"It's got a lot of numbers in it."
-- Texas Gov. George Walker Bush, referring to the state budget, May 2000.
Indeed, even before the Moneyball breakthrough had thoroughly rooted itself in baseball and catalyzed analytics revolutions in the other major sports, the man who would become the 43rd President of the United States understood the essential importance of numbers.
In New York City FC's win on Sunday at Chicago, one number stands out, owing to its singular primacy:
All 3 points.
Yes, a road win for NYCFC in Patrick Vieira's first competitive match as the head coach of a senior squad is, rightfully, what ought to be celebrated and remembered. But thanks to WhoScored.com, a deeper look at the statistical underpinnings of Sunday's 4-3 victory at Toyota Stadium tells us a good bit more about these new-look Blues.
Here's what we discovered:
- Khiry Shelton led all players with 5 clearances!
WHAT IT MEANS: Shelton produced a goal and an assist, and earned a 7.7 match rating from WhoScored, the third-highest mark for New York City on the day. But his unflinching work tracking back into the defensive third stands out as a pleasing development. While emergency right back Ethan White flailed and sputtered in the wide areas -- David Accam & Co. absolutely ate his lunch -- Shelton compensated by flashing the kind of defensive work rate he had not yet demonstrated over the course of his young career on the right wing.
The heat map doesn't lie: let's compare Shelton's action areas to Tony Taylor's, who started on the opposite wing.
Shelton's touches (left image) versus Tony Taylor's -- WhoScored.com
It's plain to see: Taylor had the luxury of sharing the left half with Ronald Matarrita, who put forth a solid all-around performance (7.0 WhoScored match rating) and didn't repeatedly suffer from poor positioning like White and Frederic Brillant. Consequently, nearly none of Taylor's 26 touches came in the defensive portion of the field. But look at Shelton's action: he took nearly as many touches in the defensive half as Taylor had in total.
The sheer willingness to do the dirty work when others simply can't or won't is basically priceless in a league like MLS, where the idea of a "complete player" is about as rare as a unicorn. If Vieira's 4-3-3 is going to work -- and really, it might not -- the wings might be called upon repeatedly to track back and support the back four. For the very first time, Shelton proved that he's up to the task.
- Mix Diskerud and (especially) Tommy McNamara didn't just get forward, they got lateral. Each did serious work from sideline to sideline to stretch Chicago and free up the front three.
WHAT IT MEANS: Mix (8.4) and T-Mac (8.2) were WhoScored's highest-rated NYCFC players on Sunday. Each notched a goal and an assist, but it was how they handled the ball in the middle of the pitch that made the difference in the game. While McNamara lined up on the left side of the three-man midfield and Diskerud set up on the right, their action areas were not limited to either half:
Heat map for McNamara (left) and Diskerud -- WhoScored.com
Well, now we know how these guys were both able to score a goal and create another: they were everywhere. These two took more touches than any NYCFC midfielder or forward besides the ball-worshiping Andrea Pirlo, and despite their willingness to track back, their lateral work in the middle of the field constituted a skeleton key for New York City's attack.
As the heat maps demonstrate, McNamara basically took an even number of touches all the way across the width of the field in the attacking half. That's not simply impressive; it's the mark of a creative, opportunistic midfielder content to work with whatever the defense throws at him.
Though he lost possession of the ball 7 times -- tied with Shelton for the team lead -- the moral of the story is that he who dares, wins. Because, at the end of the day, you won't remember the times he lost the ball. You'll remember the time he belted home the opening goal, and flipped one in for Mix's volleyed finish to extend the Blues' goal tally to four.
Diskerud's work, while similarly impressive for its width, was more physical in nature. He was successful on 6 of 7 tackles, leading the team by a wide margin in both attempts and success rate.
So, where did those tackles occur? Don't be surprised by the answer:
Mix's six successful tackles -- WhoScored.com
See a theme here? Mix laid out three times on each wing, about as close to the sideline -- both of them! -- as a man can get. While it's patently untrue that tackling numbers alone are the mark of a good defender, Diskerud also tied for second on the team with four recoveries of possession. His efforts were far from fruitless.
It's obvious why T-Mac and Mix had to cover so much lateral ground in order to make things work on Sunday: Andrea Pirlo. Il Maestro, whose 6.7 WhoScored match rating was lowest among NYCFC midfielders and forwards, absolutely cannot defend. The man can barely jog. When you watch him stretching before games, he doesn't even unbend his knees all the way (seriously, just watch).
This is not to say that McNamara and Diskerud defended well in the game. They did little to shield the back line, which suffered greatly for it. But the midfield, Pirlo included, played the most essential role in dominating the ball. With New York City holding a hefty 56.6% of possession for the game, Chicago's ability to establish a rhythm outside of the occasional counter-attack was seriously limited: the Fire produced 19 unsuccessful dribbles and only 14 successful, completed less than two thirds of their passes, and were caught offside 7 times (NYCFC was only caught once).
This team has along way to go when it comes to defensive steel. But the attractive work rates put forth by Shelton, Diskerud, and McNamara represent a valuable step in solving Patrick Vieira's lineup puzzle.
THE BEST OF THE REST:
- Mikey Lopez barely played 20 minutes, but instantly embraced his hefty defensive duties. His 2 blocked crosses trailed only Ethan White, who played the full 90 minutes, among NYCFC players. He also completed 12 of his 13 passes (92%) and was successful on both of his tackle attempts.
- Tony Taylor recovered possession 5 times to lead the team.
- McNamara and David Villa (7.5 match rating) were tied for the team lead with 4 key passes (passes leading to a shot on target).