The Brilliance of Brandt Bronico
To say Charlotte's first 4 months as an MLS club have been 'eventful' would be quite the understatement. Being bottom of every major outlets power rankings coming into the year didn't stop the team from breaking the league's attendance record in their inaugural home game against LA Galaxy; much like how an unexpectedly impressive start by the team didn't stop Miguel Angel Ramirez from losing his role as Head Coach due to rising tensions in the front office and the locker room. What can you say? It's been a rollercoaster. With the highs and lows the season has provided so far, you'd be forgiven for calling the club pretty 'unpredictable.' However, throughout all of this, there has been one reliable force - number #13 at the base of the midfield: Brandt Bronico As a free transfer from the Chicago Fire after they declined his contract option, Brandt has been about as dependable as you can hope for in a position that demands consistency, especially where Charlotte's tactics and principles from both Head Coaching regimes so far are concerned. A near ever-present during the Miguel Angel Ramirez era, Bronico has played every minute of both Christian Lattanzio's first 2 games, and figures to continue as a vital cog in the Charlotte FC side. Take his statistical outlook here as evidence that he has been one of the more elite 6's in MLS so far this season, with his name featuring around plenty more well known and widely respected midfielders.
The signs were there in pre season, when down at the Carolina Challenge Cup we were first able to get a glimpse at Brandt's ability in the '6' role and see what he could bring to a team that clearly would need a lot out of whoever would take on the role
Bronico makes a quick scan out wide before quickly turning and delivering the ball to that area.
Bronico pushes his man marker back to create space to run in to and progresses the ball forwarded out wide.
A look into Ramirez's previous coaching jobs made it clear a highly skilled 6 would be vital for his system to thrive. Not only would he need someone who would be comfortable in progressing play, but also highly intelligent in terms of defensive positioning and covering space when midfield partners or full backs would commit forward. To fully understand the demands of the role, we must also appreciate the isolation that the single pivot has to play in in this system.
Bronico working alone in acres of space, 15 yards from the nearest centre half and about 20 yard away from the nearest '8'.
Intenacional midfielder Rodrigo Lindoso in the same position, similarly isolated when playing as the 6 during Miguel Angel Ramirez's time at the club.
Whilst not completely unheard of for a player in the single pivot to be responsible for this much space, it certainly isn't common. The combination of Charlotte looking to get their 8's into threatening positions in the half space, along with the lack of athleticism between their top centre halves is why this space occurs. The defensive line must play deep as they would not have the speed to recover any passes into the space behind them should a transition occur, but they do not let this compromise their attacking principles of getting the 8's into dangerous positions. The reason why this is able to work is because Brandt Bronico is holding lines between those roles together. Take these two examples of other 4-3-3's, one from a European elite, Liverpool, and the other from a more close-to-home club in MLS title contender LAFC.
Fabinho here is operating directly in front of Konate and will have multiple options should be receive the ball (Keita has dropped into space along side him, Salah in space out wide, if the midfielder take that away then Henderson will be free in the half space).
As Ilie anticipates receiving the ball you can see he is pushed up much closer to the rest of the midfield, with right back Kellyn Acosta playing in a more centralised full back spot to also offer quick support.
Of course, Liverpool and LAFC's 4-3-3's are far from identical. There are further principles in each system that separate themselves from one another, as is the case with most 4-3-3 systems. The important distinction is that most of the examples I could give, despite their differences, will always feature some level of spacial support for the 6. It is how they will build most of their attacks and how they will look to remain solid in transitional moments. In the case of Charlotte, it is too simple--but not exactly incorrect--to say that the system in the territory is 'Bronico'. To borrow a common analogy of deep midfield players being described as 'quarterbacks,' Bronico is playing as a dual threat quarterback. He is responsible for both spraying the ball to the open man and having to use his ability with his legs to cover up spaces. This is beyond what most '6's' are required to cover.
Take this passage from the game against the New England Revs for example. Fuchs commits man to man with Carles Gil, who eventually gets the better of him and progresses the ball into the space he has vacated. Instantly, as Makoun goes out to cover that space, Bronico comes in behind to make sure no gaps are left in the central defensive area. Even more impressive still, is the incident in the next phase. As Bronico looks to return to his position, his quick scan identifies the run from Lletget as he looks to attack the space Fuchs is still yet to return to. This prevents an almost certain high-chance goalscoring action. These are two huge ball denials to prevent strong opportunities for the opposition. With no basic stat to show for it, this type of contribution often goes unnoticed in the eyes of many watching the game. It feels like this is at the heart of why some don't fully appreciate the levels of Brandt's game. The IQ he plays with means that so many of his important moments look easy, as if they are a regular part of the games fabric - which I can guarantee that for many teams operating with a single pivot, they are not.
Again, take notice of Bronico in the following clip against Philadelphia.
Whilst this clip comes from Charlotte playing their 5-4-1, the principles that Bronico executes here are similar to those he must perform in the standard 4-3-3 system. Corujo makes an ill-disciplined charge at his man, which opens up space in behind and creates what could've been a threatening moment for Philadelphia. This would've been if not for Bronico identifying the situation (again) almost instantly as he goes in to create a 5 back system and make sure Charlotte have the significant numbers advantage in defence as intended. With Miguel Angel Ramirez now departed from the team, there was a chance that some of the roles and responsibilities would see some change. While there have been some small tweaks here and there, the system at large has very much stayed the same. One thing that has also stayed the same? The reliable Brandt Bronico
Much like the earlier clip where Fuchs presses Gil up the pitch, it is clear the full backs still have the license to apply pressure to the opposition high up the pitch. With that, Bronico's responsibility to cover remains, and as soon as the deep midfielder identities the space that is on offer for him, Bronico runs with him and wins the race. The play shows a combination of play recognition, speed, strength and calm on the ball. The last part is my favourite part of the play because of the calmness from Bronico to invite the 2nd man into the press before he progresses the ball to Shinyashiki, who is left with acres of space to attack. Even in instances where Bronico himself may fall short on a given play, his engine is still apparent.
Though he is beaten on his initial pressing attempt, leaving space in behind, his recovery means that by the time Alan Franco has the ball and needs a quick outlet with a man approaching, Bronico is there to receive the ball, soak some pressure, and then deliver it into the defense to retain position and re-establish our shape. If this made you concerned about Bronico in a pressing situation, it shouldn't. Don't worry, we have seen enough strong moments of him applying pressure to the opposition in a high positioned counter-press to make us feel comfortable about him in these moments.
These type of passages are fairly common place in Charlotte games so far this season; and whilst there will be plenty of time in the future (maybe under a new coaching philosophy) to discuss Bronico's potential as a counter-presser, I do believe it is important we touch on one of the more underrated and under appreciated facets of his game. For those who are not fans of Bronico, a go to criticism for them will be that he does not offer enough threat going forward. The idea goes that he does not progress the ball well enough and will play it too safe, too often. This criticism not only shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Bronico's role in the team, but also disregards what he has shown in offensive phases where he has been afforded the chance to play in more attacking areas. Take for example the home fixture against Atlanta. The players selected in the more advanced '8' roles--Franco, Bender and Alcívar-- were all capable and structured to offer more cover, as the team was still playing its false 10 diamond. What followed was a more liberated Bronico, particularly as a ball carrier.
Bronico gives his trademarked bodyfeint to pass the original marker then progresses the ball effortlessly. If Mora attacks the through ball at a straight angle instead of angling for a byline cross, a dangerous action could arise.
Bronico breaking the lines gliding effortlessly with the ball, if not for the foul there was plenty of space ahead to attack. Also note the license given by Alcívar. He points to Bronico that he should receive the ball, now Bronico knows that should he attack as a ball carrier. Alcívar has taken stock of the situation and will cover the space for him.
These moments are important to remember and factor in when we are discussing players generally, but is particularly vital when it comes to midfielders. When we become frustrated that certain players are not doing certain things, we must establish whether it is because they cannot do them due to ability, or whether they are not being given the opportunity to by the principles of that particular coach/game plan. This game is well worth a re-watch for anyone looking to find out more about Bronico's game. It gives us a look at some of the elements of his skillset we do not see to often, not only in terms of carrying the ball, but in his ability to pick a pass. Take a look at this diagonal ball he provides in the first half of the contest after progressing the ball he received from Kahlina.
Hopefully this should provide some context as to why we may not see these actions from Bronico all the time, despite the fact he is fully capable of them. The follow up from many would be to ask: 'should we be adjusting to get him into these actions more often?' For me, the answer is no, as the current role Bronico performs is so vital that it would cause a huge risk to the side to adjust it for offensive benefit.
Take his statistical outlook here as evidence that he has been one of the more elite 6's in MLS so far this season, with his name featuring around plenty more well known and widely respected midfielders.
Charlotte have one of the more impressive defensive records in MLS considering their league position, and these defensive contributions from Bronico go a long way to explaining why they have been able to have success in this area, making it very hard to imagine the team without him. It is this combination of advanced numbers and game-tape that have led me to the following conclusion: Despite Karol Swiderski's strong start to the season and goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina's many, many impressive performances, as things stand, my 2022 Charlotte FC Player of the Season would be Brandt Bronico.