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Statistics back up perception that Jordan Morris emerged as a true winger

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There was reasonably skepticism heading into 2019, but his defensive performance took a significant step forward.

2019’s big leap: defensive acumen.
Mike Russell / Sounder at Heart

Returning from a 2018 lost to ACL surgery to a definitive position on the wing of the Seattle Sounders’ 4-2-3-1, Jordan Morris collected 13 goals and 6 primary assists in MLS play (including the playoffs), claiming the league’s Comeback Player of the Year award. With 5 goals and 6 assists in a similar national team role, Morris also claimed a close second in U.S. Soccer Male Payer of the Year award voting. Whatever one thinks of Morris as a pure forward, few would question his 2019 success on the wing.

Last February, I argued that the positional distinction was not particularly meaningful with respect to play style — that Morris exhibited the activity of an additional forward even when positioned as a nominal midfielder. in 2019, that changed:

Benjamin Harrison

Morris increased his defensive actions on the wing by more than 2 per game. Though this doesn’t sound like much, it is a good time to remember that only those actions which result in duels or loose balls really show up in OPTA’s count of what happens on the field. It takes a significant change in behavior to sustainably make up such a difference (more than a doubling of Morris’ previous defensive performance) over a full season.

There were several key points to my piece last year:

  1. Even as a pure attacker, Morris was a valuable attacking option and complimentary piece to Nicolas Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz and (sigh) Victor Rodriguez, likely to rebound from an injury-marred 2017 even in a midfield role.
  2. While Morris’ attacking behavior showed little variation by position, there was some evidence to suggest wing play favored his ball skills, leading to fewer unsecured touches in traffic.
  3. While he had the physical tools to become a more effective defender, the team as-constructed was prepared to make up for his behaving as a second forward, and too much focus on midfield defense could potentially diminish his positive influence in attack.

Point 3 is either rejected or rendered moot. Morris augmented his defensive game with only modest impact on his offense (his open play chances per 90’ were 0.3 below his previous MLS performance — not distinguishable from normal year-to-year variation). To the team, he essentially added the value of an average-to-above average defensive winger replacing a low-defense striker.

To go into further detail of just how much Morris’ 2019 varied from his past performance, and how good an MLS winger he’s turned out to be, let’s start with five statistics that are largely dependent on player role: passes per 90’ (dist90), defensive actions per 90’ (def90), aerial duels per 90’ (aer90), “dribbles” per 90’ (drib90) and long passes (including crosses) as a percentage of total passes (also including crosses; long%).

Morris’ five starts last year at forward amounted to only 400 minutes, creating issues with sample size (and he changed positions within the game a few times, as well). His playing through injury in 2017 may explain his low dribbling frequency in the wing (and, as his 1v1 physical dominance with power/speed is his best trait, raises doubts as to having him play at diminished capacity). Pass frequency increased in 2019 — how much this could be attributed to the absence of Rodriguez is an interesting question for 2020. Now, we can use these “role” statistics to find the most similar MLS players over the past three seasons. The key reason to do this is that player role may have a very large impact on statistics we might otherwise attribute to player ability (see this article for further reading on the approach). Let’s now take a look at some of those “skill” stats:

Chance90: Open play chances per 90; Lost90: Lost possession; Won90: won possession.

Against comparable player role performances (e.g., Luis Solignac ‘17, Roland Lamah ‘18, Daniel Royer ‘18/’19), Morris’ skill stats are consistently positive, except for open play chances (shots + key passes) per 90’. We should note this last statistic typically underrates Morris’ offense, as his shots and key passes each tend to be high-quality opportunities (as should be expected from a player who specializes in breaking the back line of defense). Morris’ average shot from the wing in 2019 earned 0.178 xG (MLS wings average 0.105), and his key passes produced shots worth an average of 0.158 xG (MLS avg 0.122). Those 2019 marks for dribble% and aerial% each rank sixth best out of 110 starter performances from the last three years, reflecting Morris’ dominance in 1v1 offensive duels.

Many observers praising Morris’ comeback 2019 have called out his offense in particular. Looking at the tables above, I would argue that he exhibited more confidence on the dribble and in taking a larger share of passing, but that his overall offensive success is well within the range of expected development from established levels in 2016/2017. Adding significant defensive value beyond that offensive contribution is the greater measure of his adjustment to the wing.

For all that, I would argue that Morris, in 2019, was underutilized on offense. His success in 1v1 situations and the high-quality chances that result from them suggest he should be attempting, for example, more than two “dribbles” per game, particularly as this represents a very different style of attack than we see with Lodeiro or Ruidiaz. Perhaps, if he is able to more consistently see the field alongside Seattle’s other elite attackers, we’ll get a chance to see it.