Armchair Analyst: Darlington Nagbe's evolution & a future in the USMNT midfield

Welcome back to the Thursday Q&A series, where we focus on one particular topic - today's being Darlington Nagbe's evolution - and ask you to react, share, and discuss in the comments section. However, feel free to ask about anything game-related (MLS, USL, NASL, USMNT, CanMNT, etc.) over the next several hours.


What's Darlington Nagbe's best position?

I've been asking myself that since I first saw him play. Is he a winger? Not really, because he almost never stays wide - and because if you play him on the left he'll never hit an early cross, while if you play him on the right he won't be goal-dangerous enough when he cuts inside.

Is he a second forward? Nope. Doesn't shoot enough. Pure No. 10? That was my hunch forever, but he's not really that type of passer. Think about how ruthless guys like Javier Morales, Federico Higuain and even Harry Shipp are when they see a defender pulled slightly out of position. They are conscience-less killers. Nagbe is not that.

And then this March happened. Nagbe has been phenomenal, leading MLS in chances created from open play and clowning defenders on the dribble while still completing passes at an absurdly high rate in the final third:

Darlington Nagbe in 2015
Player Chances Created from Open Play Big Chance Created Passes, Final 1/3 Passing Accuracy, Final 1/3 Dribbles Attempted Dribbles Completed
Darlington Nagbe 11 2 85 77.65% 21 12
Stefan Ishizaki 10 0 76 64.47% 11 2
Javier Morales 8 3 80 80% 3 1
Hernan Grana 8 0 50 74% 8 7
Pedro Morales 7 2 67 65.67% 3 1
Jose Villarreal 7 2 60 66.67% 8 4
Kaká 7 0 95 73.68% 13 5
Chris Tierney 6 1 82 56.1% 6 1
Kevin Molino 6 0 86 76.74% 16 5
Harry Shipp 5 2 64 71.88% 14 9

On top of that, he's upped his usage rate from 9.2 percent last year to 11.9 percent this season. The Portland Timbers are struggling, but it's not because Nagbe hasn't borne the burden. He's arguably been the best attacking player in the league.

But the guy he reminds me of most at the moment isn't a No. 10. It's actually NYCFC's Ned Grabavoy.

I've always praised Grabavoy for his ability to hold the ball under pressure - he's almost never guilty of bad giveaways, because of his soft, quick feet, low center of gravity and great balance. Nagbe is the same. Grabavoy's also underrated for his ability to create chances not on his own, but by being a vital cog in the team build-up.

That's what Nagbe does, too. Watch this play from last week:

We're all dazzled by Dairon Asprilla's skill and David Ousted's save, but A) look at where Nagbe begins the play - how he's shading to help defensively if Asprilla turns it over; B) look at the run he makes to push late into the attack; and C) holy crap that one-touch pass to Fanendo Adi for the shot. Gaston Fernandez was the No. 10 in this play; Nagbe was the cog.

Grabavoy would have done all of the above. Just not as fast.

It took a surfeit of MLS coaches five years to figure out how to use Grabavoy before Jason Kreis eventually put him on the left side of RSL's diamond. That turned out to be perfect, as it leveraged Grabavoy's versatility in attack without compromising the team's needs in defense. Five years into Nagbe's MLS career, I've become convinced that the left side of the diamond would also be the perfect home for Nagbe - though given his greater speed and 1-v-1 ability in the final third, said diamond would play more like a 4-1-3-2 with the central playmaker deeper.

If you think I'm building up to a point about the US national team, for which Nagbe will be eligible in later summer, here was the midfield shape against Switzerland:

The US lacked any sort of presence up the left, with Jurgen Klinsmann preferring to play a much more defensive-minded player (Alfredo Morales, who I love as a d-mid) in that spot. Nagbe is not as good as Morales defensively, but he's better both on the ball and in attack, and his ability to get forward would allow Michael Bradley to stay deeper. And as Chris Rifer pointed out on Twitter, the "Grabavoy Role" is vital in transitioning from the back foot to the front foot - something the USMNT have struggled with in the post-Landon Donovan era.

So it took a while, but I think I finally know who Darlington Nagbe is: He's Ned Grabavoy with super powers, like if he got bit by a radioactive spider or had a high midichlorian count or something.

And I can't wait to see him in the USMNT midfield.


Thanks for helping me kill off yet another Thursday afternoon by chatting about the beautiful game. Check the comments section below for the back-and-forth, and I'll be back next week for more abuse!

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