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Sounder Data: Brad Smith vs. Nouhou

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The data paint a more nuanced picture of how the two left backs contribute. Who should start?

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps at Seattle Sounders FC Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

It’s me again, ringing in the 2019 season with another edition of Sounder Data, the every-once-in-a-while series where I use data, stats and visualizations to help inform the ever-growing morass that is the discussions which brew in this community.

On the menu today: a breakdown of the stats for our two left back options, Brad Smith and Nouhou. As you know, these two are in hot competition for the starting spot. It’s probably the most-contested position in the lineup. As you may also know, the pundits (you included) are divided in their opinions.

The general narrative can be boiled down to a better attacker (Smith) vs a better defender (Nouhou). If we want to get into more details though, I’ll try to summarize some of the arguments I’ve seen around here and elsewhere...

I’ve heard that Smith has better subjective chemistry with the midfielders ahead of him, that he makes better aggressive runs and passes, that his crossing ability is better and that he can dribble on the run. On the other hand, I’ve heard that he’s a worse 1v1 defender, a worse defender of space, and commits bad fouls.

Regarding Nouhou, I’ve seen arguments that he’s a better defender in most situations, including 1v1, clearances and body positioning. Some argue he’s no worse than Smith at making forward runs, plus he’s more athletic. In the cons column though, I’ve seen discussion that he makes mental errors, bad crosses and fewer forward passes. Surely there are more arguments than this, and I have no doubt you’ll voice them in the comments below :)

Off the field, Smith is on a loan, so perhaps less worth investing minutes in, while Nouhou is still developing and could some day produce lucrative transfer interest from other leagues. On the other hand, Nouhou may have bothered some people with some insinuative tweets of late.

But this is all hearsay. And although I’ll be the first to say that stats don’t capture all the nuances of the game, I’m still a numbers a guy. So here’s an interesting graph to ponder:

This shows passes, touches and forward passes attempted by Smith (orange) compared to Nouhou (blue) across the 2018 season. It’s important to note that Nouhou played 2,159 minutes last season compared to Smith’s 474, but these graphs are per 90 minutes played so they’re at least comparable in that sense. The dark shaded region of each bar is the number of those attempted passes that were counted as successful by Opta (they don’t count successful vs unsuccessful touches).

The results are interesting. Nouhou is a bit more active, clocking in at 72 touches and 57 passes per 90, vs Smith’s 68 and 53 respectively. However, Smith edges out Nouhou in forward passes, attempting 30 per 90 minutes played as compared to Nouhou, who attempted 29. Nouhou’s success rates in both passes and forward passes is slightly better than Smith’s as you can see in the shaded area.

But let’s dig deeper, shall we?

Ahh Opta. I love you. Somehow this beautiful, data-loving organization was able to count such incredible stats as longballs, crosses, key passes, “big chances” created (whatever that means), shots, corners won (not all of which are successful, apparently :manshrugging:), aerial duels and fouls suffered. So much to observe.

First of all, the field is mixed in terms of who contributes positively more often according to these metrics. Sometimes Smith’s bar is higher, sometimes Nouhou.

A few things jump out to me though. Like cases where the leader for attempts is not the leader for successful attempts. For example crosses (second from the bottom). Over their observable minutes, Smith attempted almost one more cross per 90 than Nouhou (3.80 vs 2.96). However, Nouhou was actually much more successful than Smith, completing 0.58 crosses per 90, a half a cross higher Smith, who completed 0.19. It’s the same for dribbles, where Smith attempts more, but Nouhou is more frequently successful.

The other observation I find notable (and there are doubtless many more for you to point out below) is aerial duels. Nouhou dominates this one more than any of the other categories to the tune of 2.17 per 90 (1.42 successful) vs Smith’s 0.38 (0.19).

But what about defense, you ask? A fine question, you intrepid reader:

This one is more Nouhou. The ‘Hou train attempted and succeeded in more defensive actions, recoveries, clearances, blocks, blocked crosses, challenges, interceptions and tackles per 90. You can see how the numbers shake out. The comparison is often very close (like blocked crosses), but sometimes pretty lopsided (like recoveries). For overall defensive actions (which is the sum of the first five categories), Nouhou actually had more successful attempts per 90 than Smith had attempts per 90.

What about blunders? Often we like to focus on the positive contributions, but does one commit more mistakes? I thought you’d never ask.

This is all I have for data (Opta also tracks “errors”, but it was missing for both players). The big one is turnovers. Smith commits more of these than Nouhou (3.6 to 2.5 per 90). The Aussie also gets caught fouling more than the Cameroonian (1.3 to 0.9). Nouhou has been carded more frequently however, though both were pretty low (0.3 by Nouhou, 0.2 by Smith).

So what can we say from all this?

I think many of these numbers are still open for interpretation. We can’t just tally up points to determine who should be starting. That’s because we know coach Schmetzer has a plan for the team, so surely he should start the player who fits his (and the rest of the coaching staff’s) vision. For that reason and many others, some of these metrics might be more important than others in the grand scheme of things.

This is where we need to use our brains. I don’t claim to be half the tactical genius of the other authors here, nor even of the average fan, but I can still look at a series of graphs and apply critical thinking.

To me, I see verification that Nouhou is the better, or at least more active, defender. The fact that Smith commits more fouls probably also lends to that argument, as defenders often foul when they’ve exhausted better options.

Smith looks a smidge more offensive-minded though, as seen by his slightly-higher forward passes, and substantially higher forward passes as a percentage of all passes, if you compare his first and third bars. He seems to be more willing to take risks, as seen by his superior propensity for long balls, crosses, and dribbles, but lower success rates. To put it another way, Nouhou appears more “efficient” with his actions, completing a higher percentage of his attempts in many categories. Then again, a naysayer might call this risk-averse.

But it comes down to what matters more. Which of these characteristics do the Sounders need?

It also matters that we read between the lines a little. Maybe Smith is less active on defense because he’s actually better at positioning. Maybe Nouhou appears less aggressive because he had to play more minutes during the first half of the season, when the whole team was slumping. There’s also the matter of short vs long-term gains. Smith is better on some metrics, but he may not be around forever. Nouhou might get better with more experience. How should we balance that? The list of intangibles could go on.

The point is that these data won’t answer all our questions. However, I sure as hell feel more informed after exploring it all, and I hope you do too!

See you Saturday,