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A Midfield Opus

Updated: Jul 26, 2022

There is a growing divide amongst Charlotte fans about who should compose our midfield. In all honesty, Charlotte aren't really lacking for choices here; we have a quite a few (in no particular order):

  • Jordy Alcívar

  • Titi Ortiz

  • Sergio Ruiz

  • Ben Bender

  • Brandt Bronico

  • Alan Franco

  • Derrick Jones

As with anything, the question is: are any of these options any good?


For the purposes of this post, I'm excluding Titi and Jones. Titi, because I'm still upset with his effort on Orlando's second goal and don't think he should play for awhile; Jones, because, well, he really hasn't played and I don't think anyone is calling for that to happen (at least at the moment).


That leaves 5 options for the midfield: Alcívar, Bender, Bronico, Franco, and Ruiz. I'm going to be upfront in saying that a signifant reason I am writing this post is to defend Franco. I'm a fan and I've said this before, but for a guy who runs a numbers-based blog, my love for Franco has nothing to do with numbers. It's based purely on vibes. I'm hoping that this deep dive will give me some actual data to use to defend him, but I don't know that it will. If it doesn't, I will be the first to admit it.

 

For all the tables below, player names are in alphabetical order. All data are from FBref in order to stay as consistent as possible.


A green highlight in any table means that a player leads the group for that category. Some categories in some tables have multiple categories (e.g., in Table 4, column 2 has progressive passes and total progressive distance grouped together, but those two stats can have different leaders). In such cases, players are highlighted green if they lead in one category (e.g., in Table 4, column 2, Franco and Bronico are highlighted because they each lead a different part of that category). If players are tied, they are both highlighted green.

 

Table 1: Minutes, Goals, Assists, Pass%

Player

Minutes (starts/appearances)

Goals (xG)

Assists (xA)

Pass Percentage

Alcívar, Jordy

554 (7/8)

1 (0.5)

1 (0.9)

80.8%

Bender, Ben

589 (6/10)

1 (1.3)

3 (1.4)*

79.8%

Bronico, Brandt

779 (9/10)

0 (0.0)

0 (0.01)

84.1%

Franco, Alan

706 (8/9)

0 (0.4)

1 (0.3)

77.7%

Ruiz, Sergio

247 (2/8)

0 (0.2)

1 (0.5)

86.2%

*Note: When you go to Bender’s match logs on FBref, his total for 2022 is at 1.4 xA. However, when you add up the individual xA numbers from each match, it only adds up to 1.3 xA. I assume that he’s at say 0.1456 and 0.2567 (as random, made up numbers) for these matches. They’re rounded for the matches and then rounded for the total, but that 0.1 is lost in the rounding for the matches versus the total.


It's going to be important in this discussion to remember how few minutes Ruiz has played compared with the others. Using stats on a per-90-minute basis helps even out this disparity, but it still shouldn't be ignored. I do highlight him as a leader even when, perhaps, he shouldn't be due to the disparity in playing time.

Bender, of course, leads the way in traditional scoring stats with his 3 assists and 1 goal. I think it is important to note that all three of those assists came in a 3-game stretch in March (along with his lone goal)--in case you haven't noticed, it is now May. The lack of scoring contribution (both in terms of goals and assists) from Bronico isn't really surprising, considering his role. Jordy's goal is the olympico, which, while amazing, isn't really repeatable. To state the obvious, this midfield is lacking in goals and really needs to start contributing to the attack.


This table has begun to highlight what the other tables will build upon, namely, that this midfield group has been average at best, and probably (more accurately) bad. In terms of attack, this midfield does not create much of anything, including goals, assists, or dangerous passing.


The league leader in xA is Luciano Acosta (CIN) at 4.1. Bender is our leader for the team and he ranks 43rd in the league, regardless of position. In this analysis, I did not exclude forwards or defenders for a few reasons. First, Bender is actually listed on FBref as a "MF, FW". This is true for a lot of players in the league and makes sense as the difference between a wide midfielder and a wide forward can, at times, be a matter of semantics. Second, while I am focusing on the midfield here, including forwards and defenders in this discussion doesn't dilute this point. Even if I filter out defenders and forwards, our midfield is still going to be ranked low in a grouping of fewer people. Third, this eliminates the need to argue about how a player is classified on FBref.


A final, interesting note on our team xA: Titi is actually our next highest at 1.0 xA, which is "good" for 80th in the league.

 

Table 2: Pass% by distance

Player

Short pass% (completions/attempts)

Medium pass% (completions/attempts)

Long pass% (completions/attempts)

Alcívar, Jordy

92.1% (93/101)

85.0% (85/100)

60.3% (41/68)

Bender, Ben

88.9% (120/135)

87.1% (74/85)

63.0% (29/46)

Bronico, Brandt

85.9% (110/128)

88.3% (203/230)

73.1% (49/67)

Franco, Alan

83.7% (103/123)

82.9% (107/129)

65.1% (28/43)

Ruiz, Sergio

86.2% (56/65)

91.0% (61/67)

78.9% (15/19)

Sergio really jumps off the page in this table, but this is where small sample size is important to remember. It's a terrific start for him in these categories, but he has so few attempts compared with others. I do think Bender's relative lack of attempts in the medium range is interesting. Ruiz has almost as many medium pass attempts as Bender does in far fewer minutes. If we exclude Ruiz, Bronico paces the group in both medium and long pass percentage categories.

 

Table 3: Touches and Pass% by distance per 90

Player

Touches per 90

Short passes per 90 attempted

Medium passes per 90 attempted

Long passes per 90 attempted

Alcívar, Jordy

54.2

16.3

16.1

11.0

Bender, Ben

56.0

20.8

13.1

7.08

Bronico, Brandt

58.8

14.7

26.4

7.70

Franco, Alan

49.5

15.8

16.5

5.51

Ruiz, Sergio

72.2

24.1

24.8

7.04

Per 90 is where things really start to get interesting. Ruiz is again jumping off the page, leading in 2 categories and being close in a third (medium passes/90). Those touches/90 for Sergio are ridiculous when compared to the others. He appears to be a ball hog (I mean that as a compliment) who wants to assert himself in the game. I think our midfield is in desperate need of someone like this.


Bender's attempts, again, are curious. He's doing a ton of short passing, a fair bit of long passing (at least for this group), but relatively little passing in the medium range. I'm not sure if this is a reflection of tactics or skill. My guess would be a mixture of both, with a lack of attacking options ahead of him sprinkled in.


The table below is where things really start to get dire, though it will take a little explanation for that to become clear.

 

Table 4: Progressive Passing

Player

Progressive passes (total progressive distance in yards)

Progressive passes per 90 (progressive distance per 90)

Passes that led to shots

Passes into the final third

Passes into the 18 yard box (crosses into the 18 yard box)

Alcívar, Jordy

11 (1110)

1.77 (179.0)

12

24

1 (0)

Bender, Ben

19 (940)

2.92 (144.6)

14

19

11 (5)

Bronico, Brandt

22 (1538)

2.53 (176.8)

3

36

1 (0)

Franco, Alan

23 (948)

2.95 (121.5)

7

19

8 (2)

Ruiz, Sergio

11 (532)

4.07 (197.0)

6

5

3 (0)

Before we get too far into this, let's make sure we are on the same page for what "progressive passing" is (directly from FBref):

Completed passes that move the ball towards the opponent's goal at least 10 yards from its furtherest point in the last six passes, or any completed pass into the penalty area. Excludes passes from the defending 40% of the pitch.

Progressive passing is forward passing. Are you taking the game to the opponent? Are you trying to break lines with your passes? Are you moving the ball from your backline to your forwards? Do you have possession with intent? Or do you have meaningless possession where you are just passing the ball around the back in your own half (*cough* this mostly describes Charlotte's possession *cough*)?


I wouldn't go so far as to say progressive passing equals ambitious passing, but it's definitely a large part of it. Not all progressive passes are ambitious, but I would say all ambitious passes are progressive. Charlotte's midfield, regardless of player, is not a progressive or ambitious passing group.


Franco and Bronico leading the way in total number of progressive passes is not really a surprise considering they are the two who have played the most minutes. Ruiz leads the midfield in progressive passes/90, but this category highlights how poor this midfield has been at creating.


After excluding all players who have between 0.0 and 1.9 90s (meaning, only players who have played at least 2 full games worth of minutes are included in these rankings), Ruiz is 108th in the league for progressive passes/90. Our highest-ranked regular is Fuchs at 32nd and Ruiz is next in the rankings for Charlotte! Joseph Mora (169th) has a higher progressive passes/90 than Alcívar (303rd), Bender (266th), Bronico (235th), or Franco (252nd). Overall, this should not be a shock for anyone who has watched this team. Most fans are (rightly) frustrated with the stagnant passing that mostly happens with this side. This stat just supports the eye-test.

 

Table 5: Progressive Pass Opponent Comparison

Player (team)

Number of 90s played

Progressive passes per 90

Total progressive passes

Carles Gil (NE)

8.3

10.4

86

Marky Delgado (LA)

7.6

9.61

73

Marcelino Moreno (ATL)

6.6

7.73

51

Ilie Sánchez (LAFC)

9.0

7.44

67

Maurico Pereyra (ORL)

9.4

7.02

66

Darwin Quintero (HOU)

5.9

6.95

41

These are some notable MLS midfielders/attacking midfielders/wide midfielders and seeing their numbers in these categories, I think, helps to illustrate how poor the midfield has been. Some of these players are elite players in MLS, so the comparison is not wholly fair. However, the fact that none of our midfielders are anywhere close to these numbers is the distressing point.


None of these players above are below 218 yards in progressive distance per 90. Quintero is the lowest at 218 yards per 90, while Gil leads the group with 433.9 progressive yards/90. This group averages 321.3 yards in progressive distance per 90. Charlotte has no midfielder who is above 200 yards of progressive passing/90. If you want to see why we aren't creating chances, look no further.

Our possession stat has been steadily improving, but it's meaningless possession. There is no connection between the backline, the midfield, and the attack. It's no wonder Świderski is looking so frustrated. This team literally cannot get him the ball.

 

Table 6: SCAs and GCAs

Player

Shot-creating actions

Shot-creating actions per 90

Goal-creating actions

Goal-creating actions per 90

Alcívar, Jordy

26

4.22

3

0.49

Bender, Ben

23

3.51

4

0.61

Bronico, Brandt

9

1.04

0

0

Franco, Alan

12

1.53

2

0.25

Ruiz, Sergio

9

3.28

2

0.73

Before looking at what these numbers mean, it’s important to make sure we’re clear on the definition of shot-creating actions (SCAs) and goal-creating actions (GCAs) (directly from FBref):


SCAs are the two offensive actions directly leading to a shot, such as passes, dribbles and drawing fouls. Note: A single player can receive credit for multiple actions and the shot-taker can also receive credit.
GCAs are the two offensive actions directly leading to a goal, such as passes, dribbles and drawing fouls. Note: A single player can receive credit for multiple actions and the shot-taker can also receive credit.

Jordy is our leader on the team for SCAs and is actually ranked decently high in the league rankings at 27th. The league leaders in SCAs are, unsurprisingly, Luciano Acosta and Carles Gil, both at 58 SCAs. Bender comes in at 44th in the league, with a huge drop-off to Franco at 154th in the league. Bronico is 209th and Ruiz is 216th.


On a per 90 basis, Gil is the leader at 6.95 SCA90, with Lucas Zelarayán in 2nd at 6.87 SCA90. Jordy, again, places well at 14th in the league. Bender checks in at 38th and then there is another dramatic drop-off to Franco who is at 189th. Bronico is all the way down at 237th.


Carlos Vela (LAFC) leads the league in GCAs at 7. Gil is the first pure midfielder in the rankings at 5th in the league with 6. Bender is 22nd in the league, Alcívar is 42nd, Franco is 113th, and Ruiz is 133rd.


On a per 90 basis, Talles Magno (NYCFC) is the leader at 1.05 GCA90. Keaton Parks, also of NYCFC, is the top midfielder at 0.86 GCA90. Gil, for references is 11th in the league at 0.72 GCA90. Bender is 27th in the league, Alcívar is 53rd, and Franco is 126th. Although Ruiz technically has a higher GCA90 than Jordy, he hasn't played enough to count for the leaderboards.


The drop-off between Bender/Alcívar in SCAs and GCAs and the rest of our midfield is depressingly large and shows how one of them probably has to be in the lineup. Ruiz’s numbers hint that he can help with this, but we won’t know for sure until he plays more.

 

Let's move onto some defensive numbers. The midfield doesn't particularly shine here either.

 

Table 7: Tackles and Tackles by Area of Pitch

Player

Tackles/Tackles in which CLT won possession of the ball (per 90)

Defensive 3rd tackles (per 90)

Middle 3rd tackles (per 90)

Attacking 3rd tackles (per 90)

Alcívar, Jordy

9/6 (1.45/0.97)

3 (0.48)

6 (0.97)

0 (0)

Bender, Ben

13/5 (2.00/0.77)

1 (0.15)

8 (1.23)

4 (0.62)

Bronico, Brandt

22/11 (2.53/1.26)

9 (1.03)

12 (1.38)

1 (0.11)

Franco, Alan

12/3 (1.54/0.38)

3 (0.38)

8 (1.03)

1 (0.13)

Ruiz, Sergio

3/2 (1.11/0.74)

2 (0.74)

1 (0.37)

0 (0)

I know, there are a lot of numbers and parentheses, especially in the 2nd column. I want to make sure I'm clear with this. To use Jordy as an example: he has a total of 9 tackles for the season, 6 of which resulted in Charlotte getting possession (that's the 9/6). On a per 90 basis, he is making 1.45 tackles and 0.97 tackles result in Charlotte getting possession per 90.


For context, the league leader among midfielders for tackles per game is Pablo Ruíz (henceforth referred to as P. Ruíz to differentiate him from Charlotte's Ruiz) at 45 total tackles, 31 of which resulted in his team (RSL) getting possession. On a per 90 basis, Yuya Kubo (CIN) leads the league at 5.54 tackles per 90. Kubo and P. Ruíz are tied for the league lead in defensive 3rd tackles (24 each). Gastón Giménez (CHI) leads the league with 19 middle 3rd tackles. Mauricio Pereyra (ORL) leads the league with 10 attacking 3rd tackels.


All of this points to another issue with this midfield: even our midfielder tasked with providing defensive cover, Bronico, is no where near elite at his defensive duties. In fact, Luciano Acosta--all 5 foot nothing of him (I kid, he's 5'3"...allegedly...)--has the same total number of tackles as Bronico. In fairness to Brandt, he is 13th in the league in middle 3rd tackles amongst midfielders (2 players listed as "MF,FW" are included in this ranking).

 

Table 8: Tackles vs Take-ons

Player

Tackles vs dribbles (attempts)

Tackle% vs Dribbles

Dribbled past

Alcívar, Jordy

3 (8)

37.5%

5

Bender, Ben

3 (7)

42.9%

4

Bronico, Brandt

7 (16)

43.8%

9

Franco, Alan

3 (10)

30.0%

7

Ruiz, Sergio

1 (5)

20.0%

4

The best "pure" midfielder (i.e., only listed as a "MF" on FBref) in the league for tackle% vs dribbles who has also played at least 7.0 90s is Rémi Walter (KC) at 60% (9 out of 15 attempts).


A lot of people will point to the "dribbled past" stat as an indictment of a player's defensive ability. I know I've seen it as a supposed problem with Franco. Two players we've already discussed--P. Ruíz for RSL and Kubo for CIncy--are actually really high up on this list (17 dribbled past for P. Ruíz and 16 for Kubo, good for 8th and 10th in the league, respectively). If there is actually one good--maybe even elite--thing our midfield appears to be doing it is not letting people dribble past them. Bronico "leads" this midfielder group in this category, but he's only 64th in the league (all positions considered).


I will note that this might be an area of weakness for Ruiz. There's so little data that it would be irresponsible for me to say he's susceptible to being dribbled past, but being dribbled past 4 times with his lack of minutes--compared to the other midfielders--stands out. FBref doesn't keep this kind of stat for the Spanish second division, so we will have to see more from Ruiz before we can say for certain if this is an issue.


The question becomes: what does this stat really mean? If we have players like P. Ruíz and Kubo who are getting in a lot of tackles, but also getting dribbled past a lot, is that a deficiency in their game or a natural result of their play (i.e., if you tackle more, you naturally will get dribbled by more)? I tend to think it's the latter, as P. Ruíz and Kubo have tackle% vs dribbles of 48.5% and 48.4%, respectively, with a high number of attempts (33 for P. Ruíz and 31 for Kubo).


So it leaves us with a group who, while not getting dribbled past much, is also not getting a lot of tackles in. Part of this is probably related to MAR's defensive system, but I imagine part is also a reflection of our midfield players' abilities.

 

Table 9: Pressures

Players

Successful pressures/pressures (per 90)

Successful pressure percentage

Defensive 3rd pressures (per 90)

Middle 3rd pressures (per 90)

Attacking 3rd pressures (per 90)

Alcívar, Jordy

23/97 (3.71/15.6)

23.7%

23 (3.71)

54 (8.71)

20 (3.23)

Bender, Ben

35/123 (5.38/18.9)

28.5%

25 (3.85)

71 (10.9)

27 (4.15)

Bronico, Brandt

61/207 (7.01/23.8)

29.5%

71 (8.16)

122 (14.0)

14 (1.61)

Franco, Alan

37/163 (4.74/20.9)

22.7%

38 (4.87)

83 (10.6)

42 (5.38)

Ruiz, Sergio

12/47 (4.44/17.4)

25.5%

14 (5.19)

26 (9.63)

7 (2.59)

In terms of number of pressures, Bronico is actually 9th in the league (Leon Flach of Philly leads the league with 243). Bronico is also 10th in the league in successful pressures. Those boys P. Ruíz and Kubo again show up at the top of the leaderboards with 94 and 79 successful pressures, respectively, good for 1st and 2nd in the league.


P. Ruíz really stands out here amongst midfielders. He's an impressive player. He is second among midfielders in successful pressure percentage at 42.5%. He trails only Darlington Nagbe of Columbus in percentage (Nagbe is at 43.4%) among midfielders. Nagbe only has 99 pressure attempts, though, compared with P. Ruíz's 221!


In fact, among the top 30 players in MLS for pressure attempts, regardless of position, P. Ruíz is 5.3 percentage points clear in pressure success rate compared with his next closes competitor (Jonathan Osorio of Toronto has 183 attempts, 68 successful pressures, and a 37.2% success rate). The average success rate for the top 30 in pressures attempted is 28.9%.


Viewed in this context, Bronico does grade out well in this area. Bender's percentage is good, but his attempts place him 99th in the league. I'm therefore hesitant to say how good he is at this, though it appears he can pressure well. I would like to see Alcívar and especially Franco improve their percentage.


In defensive 3rd pressures, the league leader for midfielders is Gregore of Inter Miami at 89. Bronico comes in 14th in the league (8th among midfielders) and just ahead of P. Ruíz (Kubo for references is 3rd among midfielders). Corujo also pops up in this stat at 72 pressures in the defensive 3rd (his 25.6% pressure success rate leave a bit to be desired, though).

In middle 3rd pressures, Flach leads the league with 135. P. Ruíz again pops up in 2nd at 126, but Bronico is right behind him at 122 (Bronico is also at 8.7 90s compared with P. Ruíz’s 9.7). Alan Franco finally makes a positive appearance at 32nd in the league for middle 3rd pressures. Bender is 50th in the league and Alcívar is 102nd.


Attacking 3rd pressures is a bit harder to parse out when looking at "pure" midfielders. It’s unsurprisingly a category dominated by forwards. If we look for players that are not listed as a forward at all on FBref, the leader is actually Lewis Morgan of RBNY, who is listed as a defender/midfielder. He has 74 attacking 3rd pressures. The league leader, by the way, is Khiry Shelton of Sporting KC with 106.


For Charlotte, Świderski is 9th in the league at 81 attacking 3rd pressures. Other notable names of "pure" midfielders include Luciano Acosta at 71, José Cifuentes (LAFC) at 65, and Mauricio Pereyra at 55.


Franco is actually the highest ranked Charlotte midfielder at 59th in the league for attacking 3rd pressures. Bender is 130th, Alcívar is 183rd, and Bronico is 238th. Sergio has so few minutes that he’s not counted.


I think we finally found a reason that MAR is insisting on using Franco, namely, his ability to pressure in the middle and attacking 3rds of the pitch (coupled with Bronico's pressuring ability). His success rate isn’t very high, but he is making a pest of himself. Bender and Alcívar’s lack of pressures in the attacking 3rd actually cause me some concern, especially with Bender. While Alcívar’s lack of pressure may partially be explained by the more role he is playing, Bender is definitely positioned much higher up the pitch. I would like to see Alcívar improve his work rate in the attacking 3rd for sure, but Bender has to become more active up the pitch with his pressures.

 

Table 10: Interceptions and Touches by Area of Pitch

Player

Interceptions (interceptions + tackles)

Defensive 3rd touches (defensive penalty area touches)

Middle 3rd touches

Attacking 3rd touches (attacking penalty area touches)

Alcívar, Jordy

11 (20)

64 (8)

184

112 (10)

Bender, Ben

9 (22)

66 (6)

173

155 (22)

Bronico, Brandt

12 (34)

164 (31)

307

59 (1)

Franco, Alan

8 (20)

61 (7)

220

141 (17)

Ruiz, Sergio

4 (7)

49 (8)

109

52 (5)

In terms of interceptions, Francisco Calvo (SJ) is the league leader with 39. Fuchs is actually tied for second in the league with 36. Calvo, like Fuchs, is a defender. The top midfielder in interceptions is Marky Delgado with 34 (5th in the league overall). That man P. Ruíz makes an appearance again, as he is second in the league among midfielders (and 11th in the league overall) with 26. Bronico is our “top” midfielder in this category at 133rd in the league. Jordy is 148th in the league, Bender is 176th, and Franco is 199th.

Defenders and goalkeepers naturally dominate the touches in the defensive third. Kahlina is actually first in the league, Carujo is 4th, and Fuchs is 5th. Remember, though, that Charlotte have played 1 more game than most teams. Jackson Yueill (SJ) is the first player with a midfielder designation who shows up in the rankings (at 83rd) with 213 defensive third touches (he is also listed as a defender). Diego Chará of Portland is the first "pure" midfielder to show up. He is 84th in the league with 210 defensive 3rd touches. Meanwhile, Bronico is 119th in the league.


In the middle third, Ján Gruguš leads the league with 449 (!) touches. Fuchs is the top Charlotte player in terms of touches for this part of the pitch at 361 (12th in the league). Bronico comes in at 31st in the league, Franco is 94th, Alcívar is 152nd, and Bender is 166th. I’m not actually surprised that Bronico places so high in middle third touches—Charlotte has a terrible habit of just passing it around the back near the midfield circle.

In the attacking third, Gil leads the league with 334 touches. Charlotte’s leader in this category is a surprise: Jaylin Lindsey has 195 touches in the attacking 3rd (good for 34th in the league). Świderski is 53rd in the league with 165 touches. Bender is the first of our midfield group to pop up at 66th. Franco is 80th in the league, Alcívar is 135th, and (unsurprisingly given his role) Bronico is 250th.


To further drive home the point that this team doesn’t get into good attacking areas, there are multiple defenders who have more attacking 3rd touches than our highest player. These include DeJuan Jones (NE), Julian Gressel (DC), Julian Araujo (LA), Graham Zusi (KC), Steven Moreira (CLB), and a number of others. In total, there are 13 "pure" defenders (including Lindsey) above Świderski for attacking 3rd touches and 19 "pure" defenders above Bender for attacking 3rd touches. Now, some of these players (such as Jones) are really attack-minded defenders who push way up the field. Having a few defenders above your midfielders isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. Modern fullbacks can often be wingers posing as defenders (think Ruan who we just saw with Orlando). However, to have this many defenders above any of our midfielders is what frustrates and worries me.


When looking at penalty touches, Świderski leads the team with 35, good for 27th in the league. It’s miles behind the league leader, Valentín Castellanos (NYCFC), who has 69 penalty box touches. Bender is again the first Charlotte midfielder to show up at 80th in the league, followed by Franco at 125th, and Alcívar at 193rd. I’m not going to bother with Bronico because it is not his role to be there on the pitch. There are 6 "pure" defenders who have more penalty box touches than any of our midfielders. That is just unacceptable.

 

Table 11: Dribbling Ability

Player

Progressive carries (progressive distance)

Progressive carries per 90 (progressive distance per 90)

Carries into the final third (carries into the penalty area)

Mishandled (displaced)

# of passes received/# of targets (reception%)

Progressive passes received

Alcívar, Jordy

28 (516)

4.52 (83.2)