There's been no lack of talking points this week following Portland's 2-nil loss in Colorado, including the altered starting lineup that included Steve Zakuani on the left wing, Gaston Fernandez up top, and Maxi Urruti on the bench. But there was another wrinkle in the lineup as well, one that understandably flew under the radar a bit. Diego Valeri was positioned on the right side of midfield with Darlington Nagbe suiting up as resident playmaker and scheming from the middle of the park. Having those two positioned in that manner isn't all that surprising---we often see Caleb Porter swap the Nagbe/Valeri parts to try and create a more dangerous machine---but rarely have we seen it for an entire game.
The standard starting formation last season saw Rodney Wallace line up on the left side with Valeri in the middle and Nagbe out on the right. While Wallace played the wide "winger" role often to perfection, it's well-known by now that Nagbe and Valeri were more interchangeable, depending on where Porter thought one or the other could take advantage of a particular opponent. Sure, Nagbe can slice and dice into the center of the field and has been given the freedom to go where the play takes him, but the two also completely switched roles occasionally. But here's the catch: it was usually for a certain chunk of time. Maybe 20 minutes, maybe a half. It would require rewatching every game from last season to gather definitive evidence, but only the first game in Seattle (a 1-1 draw on March 16th) stands out in my mind as a match where Valeri played the whole of the game in a less-than-clearly-in-the-middle role.
So following last weekend's PK-riddled performance that saw Valeri closer to the right touchline than the center circle for the entirety of the 72 minutes he played, I couldn't help but wonder if there was some way to quantify Valeri's effectiveness depending on where he's stationed. So I went back and watched the 3-5 minutes leading up to every goal (10) and assist (13) Valeri tallied last season and noted where he was playing (random runs wide or central notwithstanding) when he scored or assisted.
While playing in the middle: 8
While playing on the right: 2
80% of Valeri's goals came while he was primarily positioned as the central playmaker, and 70% of his assists came while in that role.
But as I watched, one thing in particular jumped out at me. Many of Valeri's assists came from free kicks and corners and one of his goals came from a penalty kick. So I looked over the numbers again and decided to remove any goals and assists not scored from the run of play (although it could be argued that where he was on the field contributed to those set pieces, except that he wasn't always involved in the events that led to said set pieces).
Open Play Goals
Open Play Assists
The numbers don't change that much. If we round/average both sets together we essentially get that 80% of Valeri's goals come when he's playing in the middle, along with 70% of his assists. Which begs the question, should Valeri just be playing in the middle all the time? The answer is... maybe. One thing we really don't know is the number of minutes he played in each role and what his goals/assists per minute were in those different positions. But that, as mentioned before, would literally require watching every minute of every game and recording when and where Valeri was positioned.
Porter addressed the topic earlier this week with the media:
We are pretty fluid in that line of three. We played Valeri [on the right] last year. Some of you guys might not have realized it because I don't always tell you where I am playing guys, but he started several games in that position and did well coming in and out. Depending on the game he can get faced up and freed up there a little bit better, so we felt that [against Colorado] he could come in and pop balls through the back line. We thought Nagbe [in the middle] could get on the ball a bit more and drive out of midfield and run behind Gaston.
There will be different games where we start [Valeri] at the ten and Nagbe on the right. We see those two players as being very interchangeable, whereas Zakuani, or last year Rodney Wallace, they provide the width and pretty much stay in the channel on the left side. It is a pretty similar look to what we had last year. We will start Darlington and Valeri in different spots but they will interchange a ton...
Valeri is still coming back. Is he playing his best? I think he would be the first to agree, no, but it is not that he is not a good player, but that he is still coming back. He has been injured. He has got to get into form. None of us are worried about him, or any of the other guys.
Without more data it may be hard to get a definitive answer on whether Valeri is more effective in the middle or on the right, but with the amount of time he spent creating from the number ten spot last season, it's easy to see why there's at least a perception that he should be in the middle.