Javier Morales is a difference maker. That much is clear by this point in his career, and it's been clear for, oh, maybe six years — at least to us. And while he didn't make this year's MLS All-Star Team, it's not because he's a low-quality player.
We're not going to get into the hows and whyfors of Morales's non-selection, mostly because our position is clear: He deserves to have been selected, full stop. Instead, we'd just like to wax effusive about something he did on Friday.
Here. Take a look at this chart of Javier Morales's take-ons, and we'll talk about what we see here.
Do you notice something? Those take-ons are extremely far up the pitch. When we talk about this team tactically, we're usually focused on two shapes — attacking and defensive. And that's good, but the various game-states between those two poles are important, too.
As an example, let's look at the chart above. That obviously doesn't show where players are at any given time. We'd have to go to tape for that, and while it's interesting, it's not quite the point I'm trying to make.
All you have to see is that Javier Morales is actively winning take-ons — dribbles, tricks, the like, as long as it's him up against an opposing player — in extremely advanced areas. When you watched that Real Salt Lake win over Sporting KC, you saw a team that actively looked to advance the ball through control and trickery. It worked. What you have here is Morales in possession of the ball all the way to the edge of the box, and as we saw, he earned a spectacular goal out of it.
Here — have some highlights. They should be illustrative.
What's remarkable about Real Salt Lake's implementation of the 4-3-3 is just how high it's letting Morales play. He's getting into more advanced positions than ever, and while it's taken some adjustment, the team is finally starting to look less vulnerable for it. Watching Morales sprint back to defend an attack is great and exciting, and I'm incredibly happy he puts in that much work week-in, week-out, but more exciting still is watching him beat players in and around the box, his wide, provoking grin lending a new sense of menace.
Each time Morales skips past a player, the opposition is forced to react. They'll either start pushing further forward to try to head him off — opening new space where those players were — or they'll start dropping back, allowing Morales a bit more space in exchange for staying in front of the ball. And as we have seen week-in, week-out, if you give Morales an inch of space, he'll score or find a killer pass.
By forcing the opposition to react, Morales — and, by extension, Real Salt Lake — changes games. His goals are spectacular and do that, and his assists equally so, but the big thing — for me, at least — is that every time he steps on the field, opponents take notice. They've seen him since 2007, and it's continuing to force re-thinks.
And the more you make an opponent think, the easier your game can be. We're finally seeing that for Real Salt Lake.