Charlotte FC have continued there commitment to building for the future in the last few weeks with multiple signings for the newly created Crown Legacy. Perhaps none are more high profile than Nikola Petković, a midfielder from Serbian side FK Čukarički.
Petković’s star rose considerably after making his debut for the Serbian National Team last month, doing so against the USMNT in a friendly match. It is reported that Charlotte had to fight off plenty of competition to secure the 20 year old’s signature, and their belief in the player was displayed with a significant transfer fee of $3 million, one of largest fee’s paid for a player in the clubs short history.
Petković is a right-footed midfield player who has experience playing in multiple systems, but has most commonly been used as a single-pivot 6 or on the right side of a double pivot. This positional versatility already adds extra value to the player. Additionally, the roles he has often performed so far in his career show potential translation to playing as an 8 or as a wide-right midfield player.
Petković arrives at Charlotte with great pedigree having now represented Serbia at Senior Level, but has also consistently represented Serbia at youth level from Under 15’s to the Under 16’s, Under 17’s, Under 19’s and Under 21’s – a testament to his potential as a prospect. Along with his experience at international level, Petković has logged over 700 minutes of professional club football, the majority of these coming in the Super Liga Srbije, the top tier of Serbian League Football.
Petković has a wise head on young shoulder when his team is in possession. He is vocal in organising build up and has a great understanding of how to manipulate the opposition. Take for example this passage of play that ultimately results in a goal.
The first thing to notice is how Petković moves into position to receive the ball for the second time in the passage. Rather than take a more direct diagonal run to the space, he makes sure he is always behind the attacking player and out of his vision so that he does not go with him to apply once he receives the ball.
After a scan over each shoulder, Petković elects for the bounce pass back to the defender, where we see the next interesting part of the passage.
Only a short while after the defender receives the ball again, Petković starts orchestrating the build up with assertiveness beyond his years. He calls for the pass to be played into the midfielder with the view to bouncing it outside. Despite the defender rejecting the ball inside to the midfielder to be played to the space on the left, he decides to play it over there directly himself. You can see that this has come as a result of Petković’s instruction and not of the defender’s own intuition, as the defender’s eyes did not scan this area until Petković alerted him to it.
Take also this moment in another build up phase, from later in the same fixture.
From this, we can see Petković doesn’t even need the ball at all to be able to impact the build up phase – he understands how he can manipulate the oppositions structure to create space for others as a deep midfielder. His movement is not with intention of receiving the ball (we see no gesture or real ‘showing’ for the ball) but clearly to manipulate the positioning of the oppositions number #10 and free his midfield partner to carry the ball into the space he has now been granted.
In just 6 seconds, we go from a situation where no clear options of progression are open:
To a situation where the midfielder is driving forward with the ball and has plenty of options, with the opposition scrambling in a transition phase. All of this comes from that one piece of structure manipulation from Petković.
Overall he boasts a very mature game. His awareness of the field combines with his already developed ability to scan the field when his team is in possession, which he was able to showcase against the USMNT in the friendly played just last month. This was arguably his best performance as a pro and gave him the chance to showcase all the on-ball ability that makes him such a tantalising prospect.
An interesting exercise with this video is to count the number of times we see a scan from Petković, and the variation of his scanning when it comes to playing in different areas of the field.
The clips of his ball playing ability in the final 3rd here are promising and were also there to be seen at times during his games for FK Čukarički.
To see these instances of confidence playing forward in the final 3rd add to Petković’s ceiling as a player. When combined with his traits shown earlier, you can see how he projects as a player who can thrive in a ball dominant system.
When discussing Petković’s positional versatility, the off-ball side of his game must be considered, as this is what creates more questions about where and how he should be best deployed on the field.
Firstly, his size and athleticism does not project well to playing the single pivot, especially not in a ball dominant system. In a team that has the majority of the ball, the single pivot is relied upon to cover large spaces in transition as well as thrive in duels, whether they be in the air or up against ball carriers. Petković stands at 5’11, while most players who thrive in this role tend to be at least 6’2 and above. Combine this with Petković’s slender frame (although this is something that can improve given his age) and his current profile does not project well to the role.
Further, Petković’s smarts and instincts when in-possession, unfortunately, do not translate to off-ball moments just yet. He can often be caught out by runners around him and/or runners that he is man marking. This can make for high-level chances for the opposition, as shown in the clip below (Petković is the player on the right side of the centre circle when the clip begins):
Moments like these are common in Petković’s game. They’re made especially concerning by the fact that this situation initially does not offer any real threat, but by one player being loose, it becomes very dangerous. In this particular instance, it lead to a goal.
This also shows the issues when it comes to his athleticism. Other, more athletic players committing the same error may be able to recover with speed. This is something he does not possess in his game yet.
It is almost the reverse to what we saw earlier from Petković’s ability to manipulate opposition structure when his team is in possession. Offensively, he can turn settled moments into threatening ones with his high on-ball IQ and, defensively, his issues off-ball can do the same.
The next development for his game will be to prevent doing this for the opposition when they are on the ball, to the detriment of his own team. Because Petković is such a young player, this is an area of his game that most coaches would see as fixable as he gains more experience.
Despite only being a short while into his career, there is enough already in Petković’s game-film to show that he can be a highly productive MLS-level player in the near future. Though he will initially join Crown Legacy – a decision that I do feel is best for his development – I believe he would be fully capable of handling MLS should he have been signed directly to Charlotte FC. I would not be shocked to see him feature in the match day squad at some stage during the 2023 season, with the projection being that he would be a significant contributor to Charlotte FC come the 2024 season.
Charlotte currently play a 4-2-3-1 system, one that I believe will look to give the team the majority of possession in most games (based off Head Coach Christian Lattanzio’s quotes and the game strategy he employed last season). This system is the one that will give Petković the best chance to succeed, i.e., playing on the right side of the double pivot. This set-up gives him the best chance to show off his best qualities, whilst also looking to mitigate some of the flaws in his game. Being so young, there is plenty of time for him to work on eradicating these issues from his game.
Alongside other signings made in the last few weeks, Petković will make Crown Legacy a must watch when possible for any Charlotte FC fan this season.
After a few months away, Charlotte FC will finally be playing meaningful games back at the Bank. As Year Two rolls in, expectations amongst the fanbase are high. Nationally, the outlook is more mixed.
Many fans might be surprised by the relative lack of belief in this team. On average, we’re looking at these experts predicting a 10th-place finish for Charlotte (9.9167 repeating, to be exact). I personally think they could be a playoff team. My money is on them getting around 48 points, which would (historically) be good for about 7th or 8th place. Obviously, Andrew Wiebe is our new favorite media (sorry Bogert!).
Kljestan, Lowery, Ortiz, Slaton, and Bradley Wright-Philips’ 13th-place finish predictions all seem overly negative, at least to me, but it must be admitted that this is a team with some serious issues and question marks.
The acquisition of Bill Tuiloma does assuage some concerns I have regarding center-back, but left-back has not been touched. It remains a terrifying proposition to have Harrison Afful or Joseph Mora as our starter there for the entire season. Additionally, we will be starting the season without our #1 keeper in Kahlina, though there is an argument to be made that outside of his first 7-10 games, he wasn’t overly impressive. I’m not sure how many are ready to hear that, though.
Finally, Jóźwiak, Świderski, and Copetti represent 3 DPs with huge question marks. I’m a firm believer in Kamil and Karol, but I’m not sure either lived up to the billing of a DP. Well, we can actually be honest and say that Jóźwiak definitely didn’t. While the 10 goals and 4 assists were nice, you probably want a bit more from a DP #9 (or #10), in Karol’s case.
Enzo has me excited but this is a player with a limited (albeit good) track record, coming to a new league and country, returning from serious injury, and learning a new language. To say that he might need an adjustment period is an understatement. The unfortunate reality, though, is that he and Charlotte can’t afford an adjustment period. This team desperately needs goals and if it takes him a while to get off the mark, it probably won’t be a good thing for this club.
My previews usually consist of a look at the previous games for clubs, as well as their overall stats. With this being the first game of the season, those are not available. While I could look at last year’s formations and such (and I will to a degree), I think it might be more useful to look at who NE has added to this roster for the 2023 season.
Last year was a down one for New England. The 2021 record-setters found themselves finishing 10th in the East with 42 points (a 31-point decrease from 2021!), a -3 goal differential, and a -9.0 xG differential.
To me, their issues seem twofold. One, they had an aging roster. Two–and probably more important for last year’s team–they lost Adam Buksa midway through the year. The 25-year-old Polish striker had 7 goals and 2 assists in 10 games (9 starts) for them. Their leading goalscorer last year, Gustavo Bou, only had 8 goals and 2 assists in 19 games, while the 2nd top goal-getter, Carles Gil, had only 7 goals (but 9 assists!) in 33 games. No one else had more than 4. New England, like Charlotte, could not score.
Since last summer, NE has effectively secured 5 new players: CF Giacomo Vrioni (24), old Charlotte friend (?) Christain Makoun (22), CAM Latif Blessing (26), CF Bobby Wood (30), and CB Dave Romney (29). They made a few more moves during the summer of last season, but a number of those players (former Charlotte draftee Ismael Tajouri-Shradi among them!) are no longer with the club. These acquisitions haven’t necessarily done much to drastically reduce the age of this squad, but they have targeted a number of younger players. Three players in particular interest me: Vrioni, Blessing, and Romney. We’re all intimately familiar with the Makoun experience and Wood, now 30, has made enough appearances with USMNT to be familiar to most. Also, Wood has scored 6 total goals in the past 5 seasons, so I’m not sure how much we should care about him in general. This appears a pure depth move by NE.
(Fun Fact: Wood had 17 goals and 4 assists in 2015-16 for Union Berlin. For the rest of his career, which spans 12 seasons, he has 22 goals, along with 4 seasons of 0 goals. This man has started for the USMNT. Sigh…)
Vrioni is DP who joined from Juventus last summer for $3.89M. Like Charlotte’s DPs, he’s mostly still an unknown.
He began his career with Sampdoria, though he never made an appearance. He would go on to play for Venezia in Serie B (2018-19), where he made 24 appearances but only had 1 goal and 1 assist. In 2019-20, he had appearances for Cittadella in Serie B (4 apps, 1 assist, 0 goals) and Juventus (1 appearance, 0 goals, 0 assists). He was on loan last year with WSG Tirol in the Austrian Bundesliga, where he made 25 appearances (20 starts) and had 20 goal contributions (17 goals and 3 assists), according to FBref. Wyscout does have him at 19 goals and 4 assists for these appearances. Transfermarkt has him at 17 goals but 4 assists, while SofaScore has him at 17 goals and 3 assists. I’m not quite sure why there is this discrepancy, but it appears that Wyscout is giving him 2 more goals than he should have. Of his goals this season, 3 were PKs. His move to NE produced 7 appearances (2 starts) but only 1 goal (a PK).
When scoring, he is predominately a left-footer. Note: I’m using Wyscout’s 19 goal total for this because they have a handy breakdown of how he scored (left foot, right foot, head). Keep in mind the goal discrepancy they have (i.e., 2 more than other sources).
Left foot: 10
Right foot: 3
It should also be remembered that he had 3 penalties and, as he’s a left-footer, those inflate his total a bit for that side. Still, he’s a tall man who scores how you would expect: with his primary foot or head.
Listed at 6’2″ and 172 lbs, Vrioni is in the mold of Buksa (who is 6’3″ and 172 lbs). NE obviously sees Vrioni as Buksa’s long-term replacement, but the question remains can he be? While his year in Austria was hugely successful, so far it has been a fluke of a season. For NE to be successful, his Austrian-league form needs to be his new norm.
This heatmap shows a prototypical center-forward. There isn’t much happening on the wings, but anything down the center includes his involvement. His movement will test Malanda, and whoever is paired with him.
Blessing is a really interesting player. He was briefly linked to Charlotte during the summer transfer window and, honestly, he’s a player that would probably do well on this team.
Blessing is diminutive, listed at only 5’4.5″ and 141 lbs. He started his career with Sporting KC, where he made 25 appearances in 2017, scoring 3 goals and getting 1 assist. He was drafted by LAFC in 2018 and exploded with them over the next two seasons. In 2018, he got 5 goals and 6 assists in 30 appearances (18 starts). He followed that up with a 6-goal, 3-assist season in 34 appearances (29 starts).
So what has happened to Blessing? It appears to be positioning.
Positioning can make a huge difference for players. This is not groundbreaking but it can be overlooked. Positional changes can help account for the emergence of players such as Hany Muktar, Luciano Acosta, and Cucho. My first thought was this was the case with Blessing.
Here’s a bunch of heatmaps!
These are no help, at least initially.
In his first two seasons with LAFC, which, remember, are his most productive from a goal-contribution standpoint, it appears they played him in a more attacking role, both based on his heatmaps and positional designations.
2018: it appears that he’s playing as a winger. This is backed up by his positional designations on FBref (mostly LW/LM and RW/RM).
2019: he’s all over the park with his heatmap. FBref has him listed as anything from a LM to a RW to CM to RB, so this makes sense. In multiple games, FBref has him playing as a LM/LW and RB in the same game.
For both of these years, his positional designations and heatmaps correspond with his goal and assist output. Then things change.
2020: his heatmap has him as a right-sided player, which is backed up by designations on FBref of mostly RM and RB (with some CM thrown in).
2021: his heatmap finds him similarly deployed, but he’s back on the left a bit more too. Again, he’s listed a lot as a RM or RB, but now there’s a lot more CM thrown in, which explains the encroachment into the left side of the park without him actually being formally deployed there too often.
2022: last year’s heatmap has him all over the pitch again, but the designations remain mostly RM and CM.
So where does that leave us with Blessing? To me, first and foremost he has proved to be an incredibly flexible player. I love players who can do jobs all over the pitch and blessing appears to do that. Again, he’s a player that Charlotte could use. With that said, oftentimes a player who has positional flexibility has it because he can’t nail down one position. In general, I don’t think Blessings’ decrease in goal contributions is related to a decrease in skill. Rather, I think it has to do with LAFC progressively moving him farther back on the pitch.
This then leads us to the question of how will NE use him? One indication is if we look at how they designate him. If you look on FBref, you will find Blessing listed as a “FW-MF (CM-WM).” Transfermarkt has him listed as a “midfield-Attacking Midfield.” SofaScore has him as a “M” (for midfielder). The Revs, though, are listing him as a forward. This would indicate to me that they plan on having him revert to a role more similar to his first two years–and especially his first year–in LA.
When looking at the composition of their team, this would make sense. Below is the heatmap for their great CAM, Carles Gil.
Blessing isn’t going to be a CAM for NE and I wouldn’t think they’d pair these two in the midfield either. Gil is only listed at 5’6.5″ and 150 lbs. That would be an incredibly tiny midfield. Pushing Blessing to the wing would make more sense. Additionally, NE employs a really good RB in Brandon Bye (2 goals, 7 assists last year). Finally, against Chicago for the last game of the year, NE had Nacho Gil as their starting RW. Nacho Gil is no longer on NE (in fact, he’s currently without a club). Blessing could see time on the left wing, too. It appears Bou started there in the 2022 finale, though. All signs point to Blessing being their new right-sided forward.
Editor’s Note: Apparently NE did resign Nacho Gil. Transfermarkt’s transfer page for NE had him listed as “Without Club,” which threw Josh off. He was resigned by them in January. However, he is listed in the injury report so unclear if he’ll factor in the game.
For what it’s worth, MLS’s official site’s preview of NE has them in a 4-4-2 diamond, with Bou as a 2nd striker to Vrioni and Blessing as a right midfielder in the diamond. This is obviously a very possible formation, but according to FBref, NE was almost exclusively a 4-3-2-1 team last year. Whatever the formation, my gut tells me they’ll be looking to push Blessing higher up the pitch on the right side. This move has been a bit under the radar, but I think it’s a really good one. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Blessing back up to 5-7 goals and 4-6 assists this season.
Romney is a veteran of MLS. He began his career with the LA Galaxy, making 84 appearances (69 starts) for them over 5 seasons. He joined Nashville in 2020 and became a mainstay. In 3 years with Nashville, he made 87 appearances with 86 starts!
Romney will chip in the odd goal (3 goals last year, 9 for his career). More impressively for a center-back, though, he will chip in assists. He has 11 career assists, including 5 over the past 3 seasons. At 29, he’s still in his prime as a defender and, having played the last few seasons for a notoriously defensive-minded side, he’s a good addition for NE. He’ll be paired with Henry Kessler, who is a bit of a forgotten man. Kessler was very good for NE in 2021, but last year he was coming back from injury. It doesn’t appear that he ever really got back to full form last year. Now a year removed from injury, this CB-pairing has the potential to be one of the best in the league.
As we can see, Romney is quite good against dribblers when pressed into it, but doesn’t appear to be a front-footed defender. It should always be noted that defensive metrics are never as telling as offensive ones and CBs are often products of their team’s scheme. Regardless, it should make for an interesting matchup between him and Vargas or Gaines (I’m assuming).
His passing is middle of the road for a CB, but the rate at which he crosses into the penalty area is interesting. Kessler’s passing ability is very good, which should help make up for Romney’s lack of range.
Finally, Romney is good at aerials. Kessler isn’t terrible (46th percentile for % of aerials won) in the air, but NE probably wanted to find someone to bolster this area. Like with most great CB pairings, it’s not about each partner doing everything well; it’s about the balance between the partners. On paper, Romney and Kessler appear to balance each other out very well.
There are a few other players that should be highlighted for New England.
First, I haven’t touched on Gil, but he really is an amazing player. I know he rubs a lot of Charlotte, and MLS, fans wrong because of his reputation for being a bit dive-y. I’ll admit, I don’t really see that in him (or at least not any more so than other players). At 5’6.5″, he’s not a big guy, so going down under challenges is probably to be expected. Regardless of how you feel about him, here are his stats since he’s joined the Revolution:
Yes, the PKs do inflate his goal numbers quite a bit, but he’s not a striker. As such, PK inflation doesn’t bother me as much with him as it would with a #9. These assist numbers are also from FBref, as–say it together–soccer should not have hockey assists (looking at you, MLS official stats). It’s difficult to understate how good Gil is at getting the ball to his teammates. NE scored a total of 47 goals last year, meaning that he provided the assist on almost 20% of them (19%, to be exact). With better forward play throughout the year, he probably hits double digits again. The Revolution goes as Gil does. I’d be tempted to man-mark him.
In goal, NE keeps finding talent. Having sold Matt Turner to Arsenal, one would expect their goalkeeping to become a weakness. Instead, they inserted a 22-year-old Đorđe Petrović into goal and he instantly became a top 5 MLS keeper, at least. There are even rumors of Manchester United keeping close tabs on him.
Petrović made 21 starts last year, allowing 27 goals, having an 82.7% save rate, and keeping 7 clean sheets. He had an outrageous +13.1 PSxG+/-, which was good for 1st in the league. He did have 13 fewer games than Andre Blake of Philadelphia, who for my money is easily the best keeper in MLS. Blake was 2nd in MLS in PSxG+/- at +10.0. Petrović’s PSxG+/- was double that of 3rd place Dayne St. Claire (+6.9). For further reference, Kahlina ended the season with a -3.6 PSxG+/-, good for 54th in the league! Yes, that ranking obviously includes keepers who only made 1 or 2 starts, but, again, we might have a goalkeeper issue. Topic for another day…By the way, Gaga Slonina, who Chelsea paid an estimated $15M for, had a -0.5 PSxG+/- in 32 games. Yes, Slonina is 4 years younger than Petrović, but we might all have been paying a bit too much attention to the wrong young goalkeeper.
The biggest thing that jumps out to me about Petrović is his ability against crosses. He was in the 67th percentile for crosses faced, 89th percentile for crosses stopped, and 89th percentile for crosses stopped percentage. Plan A should not be to jump lump the ball into the area.
It’ll be interesting to see if Petrović can keep this pace up. If so, two things will be true. 1) We will have a new best goalkeeper in MLS and 2) He will quickly not be in MLS (therefore reverting back to us having the same best goalkeeper).
New England is a tough team to face first. Having played them last season with Buksa, we at least face a worse striker, but they continue to employ one of the best creators in the league (Gil), one of the best goalkeepers (Petrović), have added a potentially dangerous winger (Blessing), and improved their defense (Romney).
There are a number of players I haven’t touched on either that can’t be ignored. Both of their fullbacks, Bye and DeJuan Jones, are some of the better ones for this league. Matt Polster serves as a good midfield anchor, while Andrew Farrell is probably now the best 3rd CB in the league. Veterans such as Thomas McNamara, Jozy Altidore, Wood, and Omar Gonzalez provide good depth (if not the overall quality they each individually had).
Expectations for NE from their fans are probably playoffs, but I think they’re probably a similar team to Charlotte in that both have some holes, some question marks, and definite room for overall improvement. They seem like a team that will probably be fighting with Charlotte for that 6th-9th spot. As such, it’s an important game for us. Of course, if Vrioni makes a jump and Blessing reverts back to his 2018 and 2019 form, coupled with Gil, they could finish higher.
For Charlotte, my worry comes in defense. Up top, I expect a front 4 of Jóźwiak-Copetti-Gaines-Świderski. I can actually see that being a very potent lineup. The biggest question of that group is probably whether it will be Gaines or Vargas. I’ve said it before, Vargas right now is what people think Gaines is. Vargas has a higher ceiling, to be sure, and needs plenty of playing time this year. Right now, though, Gaines is the better player and should be starting.
(Note: Justin did bring up on the preview pod this Wednesday that Vargas’ delivery has looked better in the preseason. As I said on the pod, 1) I don’t really put too much stock into the preseason and 2) wasn’t able to see any of those games. If he has truly improved his delivery, the difference between Gaines and him–which already isn’t very big–becomes even smaller and the argument for him to be starting becomes more justified.)
In the midfield, I expect to see Westwood and Bronico. I’m a big fan of Nuno Santos and I expect him to find his way into the starting lineup. There are rumors of him being deployed on the right side, which might not be the worst thing. We’ve seen so little of him that I’m not sure how he would fair out there. His small-sample size numbers indicate a player that wants to be and should be on the ball a lot. I’m not sure that happens on the outside. Plus, I do believe Lattanzio values pace from wingers. I honestly don’t know if Nuno has that kind of pace; I know Vargas and Gaines do.
In goal, I expect to see Sisniega. I know there has been a “competition” between him and Marks, but the fact that Sisniega was the one to start games last year tells me he has the leg up in this. Plus, he has the size of a real goalkeeper.
The real issues come in the backline. Barring a setback in health, our star boy Malanda should start alongside Nathan Byrne. The left side is where there are a huge amount of question marks to be found.
It seems more and more likely that Harrison Afful will start at LB. It’s not a prospect that excites me. Derrick Jones has seen a lot of time at CB during the preseason, so there’s a chance he starts there for the opener. Personally, I’d much prefer us to throw Tuiloma into the lineup. He’s 27, has been in the league for 5 years, has 57 appearances for Portland over the past 2 years, and should be able to immediately play. We gave up a decent amount for him, so the plan can’t be for him to back up a midfielder pretending to be a CB.
At left back, Sobociński has gotten some time there this preseason. I don’t expect that to happen for this first game, nor do I expect our #1 overall pick, Diop, to play, but I’d prefer either option over Afful. Amazingly, I’d even prefer…gulp…Joseph Mora over Afful.
When Charlotte made their summer signings, I was of the opinion that the least likely to provide a meaningful impact for us in 2022 was going to be Adilson Malanda. A 20-year-old CB coming from Ligue 2. Nah, he was going to ride the bench. I figured Nuno Santos would immediately play and Nathan Byrne would take over the RB spot. I was…wrong.
Unhappily, Guzman Corujo went down with injury in August. Initially, this thrust Jan Sobociński into the starting lineup, though his own injury woes would force him out. It then fell to the young Malanda to pair with Anton Walkes.
As a quick aside: Jan has been a forgotten man when it comes to this backline. Not even 24, he showed real flashes in his time on the pitch last year. Multiple injuries really derailed his season, but if he can shake the injury bug, I believe there is a real player in there.
I don’t think Walkes’ veteran presence should be overlooked when it comes to Malanda’s successful run of form. Malanda’s own ability carried him through his first games in MLS, but Walkes was a steadying presence for him.
Editor’s note: This post was written before Walkes’ death and already included this reference to Walkes and his veteran leadership. These were Josh’s thoughts before his passing and it feels even more appropriate to retain them in the postnow.
It was and continues to be difficult not to be incredibly excited about Malanda’s potential. I’m very much a cautious individual when it comes to young players. While I prefer a talented young player over an aging vet (see: Jóźwiak vs. Reyna), I hesitate to believe in good performances too quickly. Young players tend to go through rough patches. The highs can be great but the lows can be as well.
Malanda will enter the 2023 MLS season as a 21-year-old CB with 6 games (in MLS) to his name. That is it. It is very likely–and even expected–that he will have a run of poor performances. Very few CBs his age start consistently at clubs and fewer still do so at a consistently high level. The ones that do are the elite of the elite. In my time watching soccer, only a few jump immediately to my mind: Thiago Silva, Marquinhos, and William Saliba (yes, Justin, Logan and I will mention him at every opportunity). These are obviously different players in much tougher leagues than MLS. They are also probably better players than Malanda will ever be (we’re talking about one of the best CBs ever in Silva, a CB who has been a starter for Roma and PSG since he was 18 in Marquinhos, and the young player of the year in France last year who has been a standout on the league-leading Arsenal). That is not a knock on Malanda, as he seems to have the potential to be a top CB in MLS, if not force his way back to Europe.
When looking at CBs, there are a few things I look for, aside from the ability to tackle.
He needs to be at least 6’0″. Yes, I am a height snob when it comes to CBs. I want them to be bullies and command the penalty area.
He needs to be able to progress the ball out from the back. This comes in the form of passing, but also dribbling ability. I don’t need a CB to be Neymar on the ball, but he should have the technical ability and on-ball confidence to turn a defender from time to time or take the space when it is given.
He needs to be able to chip in 3-5 goals per year.
He needs the pace to be able to recover. A CB is never going to win a footrace with the likes of Gaines, Ruan, or some of the other quicker players in the league. However, he needs to have enough pace to match up with 80% of the forwards in a league and the wherewithal to manage his limitations against the quicker players.
How does Malanda stack up with these “requirements”?
Quick note: I will be using FBref stats and their scouting report. We should take the scouting report percentages with a HUGE grain of salt. Malanda has 6 games in MLS. It’s an incredibly small sample size, however, I think it’s still worthwhile to see how he is stacking up so far. I expect these numbers to change over a full season–some probably drastically.
First, he’s listed at 6’1″ on Charlotte’s site (though he’s listed half an inch shorter on FBref). Having seen him in person, this seems about right. He’s only 165 lbs and looks it. He’s spindly and wiry, but that doesn’t seem to stop him from being physical in games. I would probably like to see him add about 10 pounds of muscle, but there’s a balance between him doing that and potentially losing some of his pace/quickness.
Malanda can pass. When he was first signed, there wasn’t much information out there for him. I found this video and what jumped out to me was his confidence to make a pass and run with the ball.
As with any YouTube highlight video, there aren’t bad plays in here–but his ability to be calm on the ball, go around a player, and make a pass are all evident.
Malanda’s passing ability is already evident, but I don’t think we’ve seen its full impact. This is probably due to Lattanzio. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way either. I imagine CL wanted to have Malanda focus on defending and leave the penetrative distribution to others. For a young player coming to a new league in a new country with a new language, this all makes sense.
On the season, Malanda attempted 376 total passes, good for 62.7 attempts per 90. That was good for 4th on the team behind Santos (71.7 passes attempted/90), Afful (71.5 passes attempted/90), and Fuchs (70.3 passes attempted/90). Technically, Hegardt led the team with 120 passes attempted/90 (!!!) but he had 0.2 90s, so it’s hard to really count him. Even Santos is a bit iffy to count with this, as he only had 1.8 90s. Regardless, the point is that even if Malanda wasn’t meant to be a focal point of distribution, he saw a lot of the ball.
Note: some of Charlotte’s struggles offensively can probably be traced to the fact that our defenders lead the team in passes attempted per 90. Hegardt and Santos, as previously mentioned, are dubious to include in these rankings due to their overall lack of playing time. Even if you do include them, though, 9 of our top 11 players in this category were defenders. If you exclude them, Bronico is the only non-defender to break the top 10 (51.3 passes attempted/90). That is problematic and something that has to be changed in the coming season. It’s also one of the reasons I view Santos as such an important player moving forward. It’s a very small sample size, but those 71.7 passes attempted/90 are much needed.Westwood, if healthy, should also help.
Of his 376 passes, Malanda completed 326 of them (54.3 completed passes/90) at an 86.7% clip. Breaking it down even further, most of his passing came in the medium range (194 completed of 207 attempted, 93.7% completion percentage). He completed 93 of 97 short passes (95.9%). Where I’m most excited to see him evolve is in his long passing; he only attempted 63 long passes last year, completing 37 of them (58.7%). In the video above, there were numerous times when he would hit a long diagonal ball to the wing. That’s something I would like to see from him more this year.
Malanda Passing Percentiles vs. MLS CBs, past 365 days, via FBref.com
For a then-20-year-old, this is outstanding. Compared with his central defender peers, Malanda is already a league leader in passing. His one area of improvement needs to be with key passes, but, again, he was 20! We can nitpick a few areas if we want, but when there is this much green, you just enjoy it (while also continuing to acknowledge the all-important small sample size).
Goals are never the most important stat for a CB, but the very best teams always seem to have a CB who chips in some goals. Malanda has never actually scored a goal in his professional career and has only 1 assist (last year for Charlotte). Thus, there’s nothing in his history that necessarily leads you to believe that he could contribute 3-5 goals per season. Yet, I think he will and it’s mostly due to one thing: his ability to time runs and jumps.
Logan was one of the first people I heard mention this, but Malanda has already shown an ability to get himself into good positions from corners. He crashes down into the box.
Charlotte at Chicago Fire, 9/17/22
Malanda doesn’t score this, but his run and jump from deep are so well-timed. It causes confusion in the box, which allows Świderski to finish off the chance.
Charlotte vs. NYCFC, 9/10/22
This second one deserved a goal. It’s a fantastic ball in from Vargas and, again, Malanda’s run and jump are impeccable.
Of course, I would be remiss not to mention that the numbers don’t necessarily bear out his aerial ability. In fact, they show the opposite.
Malanda Miscellaneous Percentiles vs. MLS CBs, past 365 days, via FBref.com
Yikes. Those numbers are not great and show a definite area of improvement. I predict–and am confident that–further game experience will improve these numbers.
Malanda has shown the ability to recover and provide cover for teammates. In the Chicago game, the second goal comes from a good move by Chicago and poor decision-making by Malanda’s veteran teammates, Walkes and Afful.
Charlotte at Chicago Fire, 9/17/22
When the ball is played, Malanda is on the halfway line and a few good yards behind the fullback making a run. He covers the ground exceptionally well, forcing #2 on Chicago to cut back. Unfortunately, no one but Malanda and Byrne has tracked back well on this play and Chicago gets a goal.
This next angle shows it even better.
Charlotte at Chicago Fire, 9/17/22
In general, you don’t want a CB to have to go full-bore, as that usually means a mistake has been made somewhere else. It will happen, though, and it’s good to know that Malanda has the ability to catch up.
With only 6 games under his belt at the MLS level–and only 40 total for his career–it’s far too soon to say exactly what Adilson Malanda is. This discussion has also largely ignored his tackling ability, so let’s take a look.
Malanda Defensive Percentiles vs. MLS CBs, past 365 days, via FBref.com
There is clearly room for improvement. His relative lack of errors is encouraging, as is his ability against dribblers. Of course, that ability hasn’t been extensively tested. FBref has him in only 3 duels vs. dribblers. While his 100% success rate in these situations is good (you certainly want him at 100% and not 0%), there’s not a big enough sample to say that it will be predictive of his future ability.
It should be noted that defensive stats are notoriously fickle and, of all the advanced stats, the least fleshed out, in my opinion. That is not to excuse these numbers; Malanda will need to improve them if he is to reach the heights the beginning of his Charlotte career has hinted at. To be a true defensive stopper, you will want him to get stuck in a bit more and have success while doing it. With that said, I don’t think these numbers need to be overly concerning for us just yet due to the small sample and age.
It’s hard not to dream about Malanda’s future. It does look that bright. Charlotte’s first overall pick, Diop, also shows some of these same traits (ball carrying, passing, physical build). Even Jan fits in this mold. It seems Charlotte has a CB prototype in mind.
For the upcoming year, all Charlotte fans should be excited for a Malanda-Corujo pairing, provided Corujo comes back healthy. This is not a given; ACLs, while common, are not easy injuries to come back from. They take time and there are often setbacks (usually in the form of muscular strains). Don’t be surprised if it takes a few months to see the pre-injury Corujo. It could even take most of next year.
Once Corujo does get back, this pairing should really complement each other. I’ve long said that Corujo’s biggest weakness was his lack of distribution. This deficit should be covered by Malanda’s on-ball ability.
Malanda, meanwhile, is still learning how to tackle and defend at a high level. Corujo is an aggressive defender, which I know worries some. While his aggressiveness can cause issues, he is a really good tackler and defensive stopper (91st percentile in tackles and tackles won, 96th percentile in tackles in the defensive 3rd, 88th percentile in dribbles contested, 91st percentile in tackles plus clearances). His aggressiveness can get him caught out at times, but, again, I think Malanda’s pace and more balanced defending can help cover for that.
Center-back pairings often come down more to chemistry than talent. Yes, ability is important, but unless you have a generational talent (in which case, he’s not at Charlotte), you need to balance those abilities. I’m very optimistic about Malanda and Corujo doing just that. Even more than that, though, I’m confident in Malanda’s ability, regardless of the partner.