For the rest of this article, I want you to have a name in your head. If you were to smash a pass to someone at the top of the attacking 18, who would you want on the receiving end? Got someone?
Here’s my answer: Sebastian Lletget. He has the best mix of consistently checking his shoulders, a clean first touch, body control and the courage to take the ball with players around him.
As a result, he should get a chance to play attacking midfield for the US national team.
Some people think of the attacking midfielder as the creative hub of the team. It’s not exactly true. Or, at least, it’s not the only way to think about it.
The key component that most attacking midfielders offer is pressure release. He can take the ball in the toughest spots. When a teammate is under pressure, the attacking midfielder can receive a hurried pass. When the team’s facing a compact defense, the attacking midfielder is the one to get the ball with four defenders around him and turn. And those tough spots are also usually the most opportune, as you’ve either broken through their pressure or penetrated their lines. If you can control the ball in the “tough spots,” you are in a great place to threaten the opponent’s goal.
It just so happens that the players who can usually take those balls are the ones who are also skilled enough to make the last pass. But I would argue that the first part, taking the ball in certain situations, is more important than being able to make the final pass. You can only be in a position to make a worthwhile final pass if you’re gotten through the pressure.
All of this brings us to Tuesday’s USMNT game against Chile (7:55 pm ET | ESPN2, UniMás, UDN). Gregg Berhalter’s team has been excellent to watch through the first three games. It’d take a pretty dour person not to be impressed or optimistic about the team’s direction. They’ve been sharp in possession and organized defensively. We can see the vision of the team and the depth charts starting to take shape.
The biggest X-Factor decision facing Berhalter moving forward: Who plays the attacking midfielder positions?
All of the other major decision points – Who plays defensive midfielder? Who plays left back? Who plays winger? – have a set variance. Wil Trapp vs. Michael Bradley or Jordan Morris vs. DeAndre Yedlin could impact the team’s ability to get a result, but it doesn’t really change the team’s ceiling.
The attacking midfield selections, though, could completely adjust the team’s outlook.
Nothing else matters if the team doesn’t have a player who can reliably receive the ball between the lines. Berhalter’s plan of using intentional possession doesn’t work unless there’s someone who can find the tiny gaps and receive the ball in the tiny gaps. Possession rarely works if you don’t put a player in a tough spot at some point to threaten the defense.
There isn’t an obvious choice for Berhalter to use. Last week against Ecuador, he used Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie as duel attacking midfielders. Here’s my evaluation of the decision: Pulisic and McKennie are the most dangerous players when they can face the goal in the attacking third; they are not the best players at receiving the ball under pressure with their backs to goal. The few times that they can face goal isn’t as valuable as what other players could provide in the position – if someone else could receive more passes into the tough spots, it would open up a net increase in opportunities in other zones. (For example: Use someone else in the middle to suck the defense in, and move Pulisic wide where he can attack the space.)
I’m not saying that Lletget is a better overall player than Pulisic at the moment; I’m saying he’s better at one specific thing. And that one specific thing might be the most important thing. Berhalter has already made a similar decision at right back. Yedlin probably starts at right back for 9 out of 10 coaches, yet he’s third or fourth on Berhalter’s depth chart. It seems to me that Lletget’s the best option at fulfilling the role Berhalter needs from the attacking midfielder.
He would execute the role in the system in the way that maximizes the overall system.
There’s another factor to consider here. How will the opponent set up its defense? Specifically, will they press or will they sit deep? Because that changes the type of “tough spots” the player will get into. If the team presses, the player might be able to take a larger touch and use his acceleration to attack the space. If the team sits deep, it will need to be a tighter touch and turn. Maybe against a pressing team, Pulisic becomes the option again, and he plays a similar role to the one Miguel Almiron executed for Atlanta United. That would be pretty nice, huh?
There isn’t an obvious answer for Berhalter here. I also don’t think there’s a wrong answer. The question is whether there’s a right answer. I’m not positive it should be Lletget, but only that the team needs to prioritize that one specific trait. Who do you want receiving a tough ball? If the US can find that player, or tap into that part of a player’s game, we would really be able to start to dream again.