key passes, successful dribbles, and shots taken per 90. By contrast, Shipp is only top five in shots taken, and is near the bottom of the team in key passes and dribbles.

A Shipp in constant motion

Given Eikrem’s vastly superior numbers in key passes and dribbling, the Norwegian would seem like a no-brainer choice for a team that’s lacked offensive output for much of the season. Team stats, however, tell a different story, particularly in expected goals.

In matches Eikrem has started, the team has averaged a paltry 1.02 expected goals, while in matches Shipp has started, the team has averaged a robust 1.63 expected goals. While Eikrem may get unfairly punished in this stat because he started more away matches than home matches and also endured the team taking first-half red cards in two of his five starts, Shipp’s numbers are too high to ignore.

In fact, the 1.63 expected goals per match when Shipp starts is higher than the 1.52 expected goals per match when Lodeiro starts, and significantly higher than the 1.18 expected goals per match when Clint Dempsey starts. Much of Shipp’s success in making the team dangerous comes from his work off the ball, an area he decided to focus on after he got hurt, noting, “I went back and thought about how can I move without the ball, how can I create space, and how can I create space for others.”

Despite his lack of straight-line speed, Shipp is constantly making direct runs at the back line in order to stretch opposing defenses. His off the ball movement helped create space for Eikrem’s game winning goal against D.C. United, and his own last-minute goal against New York Red Bulls. Where Eikrem excels in creating individual moments of brilliance, Shipp excels in creating the space for those moments to happen.

A Dempsey dilemma

Eventually, barring a significant amount of new injuries, *knocks on all the wood*, Gustav Svennson, Ozzie Alonso, and Cristian Roldan will permanently squeeze Lodeiro back into the attacking band of three, while Raul Ruidiaz and Will Bruin will prevent Dempsey from lining up as the lone striker. That means the battle between Eikrem and Shipp may be a red herring, as one of them would need to unseat Lodeiro, Rodriguez, or Dempsey for a starting spot on the depth chart.

As the team’s star Designated Player whose 3.8 key passes per 90 is nearly double everybody else’s output on the roster, Lodeiro’s spot is safe. Furthermore, as the only Sounder who can consistently create offense for himself on the wing and still combine with his teammates through the middle, Rodriguez’s spot is mostly safe. That leaves Dempsey, who so far has started every match wherein fitness, fatigue, or suspension have not caused an absence.

In previous seasons, Dempsey’s ability in the final third had made him a must start. Though he’s often lacked the assist numbers of an attacking center mid, his instincts and finishing in the space behind the striker have kept him effective. But where last season’s 15 goals helped propel the Sounders to the playoffs, this season’s lack of goals (only one through nine starts and 11 appearances) has contributed to the Sounders terrible first half of the year.

When Dempsey isn’t scoring, he lacks the multifaceted offensive game that Eikrem brings to the team, only registering half as many key passes or successful dribbles per 90. As one of the oldest players on the roster, he also lacks the motor to pull and prod defenses off the ball in the way Shipp does. More importantly, his presence as the Sounders’ central attacking playmaker prevents Lodeiro, who possesses both the multifaceted tool set of Wolff and the constant movement of Shipp, from starting matches in the middle where those exact qualities are most useful.

With the Sounders returning to health, getting players back from the World Cup, and bringing in new expensive signings all at once, the coaching staff will have a lot experience to choose from heading into the second half of season. Whether all those big time players end up being a gift or a curse for those picking the line-up remains to be seen.