In the rush of excitement over the start of the new MLS season, there has been a flurry of in-depth analysis of the first matches. We all know that the one-match sample size will prove insignificant come October, but we just can't help ourselves. Among this frenzy of analysis has been a series of articles or segments discussing the performance of Baggio Husidic in the Galaxy's comfortable defeat of the Chicago Fire. There is no doubt that the game changed when Husidic was subbed on for Kenney Walker in the 63rd minute. Matt Doyle mentioned it in his recap of the first weeks' matches, Sean Steffen provided a more in-depth discussion here, and yesterday Ilkay Can rounded out the coverage with this excellent piece. All three authors have strong points.
After watching the match live, I had been disappointed by Walker's anonymity, and was excited to see Husidic's flashy play. However, I re-watched the match a couple of days later and took articular note of Walker. He played a very good, if quiet match, and I don't think he should be getting short shrift in the post-match hubbub. There are two factors, in particular, that I think need to be mentioned.
First off, all three of these pieces mention that Kenney Walker did not make anywhere near the number of dangerous passes as Husidic did. Walker played it safe. He controlled the ball, made himself available as a simple outlet in the middle of the park and cycled it around. His passing chalkboard below illustrates that he was very tidy on the ball, but did not push the attack forward. Doyle rightfully gives Husidic credit for the run and assist leading to the second goal of the match. He points out that LA were playing a Y midfield with the to CMs stacked, one ahead of the other, rather than next to one another, and compares Walker's play to that of Husidic saying "By this point in the game, it was Baggio Husidic – a much more attack-minded midfielder than starter Kenney Walker – stacked on top of Juninho" and:
Understand that this is not an attacking midfielder's run (you won't see it from Federico Higuain), but rather smart movement from a No. 8. It is also a run the more conservative Walker would not have made. He had one final third touch in his 63 minutes, a cross that did not find its target.
However, It's unfair to directly compare the play of Walker and Husidic because even though they were both playing in the central midfield, they played very different roles. Let's compare the chalkboard activities of Walker, Husidic, and Juninho (who was the other central midfielder for the entire match).
It's clear from these charts that a larger percentage of Husidic's passes were in the attacking third, and that he was very effective creating shots. However, one of the problems with these charts is that they obscure temporal variation. In other words, looking at all of Juninho's touches for the entire match hides the fact that he was playing differently when partnered with Husidic than he was with Walker. See below:
Note that a disproportionate amount of Juninho's attacking play occurred while Walker was on the pitch, while he seemed to be working from a deeper position when Husidic came in. Judging from this, it would seem that Juninho played the more attacking CM role while Walker was on the pitch, and switched to the more defensive role when Husidic came in. In other words, Husiduc replace Juninho and Juninho actually replaced Walker. Any analysis comparing attacking play, therefore, needs to take into account more than just the direct head-to-head stats of Walker and Husidic. I noticed this in my second viewing of the match, but went back to the chalkboard to confirm that impression.
The second point that needs mention is that, Husidic subbed on for Walker in the 63rd minute. The opening goal was scored in the 64th minute, with Husidic only having touched the ball twice. Both of those touches were safe square passes in the defensive side of the field that played no significant role in the goal. At this point, as is often the case when the first goal of a match is scored, the game opened up. The question is, did the game open up because Husidic is such a great attacking player, or did it open up because Chicago now had nothing to lose by pushing forward more aggressively.
My guess is that it was a bit of both. As both the articles from Can and Steffen demonstrate, Husidic has an established record of offensive creation for LA. However, in our rush to congratulate Husidic's strong opening to the 2015 season, let's not overlook the great performance by Kenney Walker. Walker showed in this match that he is a serviceable replacement for Juninho. Walker was composed and confident on the ball. He made himself available to his teammates when they needed an outlet. He only had three uncompleted passes in the entire match, and none created any danger of a counter-attack. His one cross into the box was very dangerous, with the Fire defender sliding to beat Gyassi Zardes to the ball right in the goal mouth and poking it out for a corner. In addition, he provided defensive cover to allow Juninho to get forward.
Even with the Galaxy picking up Mika Vayrynen to add depth in the midfield, there are likely to be times when Walker's services will be valuable throughout the long regular-season grind. It's nice to see he can get the job done.