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Nagbe’s Numbers

Where on the field is Darlington Nagbe most effective?

MLS: Portland Timbers at Colorado Rapids Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Darlington Nagbe may be the strangest highly controversial person in sports. Quiet and unfailingly polite, Nagbe is about as far as you can get from the love-them-or-hate-them personalities that soak up the conversational oxygen in the sporting universe.

Yet, whether hot, cold, or somewhere in between, there is nobody on the Portland Timbers — and there are are few players in the U.S. Men’s National Team player pool — that generates as many takes as Nagbe does.

And the reason for that is relatively straightforward: Nagbe is as technically talented as he is positionally ambiguous. His prodigious pace stands in stark contrast to his far-from-prolific production.

Accordingly, across the American soccer landscape there seems to be perpetual debate about just about everything surrounding Darlington Nagbe, at least on the soccer field.

Chief among those debates in Portland has been where Nagbe fits best on the field for the Timbers. Every good debate, however, must have a basis in fact. And so it’s time — probably past time — to take a comprehensive look at Darlington Nagbe’s statistics (traditional and semi-advanced) at each position he has played in Portland under Caleb Porter, and to see where the numbers say Nagbe is most at home on the field with the Timbers.

Before we jump into the numbers, however, we need to be sure we’re using them correctly, which requires some words about methodology and its inherent limitations. First, Nagbe is a difficult player to categorize by position because he has played so many and has frequently switched positions during games. Accordingly, in order to match Nagbe to the position he played in each game, I used the MLS lineup sheets together with some double checking in the Opta-powered chalkboard to identify to the best of my ability the primary position that Nagbe played in each game. As a result, however, there is necessarily some data that attributes an entire game to a position when, in fact, Nagbe played at least one secondary position in that game.

The data, therefore, should be approached with some caution when it comes to drawing fine distinctions between positions, and is best used to spot broader trends. Put another way, the data is inherently a little bit noisy, so we need to be careful not to read too much into signals.

With that in mind, let’s see what can be derived from the numbers.

Nagbe’s effectiveness can be separated into two broad categories: influence and production. To measure Nagbe’s influence, we look to see how much Nagbe is getting on the ball and influencing the game. How many passes is Nagbe attempting and completing? How many dribbles is Nagbe completing and where on the field is he connecting his passes?

Production, on the other hand, looks to the end result: How many chances is Nagbe creating? How many assists is he logging and how many goals is he scoring?

Under Caleb Porter’s tutelage, Nagbe has played four positions in Portland: as a box-to-box central midfielder (also known as a number eight), an attacking central midfielder (also known as a number ten), on the left wing, and on the right wing. Under Porter, Nagbe has made 17 appearances primarily as an eight, 15 appearances primarily as a ten, 29 appearances on the left wing, and 76 appearances on the right wing.

In addition, it’s important to note here that Nagbe has moved around frequently under Caleb Porter. In his four years since Porter arrived, Nagbe has never played primarily at the same position in more than nine consecutive games. Nagbe has very much, therefore, been used as a Swiss Army knife in the Timbers’ system, something that is understandable given his versatility and the depth pressures that MLS rules place on roster structure, but is nonetheless suboptimal in terms of optimizing his production.

Here are the Timbers’ points per game when Nagbe plays each of his four positions:

Points-per-Game by Nagbe’s Position

Position Appearances Points Per Game
Position Appearances Points Per Game
Eight 17 1.38
Ten 15 1.87
Left Wing 29 1.41
Right Wing 76 1.53
* Highest value in bold.

Like a pitcher’s wins in baseball, however, the points-per-game by position data should be approached with extreme caution. There are far too many factors that can affect these numbers (e.g., who else was playing for the Timbers or the opponent that Portland was playing) that have nothing to do with Nagbe to read much of anything into this data in isolation. For example, four of Nagbe’s appearances as a ten came in 2013 (three wins and a draw), during periods in which the Timbers flipped Nagbe and Valeri frequently. Without just those four games, the Timbers’ points-per-game with Nagbe as a ten drop from 1.87 to 1.63.

So we’re going to do a bit better by digging into Nagbe’s individual performances by position using our two major groups: influence and production.

Nagbe’s Influence

To look at Nagbe’s influence by position, let’s look at four statistics: (1) passes attempted per game; (2) passes completed per game; (3) successful dribbles per game, which Opta defines as “an attempt by a player to beat an opponent in possession of the ball” in which the attacking player “beats the defender while retaining possession”; and (4) passes completed in the final third per game (i.e., any pass completed in which the receiving player receives the ball in the attacking third of the field).

Before we get to a position-by-position comparison, however, let’s set a baseline with Nagbe’s overall per-game numbers in each of these categories.

Nagbe Overall Influence

Passes Passes Completed Successful Dribbles Final Third Passes Completed
Passes Passes Completed Successful Dribbles Final Third Passes Completed
41.79 36.65 2.38 13.97

Now let’s break it down by looking at Nagbe’s per-game numbers by position.

Nagbe Influence by Position

Position Appearances Passes Passes Completed Successful Dribbles Final Third PC
Position Appearances Passes Passes Completed Successful Dribbles Final Third PC
Eight 17 55.19 50.25 2.88 15.56
Ten 15 43.07 37.8 2.47 13.53
Left Wing 29 36.52 32 2.07 12.97
Right Wing 76 40.74 35.34 2.37 14.11
* Highest value in bold.

The conclusion here is clear. By every measure Nagbe is most influential as an eight, and by significant margins. Nagbe remained influential as a ten, but he didn’t find the ball nearly as much in an attacking-central role as he did as an eight. As for the wing positions, Nagbe is more influential on the right than he is on the left, although both positions trailed the central-midfield spots.

Now let’s look at perception. Over the holiday weekend I took to Twitter to gauge the extent to which perception reflected reality with respect to Nagbe’s numbers.

As you can see, with respect to both passes completed and successful dribbles, perception matched reality. There’s a reason people perceived Nagbe as most influential as an eight: He was.

And it wasn’t particularly close.

This, of course, isn’t altogether surprising. Playing at the eight, Nagbe is in the primary position on the field at which you expect a player to get on the ball when the Timbers force a turnover, are in the early stages of the buildup, need to facilitate some possession, or are looking to catalyze an attack. On the other hand, as truly attacking player, a ten typically isn’t going to get on the ball as much as an eight because the eight is going to be much more involved in possession and transition while the ten is going to primarily look to receive the ball in attacking positions. That pattern very much holds true with Nagbe.

Perhaps the most surprising piece of this data, however, is that Nagbe’s passes completed in the final third as a ten were quite mediocre, ranking third out of the four positions (behind the eight and the right wing, but above the left wing). But, without yet looking at production, this can be explained relatively easily: At the eight, Nagbe’s passes into the final third are largely relatively straightforward entries into the attacking third. As a ten, on the other hand, Nagbe’s passes are more likely to be within the final third and into or around the box where spaces are quite a bit tighter.

Still, Nagbe’s lack of final-third pass completions may be a word of warning here for Nagbe as a ten: He may have a tendency to drop a bit too deep as a ten and, thus, Nagbe may not be putting himself in optimal playmaking positions as much as Porter would like to see from an attacking central midfielder. Keep this in mind as we turn to Nagbe’s production.

But a similar problem may arise on the wings, which are conceptually more comparable to each other than the ten and eight are: It’s possible that when Nagbe plays on the right he tends to play deeper, and, as a result, he both gets on the ball more and his passes into the final third are more routine than they are on the left. As a result, Nagbe may somewhat increase his influence on the right wing, but potentially at the expense of his production.

In any event, if you’re going to rank the positions at which Nagbe is most influential, it would be as follows: (1) eight, (2) ten, (3) right wing, and (4) left wing.

Nagbe’s Production

To look at Nagbe’s production, let’s again look at four statistics: (1) Goals per game; (2) shots per game; (3) assists per game; and (4) chances created from open play per game (which Opta defines as assists plus passes that lead to the recipient taking a shot, excluding set pieces).

Again, in order to set a baseline, let’s take a look at Nagbe’s overall production:

Nagbe Overall Production

Goals Per Game Shots Per Game Assists Per Game OP Chances Created Per Game
Goals Per Game Shots Per Game Assists Per Game OP Chances Created Per Game
0.125 1.51 0.169 1.57

And now let’s again break it down by position.

Nagbe Production by Position

Position Appearances Goals/Game Shots/Game Assists/Game OPCC/Game
Position Appearances Goals/Game Shots/Game Assists/Game OPCC/Game
Eight 17 0.058 1.06 0.118 1.25
Ten 15 0.133 1.87 0.333 1.67
Left Wing 29 0.172 1.69 0.241 1.9
Right Wing 76 0.118 1.46 0.118 1.5
* Highest value in bold.

Nagbe’s production takes a predictable (albeit dramatic) hit relative to his influence as an eight, but he also gets a predictable — and somewhat underwhelming — bump as a ten. But that’s not the real surprise here.

The surprise with Nagbe’s production numbers is how much more productive Nagbe is on the left wing relative to the right wing, and even how productive Nagbe is on the left relative to his production in the middle.

From a production standpoint, Nagbe’s numbers on the left far outpace his numbers on the right in every substantive category. And on balance Nagbe’s numbers on the left are comparable to his numbers at the ten, where you’d expect Nagbe to be at his most productive as a result of being both attack-focused and positionally centric. Nagbe surprisingly has a better strike rate and creates more chances from open play on the left than he does as a ten, while — as would be expected — he shows a greater assist and shot rate in the center.

Meanwhile, Nagbe is woefully unproductive as a right winger. Although on the right wing he unsurprisingly outpaces his production as an eight, Nagbe’s right-wing production is — to put it bluntly — poor, trailing far behind his production as a ten and, especially, as a left winger.

To rank Nagbe’s production by position, then, there would be a close race for first and second between the left wing and the ten (I’d give a slight nod to the left wing on account of Nagbe’s strike-rate, chances created, and a greater sample size), followed at some surprising distance by the right wing with the eight clearly bringing up the rear.

But here is where perception departs significantly from reality.

The clear perception is that Nagbe is better as an eight, and, therefore, he is also more productive at that position. But that is emphatically not the case — again, the eight was Nagbe’s least productive position by quite some distance, and registered a distant last in both strike-rate and open-play chances created per game.

The production data, therefore, supports the two warning signs we discussed with respect to Nagbe’s influence: As a right winger and to a lesser extent as a ten, it appears Nagbe drops deeper than you would expect in both positions and, therefore, gains some influence at the expense of production.

But, unlike the eight, both the left wing and the ten are production-centric positions.

That problem, however, does not manifest itself as a left winger, where Nagbe’s production doesn’t suffer from the underperformance we see elsewhere. If you project Nagbe’s left-wing production to date over the course of a 34-game season, he would score about six goals and tally approximately eight assists. Although those would be middling numbers as a ten, those aren’t bad numbers for a winger where statistical production is ordinarily a little bit harder to come by. In 2016, those kinds of numbers would have put Nagbe in the company of wingers like Shkelzen Gashi (9 goals, 4 assists); Michael Barrios (9 goals, 2 assists); Burrito Martinez (7 goals, 3 assists); and Ethan Finlay (6 goals, 9 assists).

Going Forward

Assuming Nagbe returns to the Timbers — an assumption that I think is relatively (but not entirely) safe and seemingly getting safer — there are several things that we can take away from this analysis.

Given other choices, Nagbe shouldn’t be played on the right wing. And any sensible discussion of why Nagbe has failed to live up to his lofty expectations to date must include the apparent fact that he has spent the majority of the last four seasons playing his worst position.

The debate that could be ongoing, however, is whether Nagbe should be played primarily as a winger or as an eight. With the signing of David Guzman, it is clear Porter and company see Nagbe primarily on the wing, and — if these numbers are an indication of their thinking — on the left wing, in particular.

After the Timbers’ 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake in September, in response to a question about the ongoing viability of the single-pivot 4-3-3, Porter indicated he thinks the late-2015 switch of Nagbe to the eight was largely figured out by opponents in 2016, and, therefore, it’s probably no longer an option as the Timbers’ primary tactical approach. In Porter’s view, teams started inverting their wingers against the Timbers, which exploited Nagbe’s relative defensive weakness as a box-to-box midfielder and overwhelmed Diego Chara. This contention withstands at least the initial — albeit imperfect — scrutiny of looking at the Timbers’ record during those periods, as the Timbers were 3-0-3 (2.0 PPG) with that approach in late 2015, but 2-6-1 (0.78 PPG) in 2016.

Nagbe’s influence as an eight, however, is real. So even if Nagbe stepping into central midfield in a box-to-box role isn’t necessarily Plan A for the Timbers going forward, there may yet be circumstances in which that provides an attractive option as a change of pace.

Finally, Nagbe needs — and perhaps desperately needs — more consistency in where he plays. Although there is a good argument that Nagbe’s best position (and certainly most productive) is as a left winger, he’s never played more than four consecutive games at the position. If the Timbers want to maximize Nagbe’s impact, they can’t keep playing him as a jack of all trades.

Although slavish devotion to Nagbe on the left wing certainly isn’t necessary (or necessarily desirable given the matchup flexibility that moving Nagbe on occasion can give the Timbers), it’s hard not to relate the inconsistency in Nagbe’s production at least in part to his inability to find a relatively permanent home at any position, to say nothing of a position that is a good fit. Whether as a left winger or otherwise, therefore, it’s time for Nagbe to find a home in the Timbers’ setup.

Regardless what the Timbers do with Nagbe going forward, however, there will always be debate about where to play a player that frustrates as much as he tantalizes.

And although that debate will always include what people see on the field, Nagbe’s numbers themselves have quite a bit to say about where the Timbers’ ought to deploy their sheepish magnet for controversy.