Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Midweek Analyst: Eryk Williamson's climb to elite, how to weaponize George Bello and more

I spent a good chunk of my Sunday night column raving about the play of Timbers midfielder Eryk Williamson, who evolved from “little-used depth piece” to “starter” last year and seems to be evolving from “starter” to “star” early in this season.

There are a lot of things Williamson does well, which is why we’ve seen him bounce all over Gio Savarese’s midfield. Primarily he’s been a No. 8, but he’s also spent time as a No. 10. There have been a few minutes spent on the wing, and then last week at San Jose, the performance that had me (and everyone else who was watching) thinking he’s made a significant leap came with him filling in for Diego Chara as a No. 6.

Except he wasn’t directly filling in for Chara. Usually the Timbers play a 4-2-3-1 with Chara and Williamson in something of a double pivot, both given license to push forward on and off the ball as they see fit. Chara is more defensively inclined than Williamson, so naturally he shoulders more of a defensive role amongst the duo, and it’s been an easy fit and the two have a sort of natural harmony when playing together.

But this wasn’t a 4-2-3-1 last weekend. Savarese instead inverted the triangle into more of a 4-3-3, meaning Williamson was flying solo at the back point with two box-to-box guys (Yimmi Chara and Andy Polo) ahead of him:

Timbers 433 with Williamson at back point

Williamson didn’t have to share defensive responsibilities with anyone. He had to be in the right spot to clean up in front of the backline and put out fires when Portland were on the back foot — which they were quite a bit against the Quakes — and then he got to choose when they’d go onto the front foot.

He made really good choices!

It’s a ton of responsibility for any player at any age, but especially so for a 23-year-old central midfielder who’s in just his second year as a regular in the top flight. Making the right choices in those moments is not easy.

The thing, though, is that inverting the triangle and putting Williamson in that spot actually played to his strengths because he is both a very good progressive passer and an absolutely elite progressive ball-carrier.

As per Second Spectrum’s tracking data: among all midfielders with at least eight successful dribbles this season Williamson has bypassed the third-most defenders on average, and is seventh in progressive progress on those dribbles. He does this while completing a Darlington Nagbe-esque 69 percent of his dribbles, which is among the league leaders in efficiency.

He weaponizes this with his passing. Williamson is 21st in the league among all players for shot assists per 90, and is second on the Timbers. He racks up those numbers because he so frequently eludes the first defender (or defenders) arrayed against him, drives the game forward and compromises the scrambling defense, then has the skill to play meaningful passes.

It is a rare combination of traits, and a valuable one. It has thrust Williamson squarely into the discussion about the best central midfielders in the league, and should have had him on the field back in March for the US U23s in Concacaf Olympic qualifying. I don’t think I’m the only one hoping we get to see him in Red, White & Blue this summer in the Gold Cup.

In the meantime we can all watch him in green again this weekend, as the Timbers host the LA Galaxy on Saturday (3:30 pm ET | ABC, ESPN Deportes). My guess is it’ll be back to the 4-2-3-1 alongside Diego Chara and going up against a pair of national team mainstays in the USMNT’s Sebastian Lletget and El Tri’s Jonathan Dos Santos.

Seems a fair bet that Williamson will take the challenge personally.

Second Spectrum Numbers of the Week

We’re a month into this season and yes, it’s been choppy. This is to be expected at the start of any season, but especially so at the start of one which kicked following a four or five-month offseason, depending upon how far you advanced in/if you advanced to the playoffs.

It shows up in the numbers. Goals per game, xG and average shot quality have all decreased slightly compared to the first month out of the bubble last summer (August 20-September 23) as has the percentage of shots that have been assisted. During that span it was 74.3 percent, while over the past month it’s 73.3 percent.

All of those numbers are pretty well within the margins, though. This one isn’t: The average number of passes per possession for any possession that contains a shot has decreased from 5.4 during the first month out of the bubble to 4.9 so far this season.

I have three theories here:

  • This really is just early-season choppiness and rust after a long off-season.
  • The bubble served as both a meaningful tournament and a real preseason for most teams, so they didn’t have to work through any rust in August and could hit the ground running.
  • Summer heat means everyone plays slower on both sides of the ball, so it’s easier to complete passes. And thus these numbers will even out this coming July and August as well.

Remind me to look back in on this one in a couple of months.

Young Player of the Week

Note: This isn’t necessarily the best young player of the week, just one who interests me.

Ok, it’s time to talk about young George Bello. But first I’m going to send you to read my colleague Joe Lowery’s piece from this week titled “Why can’t Atlanta United create chances?” because there’s a lot of stuff in there that’s germane to what we’re going to talk about re: how Bello is being used.

I’m gonna borrow a bit from Joe here:

Breaking lines with your passing is another key, and Atlanta United aren’t doing that right now. They're second-to-last in MLS in terms of passes attempted between the lines per game. Instead of a heavy dose of line-breaking passes or frequent expeditions into the blue zones shown above, it’s a lot of “U-Shaped” passing from Atlanta United.

The thing is, a U-Shaped passing map usually favors the fullbacks getting lots of touches (think about how everything runs through Daniel Lovitz in Nashville). But Gabriel Heinze is doing something kind of funky with his young left back, having Bello spend a ton of time on the interior of his team’s shape rather than using him as a typical overlapper.

Counting the games where Bello started at left back — he’s also got one as a left wingback — he has the highest average time spent in the center of the offense per game (18:04) while his team was in possession, as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data. Among all the left backs in the league only the LA Galaxy’s Jorge Villafana is close, and honestly I’d preface that with a “not very.”

When Atlanta find Bello in these spots or when he just gets on the ball and gets there himself, he is devastating. He ranks at or near the top of the charts for average speed, max speed and defenders bypassed. He is a weapon:

But Atlanta just don’t really use him. As mentioned above, he spends more time in the center of his team’s offense than any other fullback in the league. Yet he’s 45th in touches per game in central zones. He is, at this point, kind of just standing around and being a decoy for a good portion of time:

There are certainly defensive reasons to slide him into the middle of the team's shape — lots of smart managers all over the world have a fullback pinch inside in possession as an extra layer of protection against counterattacks up the gut in the event of an unfortunate turnover.

But it’s still weird. Bello is a super-talented attacking fullback, one who can open up the game when he gets on the ball and starts driving forward, and one possessed of the skill to create a bit of magic. He’s out there doing that, and getting into good spots. Right now, though, it just looks like Atlanta are a little too scared to use him.

We’ll see if that changes this weekend. The Five Stripes will need to bring a little something special to the table as they head to Seattle on Sunday afternoon (4:30 pm ET | FOX, FOX Deportes) to take on the surging Sounders.