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Projecting Cristian Roldan’s wing performance

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Sounders’ midfielder should be productive, given new focus in attack

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

I’m going to love hating Cristian Roldan’s position on the wing in 2020.

Wide midfield is a familiar role — when Roldan first joined Seattle in 2015, he earned 9 starts on the flank alongside a central midfield occupied by Osvaldo Alonso and Gonzalo Pineda. In 2018, Alonso’s return to pair with Gustav Svensson pushed Roldan out wide. Altogether, Roldan has collected 37 starts out wide and 3157 minutes on the field in those games, and none of it tells us what we need to know to make a particularly strong guess at his performance in 2020, if, as expected, he primarily lines up as an attacking right wing.

Roldan’s skill set is not a natural fit for a typical wing. I argued here in 2015 that he should be moved to the middle for three prominent reasons.

1) He lacks either the pace of the deception/technique on the ball to regularly win offensive duels — to create space on the dribble. Compare him here to the average performance of MLS starters (with dashed lines marking 1 and 2 standard deviations from the mean) in each position:

Minimum 10 attempts within a season. Cristian Roldan vs. MLS starters exceeding 1000 minutes.

2) He is not a strong crosser.

Minimum 20 attempts within a season. Cristian Roldan vs. MLS starters exceeding 1000 minutes.

3) He has proven ability to take a high volume of short passes (accurately) and defensive activity rate demanded of defensive central midfielders in general and of Seattle’s habitual CM double pivot in particular. Such emphasis on deep buildup and possession play is not well-suited to the role of an attacking wing.

Orange circles: Roldan’s wide midfield annual performances. Blue triangles: CM/DM annual performances. Grey square: CAM perfromance, 2015-19. 440 minutes minimum. Shaded ovals depict position means +/- 1 standard deviation.

Roldan’s apparent improvement over time on points 1 and 2 is somewhat encouraging, but we can see in the third chart that he has not taken a conventional wing attacking role even when nominally positioned wide — usually posting well-above-average defensive activity for the role. This isn’t a surprise — his longest stretches of play on the wing, in 2015 and 2018, came alongside CMs experiencing declines in defensive range and activity. In 2019, Roldan shifted wide while Jordy Delem paired with Svensson in the center, and his statistics were consequently more attack-oriented, albeit with in a small sample size. Roldan’s work as an 8 with the US Men’s National Team under Gregg Berhalter in the same time frame has been similarly more concentrated on attack.

Focusing on defense on the wing is not, in itself, a bad thing — it more readily frees the same-sided fullback to join in attack, and can help support weaknesses in the central midfield. Still, we need to take such tactical subtleties into account when assessing Roldan’s statistics. For example, your average attempted “dribble” as a central midfielder is less difficult than the average wing dribble. One can recognize this distinction looking at the first graph above, seeing that wide mids have a meaningfully lower success rate (53.3%) on the dribble than their central midfield colleagues (66.1%). Comparing Roldan’s numbers in both roles suggest that Roldan’s 1v1 and crossing ability remain close to MLS average. The same can largely be said of his attacking wing play, overall:

Chance90: Open play shots + key passes per 90’. Lost90: Lost possession. Won90: won possession.

In chances created and passing effectiveness, Roldan’s production is roughly average for a starting winger in his most aggressive games, while still providing some extra value in defense and possession.

In the center, on the other hand, we need only look to 2017 and 2018 to see Roldan delivering outstanding performances by MLS standards:

As a CM, Roldan delivers high defensive activity rates along with good possession as befitting the role. He’s a superb ball winner, surprisingly strong in the air, and more goal dangerous than expected for the role. He accomplished this level of play in his age 22 season. Roldan is not very effective in long, cross-field switches (though his long and medium passing overall exhibits above-average accuracy), and his positioning not well-suited to so high a share of team possession passing as, say, Alonso, but in every other respect he’s statistically an elite MLS DM. For all that I like Seattle’s acquisition of João Paulo — Seattle needed another high-level CM, particularly one that wouldn’t depart for international breaks — in isolation, playing Roldan in a role in which he is average-to-good adds less to the team than playing him where he rates good-to-great. It is the best use of the existing roster, but I hate it.

But then, I also professed to love it.

As I noted above, much of Roldan’s time out wide in midfield has come alongside diminished defensive activity in the central midfield. In 2015, Roldan’s 6.56 defensive actions per 90’ essentially matched Pineda’s 6.43. In 2018, Roldan’s 6.09 was only marginally beneath Alonso’s 7.04. If João Paulo performs defensively in line with expectations (and if Svensson performs as he has at the 6 since coming to Seattle), then the team pressure on Roldan to take defensive responsibility will be less than has been the case any other time he has played the role. Similarly, JP, Nicolas Lodeiro, and Svensson should be expected to carry the bulk of midfield possession. Roldan’s 2020 should be his performance most focused on attack, nicely timed to his physical prime, alongside 3 familiar, strong MLS attackers in Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz, and Jordan Morris. If the ideal 11 remains relatively healthy, 2020 should be Roldan’s most goal-productive season, even assuming he makes no further adaptation to the role. Casey Dunau’s recent article discusses many positive traits he brings to the role, even if he isn’t a natural winger.

On a final optimistic note:

Based on xG and xA numbers from AmericanSoccerAnalysis.com, Roldan has regularly exhibited good xG/shot relative to the average MLS wing, despite playing in a defensive role, and also posted a decent xA/key pass. Essentially, he has shot from good positions and delivered the final ball to reasonably dangerous spots when that responsibility has fallen to him. His xG numbers haven’t greatly varied by role. If an enhanced offensive role places him around the goal more often (as it should) we have good reason to think he’ll produce well by the standards of the league. We can make a couple of conservative assumptions of his shot and key pass rates from his time at CAM and 2019 play on the wing (~1.5-2.0 each of shots and key/90’). Projected over the course of a full season, with his 2019 xG and xA numbers, this would generate about 5-8 xG and 4-6 xA. A 7 goal / 5 primary assist season should be considered a conservative expectation of Cristian Roldan’s perfromance, should he remain on the wing for all of 2020.