OPTA Spotlight: Is Alonso MLS' top defensive midfielder?

Opta: Alonso

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It’s a claim as old as the MLS incarnation of the Seattle Sounders: Osvaldo Alonso is the most underrated player in the league, a midfield pit bull overshadowed by flashier, attack-minded players.

These days that claim doesn’t hold much water, at least when it comes to labeling Alonso underrated. The 26-year-old is past flying under the radar; gone are the days when he was long on contribution and short on recognition.

According to Sigi Schmid, Alonso is the best ball-winner in Major League Soccer. And the stats – that’s what this column is all about after all – overwhelmingly agree.

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In fact, the numbers may paint an even more convincing picture than Schmid ever could. Since the start of 2011, when Opta began collecting MLS data, Alonso has been nothing short of incredible, dominating the space between Seattle’s midfield and defense and helping the Sounders become one of the league’s most successful sides.

Tackles per game since the start of 2011
Player Club Games Played Tackles Tackles/Game
Osvaldo Alonso SEA 43 213 4.95
Gonzalo Segares CHI 40

138

3.45
Diego Chara POR 37 126 3.41
Benny Feilhaber NE 29 93 3.21
Richard Eckersley TOR 31 92 2.97

Since the start of last season, Alonso has averaged 4.95 tackles per game, a full one-and-a-half tackles more than Gonzalo Segares, who is second among players with a minimum of 90 tackles with 3.45. He’s also the only player in MLS to record – or even approach – more than 200 tackles (see chart at right) and ranks third in total interceptions (111), averaging 2.58 per contest.

And although 2011 was certainly a banner campaign for the player that certain elements of the Seattle fanbase have taken to calling the "Honey Badger” for his doggedness, 2012 is shaping up to be even more impressive.

Through eight games, Alonso once again leads MLS in total tackles by a wide margin, averaging nearly three more tackles per game (6.50) than his closest competition, the Rapids’ Brian Mullan (see chart at right). He leads the league in interceptions per game as well, outpacing the league's best in a statistical category traditionally dominated by defenders.

Tackles per game in 2012
Player Club Games Played Tackles Tackles/Game
Osvaldo Alonso SEA 8 52 6.50
Brian Mullan COL 10

36

3.60
Felipe Martins MTL 10 32 3.20
Kyle Beckerman RSL 11 31 2.82
Diego Chara POR 9 30 3.33

Incredibly, Alonso does this without racking up an obscene number of fouls. Since the start of 2011, his 1.47 fouls per contest is well below Diego Chara’s league-leading 2.41 infractions and fewer than the likes of Dane Richards, Dwayne De Rosario and Landon Donovan among others.

And while his ability to win the ball back is what observers invariably point to – for good reason – when measuring Alonso’s contribution to Seattle’s success, his rapidly improving ability on the ball is the aspect of his game that tends to be shortchanged.

When he arrived in MLS in before the 2009 season – a relatively unknown Cuban defector who had made his professional name with the Charleston Battery – he was an out-and-out ball hawk, sufficient on the ball but perhaps more comfortable pursuing it.

That’s simply not the case anymore. While Kyle Beckerman soaks up praise – well deserved, I might add – as MLS’ closest comparison to a deep-lying playmaker like Xavi or Andrea Pirlo, Alonso has quietly become one of the league’s most prolific passers (see chart below).

Most prolific passers in MLS in 2011
Player Games Played Passes Passes Successful PS/Game Passes, Final 1/3 Passing Accuracy, Final 1/3 Chances Created
Kyle Beckerman 43 2742 2309 53.70 637 64.68 77
Rafa Márquez 25 1561 1256 50.24 369 55.28 31
Teemu Tainio 34 2052 1679 49.38 530 64.72 26
Jeff Larentowicz 46 2705 2237 48.63 654 64.07 32
Roy Miller 39 2178 1805 46.28 573 67.19 28
Tim Ream 31 1673 1401 45.19 203 46.80 8
Osvaldo Alonso 43 2298 1887 43.88 621 66.18 37
James Riley 39 2113 1657 42.49 695 65.04 29
Dax McCarty 40 2021 1698 42.45 515 67.18 41
Simon Elliott 24 1221 992 41.33 349 63.32 12

 

Since the start of 2011, he is seventh in the league in successful passes per game (43.88) and has completed nearly as many passes in the final third as Beckerman. Even more telling, Alonso is one of only three players during that time – along with Beckerman and Jeff Larentowicz – to complete more than 40 passes per game, register 600-plus passes in the final third and also create 30 or more chances for their teammates.

Before you launch into a diatribe about an assumed tendency to play backward and side-to-side, take a look at Alonso’s Catherine Wheel (which shows every pass in terms of direction, length and success) from the Sounders’ 1-0 victory last weekend against the Union.

Clearly, he is no longer cautious or uncomfortable with the ball at his feet. And although he rarely connected on long balls forward against Philadelphia, his scatter pattern shows a tendency to play forward and overwhelming accuracy from inside 20 yards, findings that support his role as the facilitator between Seattle’s defense and players such as Fredy Montero, Mauro Rosales and Álvaro Fernández.

So is Alonso the best defensive midfielder in MLS? You can certainly make that argument, although Beckerman and Larentowicz have compelling cases as well.

But best ball winner with a vastly underrated offensive repertoire? That title belongs to Seattle’s honey badger, no doubt about it.