“Diego Fagundez, who is the best No. 10 at the club right now, he came in, works really hard every single day, he deserves your stories. Right there, Diego Fagundez, not focusing on someone else. Diego Fagundez, I’m going to say it again, is the one who deserves your stories, not someone else.”
—New England Revolution head coach Brad Friedel | April 17, 2018
He's right. Diego Fagundez does deserve a story. The New England Revolution, as a whole, deserve a story. They are currently third in the East and have won two of three. But it’s impossible to write a story about the Revs right now without the context of the “someone else.”
The someone else, of course, is Lee Nguyen. Nguyen has been the club’s best playmaker – if not one of the best in the league – since arriving more than five seasons ago. He posted 17 goals and 25 assists over the last two seasons, more than Nicolas Lodeiro or Pipa Higuain. And the Revs still have Nguyen on the roster. As a result, it raised eyebrows when Friedel suggested Fagundez is now the club’s alpha at the position.
Nguyen requested a trade during the offseason. When the Revs didn’t oblige, Nguyen held out of training camp. Since returning to the fold, Nguyen still hasn’t made an appearance for the club, or even made the gameday 18. It appeared the new manager was taking a hard line to make a statement. Most hadn't considered – or thought it plausible – that Nguyen wasn’t good enough to earn his spot. Yet here we are seven weeks into the season, with Nguyen fully fit, and Fagundez fully in control of the No. 10 position.
Mass Confrontation: Where's the best atmosphere in MLS?
Which stadium has the best atmosphere in MLS? Was benching Wondo the right move for SJ? What's up in New England and how will it all end? It's time for your 🔥 take.Posted by Major League Soccer (MLS) on Wednesday, April 18, 2018
At the most basic level, the Revs have improved in the standings. They presently have 1.67 points per game. In the last two seasons, the Revs finished seventh in the East both times, out of the playoffs, with a points per game tally of 1.24 and 1.32.
The standings, however, don’t tell the whole picture. The Revs have three wins, but two came against teams with 10 men and the third came against a Colorado Rapids team that is rebuilding; conversely, one of the Revs’ losses came when New England went down two players. They have a small and funky sample size. It’s also difficult to use the eye test: A team should look good when up a man and a team probably will look back playing against NYCFC, who they tied at home. We need to dig to the next layer of team statistics.
The underlying numbers suggest the Revs have been a better attacking team in 2018, with Fagundez as the main playmaker, than the two seasons prior, when Nguyen pulled the strings. This season, New England have racked up more expected goals (2018: 1.65; 2017: 1.46; 2016: 1.28), more chances created, more big chances created, more through balls, more expected assists, more shots, more overall passes attempted per game, and more overall passes completed per game. The Revs have regressed in passes in the attacking third.
If we are going to use numbers, though, we also have to acknowledge that there are extraneous variables involved. Along with moving Nguyen to the bench and Fagundez into the No. 10 role, the Revs also added a new winger in Cristian Penilla, a new center midfielder in Wilfried Zahibo, and, most importantly, a new head coach in Brad Friedel. It’s simply a different team this year.
Note that Friedel has asked his players to press farther up the field this year and try to force dangerous turnovers. Dangerous turnovers lead to better scoring opportunities. The Revolution win possession considerably more often in the attacking half; naturally, more key passes and shots come as a result. That was never more clear than the Revs' first goal against NYCFC in March:
Yes, the Revs appear to be a better in 2018, but it’s tough to isolate the difference to Fagundez over Nguyen. To take one last look at whether Fagundez truly is the best No. 10 on the team, let’s isolate per game numbers from Opta of Nguyen '16-17 versus Fagundez '18.
|xG||xA||xG+xA||Key Passes||Chances Created||Big Chances Created|
Going to the previous point, there are extraneous variables and I won’t say the numbers tell a clear picture, but you can understand the argument for Fagundez. Lee Nguyen has put up great numbers in his Revolution career, and so far this season Diego Fagundez is topping them.
Beyond the tangible evidence, Fagundez is a different type of player than Nguyen. Nguyen is smoother on the ball, more comfortable in possession, and has excellent vision, but Fagundez is quicker, more direct, and looks to score more often. More significantly for Friedel and the way the Revs set up in 2018, Fagundez is better at closing down the ball, pressing, and counter pressing.
While Nguyen might be better at setting up goals with the ball at his feet, Fagundez is better at creating chances through defending. The old school model for a No. 10 might prefer Nguyen, but as pressing dominates the sport, managers often look for a playmaker who can lead the defensive effort.
It’s still early to make any definitive claims. Or to claim with certainty Friedel isn’t sending a message. But so far in 2018, based on the evidence on the field and in the numbers, Fagundez might well be the best No. 10 on the Revs.