As the 2019 Seattle Sounders preseason draws to a close, the bulk of the first team minutes in attacking midfield alongside obvious starters Victor Rodriguez and Nicolas Lodeiro have gone to Jordan Morris. The team has clearly marked the right wing of its traditional 4-2-3-1 for Morris’ use in an Ideal XI, even as coach Brian Schmetzer remains cautious about his progress returning from injury, and as Harry Shipp and Handwalla Bwana stand ready to rotate in to the lineup. Morris’ potential conversion from striker to wing (both for Seattle and for the USMNT) has received plenty of attention from a tactical perspective (both here and elsewhere), but in addition to recognizing he has the physical skills to play wide, we can also note this position change has a track record. Morris logged 37 starts (3258 minutes) as a nominal forward and 22 starts (1720 minutes) as a nominal midfielder in MLS play with the Sounders in 2016 and 2017. This is more than enough to compare the numbers:
In the simplest possible role discrimination chart, showing players’ 90-minute rates of passes (x-axis) and defensive actions (y-axis), Jordan Morris’ activity is the same whether played as a striker or as a midfielder. One would expect more statistical variation in the same player from season to season than we observe in Morris, changing positions. The exact positions of his actions may shift (marginally), but their character does not.
This absence of role malleability is neither a good nor a bad thing, in itself. Morris’ stronger traits in attack — great speed and acceleration, good short pass accuracy, short-range shot power and strength in physical duels — are not diminished by any attack-focused role. Nevertheless, fielding him as an attacking midfielder along a traditional striker imposes significant tactical decisions and asymmetry on the rest of the team. As we see above, he is much less active both in winning and distributing the ball than a typical MLS attacking midfielder. The fullback and central midfielders consequently have more defensive responsibility on Morris’ side of the field. The Sounders as a team have more opportunities to extend the field by playing the ball in behind the defense, utilizing an attacker with good pace, high positioning, and fewer responsibilities in transition. Low pass rates on one side increases the distribution share of the other attacking midfielders. Such problems are familiar in Seattle:
Role asymmetry across the attacking midfield is a common approach for the Sounders. Within the last 4 years, Nico Lodeiro and Marco Pappa took an unusually high share of team distribution (both of them also played in the center more than their position would suggest, particularly Lodeiro). Joevin Jones, Andreas Ivanschitz, and Morris contributed below-average defense rates, and Lodeiro similarly increased the fullbacks defensive load. Jones and Lamar Neagle exhibited below-average distribution rates.
Seattle’s regular use of stylistically contrasting flank attacker pairs only accentuates the point: Jordan Morris does not need to be a traditional midfielder (or even a traditional winger) to add value to the team. Lodeiro, Rodriguez, and Cristian Roldan supply ample creative distribution, and every starting midfield position other than the right attcking spot in question supplies defensive rates above-average or better, adjusted for tactical role. If Morris is able to provide tactical flexibility in direct play, and another potential target in space close to goal, Seattle will happily trade off modest defense and distribution. They may also believe the position plays to Morris’ strengths:
Forwards are paid to make mistakes. Losses of possession at the position have a fairly strong positive correlation with chances (open play shots and key passes). Accordingly, the players in the bottom part of the chart above are either focused on hold-up play or passing (Bradley Wright-Phillips at 3.9 as example of one, Wayne Rooney at 4.28 an example of the other) or just not very good, relative to MLS average (Khiry Shelton at 4.0). As a forward, Jordan Morris has lost possession at a slightly better rate than the average MLS starter (10.52 per 90’ for Morris, 10.93 +/- 3.15 MLS), but he hasn’t been involved with as many scoring chances as desired, relative to possession loss (a caution: this says nothing about the quality of chances, only their frequency). On the wing, that changes, and most of that change is attributable to loose touches (“Unsecured Touches” in OPTA’s terminology). Strikers are often asked to receive high-velocity passes in traffic. Morris’ natural touch isn’t bad, though he could stand to make 1-time passes and shots a more common feature of his play in a crowd. Playing out on the wing fundamentally changes the way he receives the ball — if he can maintain his chances at goal while sustaining his possession game in the attacking midfield, he’s a positive contributor:
Apart from individually analyzing Morris’ game, we must measure how he fits into the team. For the Sounders, that is an extra attacker who punishes any effort by the opposing defense to crowd the skillful interplay of Rodriguez, Lodeiro, and Ruidiaz. He’s not being asked to pass the ball or win the ball. For Morris and Seattle to make the most of 2019, his greatest value is at the end of the pass, at the end of the field.