It seems counterintuitive to suggest that an attacking midfielder's absence was the downfall of Real Salt Lake against Montreal Impact.
That 4-1 drubbing seemed more pegged on some defensive element than any, and at any rate, it wasn't like Luis Gil, playing in Morales's spot, was bad — right?
And that's true. Luis Gil had a fine performance, even if he could have been more direct. His passing was good (84 percent on the night and none of that in the defensive third) and his movement was easy on the eyes.
Which isn't to say he was perfect, either. Take a look at this passing chart and tell me what's wrong with it. (Take your time.)
The first thing I notice is that Gil's passing is pegged back — nothing's really going into the 18-yard-box save for one failed pass and one excellent combination play with Devon Sandoval. Given we know that Gil was not playing further forward than neither Devon Sandoval nor Alvaro Saborio, we'd hope to see a little more of that. We don't.
In fact, it's not just about Luis Gil not being penetrative enough with his passing. Here's the passing for the three attacking midfielders (Gil, Luke Mulholland, and Jordan Allen) on the day.
Again, we're not seeing very much going into the box. We're seeing some key passes and an assist, but the creativity we need from our attacking midfielders just isn't there. All three have been tasked with that, and not one has really, truly delivered.
Let's go back to Javier Morales. When we talk about how much we miss him, we often think about the assists, the key passes, the corners — those things that make the highlights. And those are fantastic things, but they're hardly everything. What we really miss — and what these charts illustrate — is his ability to force a defense to deal with him.
By skipping around the 18-yard-box against Montreal, RSL sort of plopped their cards on the table, showing their hand. It wasn't a great one. The central defenders don't have to worry too much about players attacking, and while there were some great dribbling moments outside the box, the lack of impetus inside it gave Montreal what amounted to a free pass.
Let's take a look at one more graphic before moving on. This is the event heat map from the match for Allen, Gil, and Mulholland.
Again, our events show a whole lot of final half action but not nearly enough attacking action — and conversely, outside of Jordan Allen, probably not enough defensive action, either. And what comes from that? Well, aside from failing to create enough, we're left with forwards with heat maps that look like this.
They're simply not getting involved enough in play. The forwards have been caught in this weird inbetween state where they're not getting the ball in dangerous positions, and oftentimes, they're just not getting the ball. Rather than having the opportunity to advance the play, they're just sort of stuck.
And that's where we really run into the no-Javi problem once again. Javier Morales, as an actor between the forwards and the rest of the midfield, provides continuity that simply wasn't available against Montreal.
His ability to take care of possession and his understanding of his role in the defensive phase boosts our argument, but it doesn't make it. By allowing Montreal some safety in their play, RSL found life increasingly difficult. The best defense isn't just having four good defenders — it's scoring goals and creating chances. That's what forces the opposition to take a new approach.
If Javier Morales returns for Real Salt Lake on Saturday, look for those moments — when he creates opportunities, is he forcing the opposition to reconsider their play? Is he making life easier for the midfielders and forwards around him?