Joao Paulo, in Brazil’s top flight, performed as a roughly above-average starting defensive midfielder when positioned as a CM.
There are two warnings to keep firmly in mind, reading further in this article.
- Robustly translating statistical performance in soccer between leagues is not practical, at the moment. Too few players move between leagues, internationally, without also changing playing roles that have a dramatic impact on the numbers. Leagues vary in playing and officiating style — one cannot simply claim that the competition has become easier (or harder) and adjust the numbers to match.
- The two key statistics of “holding” midfielders — defensive actions and passes — are also extremely role-dependent. Pair a first-string holding mid with another CM who is not so comfortable in distribution, and the primary passers’ share will rise. A CM who is less defensively active will forcibly increase the defensive activity of his partner. So, while PEAK rates of successful passing and defensive activity are highly dependent on skill, the team’s tactical decisions may make all the statistical difference between an average CM and a “destroyer.”
So, let’s look at those two key numbers among CMs and DMs in Brazil and MLS in 2019.
While there is perhaps a touch more specialization in Brazilian players, (represented in extreme values along either axis), the two leagues cover a very similar range of values. Also, apart from a clusters of players who are extremely focused on distribution/possession, there are no distinct boundaries to define traditional CM roles, including the classical “6” and “8.” These roles, in practice, occur on a spectrum.
Two recent Sounders targets in Brazil, for all the highlight-video discussion of their differences, have strong statistical similarities.
This is not to suggest that Gregore is not more of a classical “destroyer” than Joao Paulo — he clearly falls into a more defensively-focused category of the defensive midfield. That style of “6,” however, is not necessarily a common feature of most team’s tactical setup. Out of 124 CMs between the two leagues in 2019, only four players exceeded Gregore’s 9.98 defensive actions per 90’. Seattle’s Gustav Svensson crossed that threshold in 2017. Osvaldo Alonso exceeded 10 Def90 in 2013, 2014, and 2016. Concentrating so much defensive activity in a DM can free up a central midfield partner for additional attacking movement or cover for an aggressive CB pair, but Sounders fans should not take Alonso’s example to mean the team requires such a player for success (or ignore the fact that the team does not “need” a 6 while Svensson remains on this side of the Atlantic).
Joao Paulo’s historical performance at CM fits well within the demands of Seattle’s double-pivot.
Diving deeper into JP’s “role” statistics, we can compare them to his Brazilian peers and look for comparable players who may be familiar from MLS.
CMs that can pass at average or better accuracy at high volume while also taking an above-average share of team defense benefit a team, as discussed above. Many productive attackers take diminished roles in defense or buildup play. If we look for similar statistics among the five parameters above, NYCFC’s Alexander Ring is the fourt most comparable performance in MLS (after Felipe Gutierrez, Anibal Godoy, and Sean Davis). Cristian Roldan is the eighth most similar player. If we look instead only at the rates of various distinct defensive actions (tackles, clearances, interceptions, blocks), Ring is the most similar to Joao Paulo, followed by Luis Caicedo, Everton Luiz, Davis, Chara, and then Svensson.
“Skill” statistics demonstrate Joao Paulo is not particularly strong in the air. His slightly-below-average pass accuracy is mostly attributable to his higher frequency of long passes. He’s an above-average ball-winner and has shown past ability (2017) to be better still, with a high rate of interceptions. Combined with his strong defensive/distribution activity rates, and we can confidently call him an above-average Brazilian starter in the role.
How that translates to MLS? Perhaps we’ll see.