Central Winger: Saves, tackles and organizational concerns

Beltran tackle - Central Winger

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Growing up as a goalkeeper provided me a distinct perspective on the game, one that has made its way into my coaching sessions. My favorite phrase – almost exclusively directed toward my team's goalkeepers – is, "The best save you will ever make is the save that you didn't have to make."

In other words, situations in which you correctly align and organize the defense to stop a developing attack are considerably more useful to your team than having to stop a shot yourself. If your goalkeeper can organize your defense so well that he doesn't need to stop shots, he becomes much more valuable than the goalkeeper who can only stop shots. Stop the threat before it's a threat.

In practice, during a shooting drill, this difference is obfuscated. One is inclined to look at the aerobatic and athletic keeper and think, "Wow, he's a great goalkeeper."

We're all guilty of it – including me. On the score sheet, it is similarly hidden. A zero-shot, zero-save performance is sure to precede a, "Wow, he didn't have to do much," statement. And sometimes this is true. But not all of the time.

 Team Tackles per game
 Seattle Sounders FC     16.4167
 Montreal Impact         16.25
 Colorado Rapids         16.0833
 New York Red Bulls      15.8462
 Toronto FC              15.6667
 Real Salt Lake          15.2308
 Houston Dynamo          14.7
 Columbus Crew           14.6364
 San Jose Earthquakes    14.3077
 Vancouver Whitecaps     14.2727
 Philadelphia Union      13.9
 FC Dallas               12.8571
 New England Revolution  12.8182
 Chivas USA              12.6667
 Chicago Fire            12.4545
 Sporting Kansas City    12.1818
 LA Galaxy 12
 D.C. United             11.6429
 Portland Timbers        11.6364

I'm not saying that goalkeepers shouldn't worry about saving shots – obviously they should – but the boxscore bias undoubtedly exists. The difference that the intelligent and articulate (i.e., loud as hell) goalkeepers are making on their team is hard to quantify, though there is clear evidence that age and experience help greatly in this regard.

Defenders can (and should) adopt the same mentality. Tackles, an event tracked by Opta and available on the MLS chalkboards, are very similar to goalkeeper saves. Sure, a save is always in your team's immediate best interest, but it also requires you to be under some kind of pressure. Tackles are exactly the same – they're usually made because the potential threat was allowed to become an actual threat.

In the comparison that I am drawing between saves and tackles, the player with the most tackles per game is akin to the super athletic and aerobatic goalkeeper with a sieve of a defense in front of him. This doesn't mean that this player is the best tackler (nor does it mean that the goalkeeper with the most saves is the worst organizer – sometimes, after all, there's nothing you can do to straighten out subpar defenders), it just means that he was forced to tackle at a very high rate given the game situations he has been placed in by his team.

Since tackles are an indication of a micro-event resulting in your favor, in the context of a macro-situation not in your favor (e.g. you usually only make tackles when your team is under pressure), it's understandable that tackles per game is a very poor indicator of performance. At right are MLS' 19 sides ranked by tackles per game.

With Seattle and Montreal successfully completing the most tackles per game, while D.C. United and Sporting KC are near the bottom of the list, my point stands firm: There is little correlation between the rate at which teams make tackles and their standing in the table. Some teams that allow the potential threat to become a real threat find themselves near the top, while others lag.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle – which, not coincidentally, is where most of the current playoff teams are found on this table. Even the best teams will allow potential threats to manifest themselves at some point; having a masterful ball-winner in the middle, then, is the field equivalent of the spectacular shot-stopper.

Devin Pleuler is a computer science graduate from Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, where he played on the men's varsity team as a goalkeeper. He's certified as a coach through both the USSF and NSCAA, and writes the Central Winger analytics column for MLSsoccer.com.