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Sunny returns for RSL win, quiet influence propels midfield

John Engels

If you think back just one week, you'll remember being a Real Salt Lake supporter meant engaging in some sort of existential panic after a 5-2 loss to LA Galaxy.

That's not to poke fun. I was hardly immune. But it seems that a week makes a world of difference, and following a 5-2 loss by a comeback 2-1 win was enough to return us to a state of perfect balance.

We can wonder about why that's the case all we want, but the simple fact of the matter is that we don't really have a clear answer as to why supporters behave the way they do. If there were some easy answer, I suspect somebody would have written it in a book. Maybe someone already has.

What we can start to wonder about — and talk about, which we're about to do — is how RSL pulled it off; how, exactly, they went from looking miserable to looking strong in such a short period. Let's go over my favorite option: the inimitable Stephen Sunday Obayan.

If you look at Sunny's chalkboards for Saturday, you'll see a lot of passes and fun like that. We'll get to that.

I'd like to start, though, with this: A chart of his defensive actions. (The chart comes from FourFourTwo's StatsZone for the match)

That's ... well, it's certainly not the most involved defensively a player has ever been. But this isn't to slam on Sunny, because there's no reason to. In fact, this might even be the real point of this item: Sunny didn't have to do much defensively. Sometimes, you hear people say that a defensive midfielder is at their best when they're not incredibly obvious, that you'll know a good game when you don't remember them.

Let's go to the quote board here. Fernando Hierro, who played for Real Madrid for a fair bit (which is to say, 14 years) said this about Claud Makelele, universally agreed upon as a pretty good defensive midfielder. (I jest, of course — he was great.)

I think Claude has this kind of gift—he's been the best player in the team for years, but people just don't notice him, don't notice what he does. But you ask anyone at Real Madrid during the years we were talking about and they will tell you he was the best player at Real. We all knew, the players all knew he was the most important. He was the base, the key and I think he is the same to Chelsea now. I think the Chelsea players realise that, the press and some of the fans are beginning to understand that. We knew he was the one player we could never do without.

The Guardian, April 29, 2005

(It's worth noting that the quote has been attributed to other folks, too, but this seems to be the One True Source™.)

Anyway, that quote doesn't mean everything, but it does bring us to one thing: You don't always need to notice your defensive midfielders. Kyle Beckerman's been known to make a crunching tackle every now and again, but if you were to think back about his influence in a certain game, you'd be more likely to remember him shouting at the referee a bit than you were to remember how he moves across the pitch almost effortlessly.

Let's move on, though. Sunny did plenty we can look back at on paper, and we can demonstrate it by looking at a chart of his passing. Again, this is from FourFourTwo.

You see here a player that's not getting forward too often — and that seems very much by design. While obviously, non-actions aren't being tracked by companies like Opta (and they supply everybody who's anybody), this gives us a distinct impression of Sunny's involvement. While we're not done looking at that, we should at least take some time here to talk about Sunny's passing involvement.

What we see here is a player that is interacting heavily with both fullbacks, and that he's typically going slightly more forward than not. He's basically occupying the middle third — and that's evident from this chart from WhoScored charting his passes from the defensive third.

Not much going on there, right? That's the interesting part. Sunny doesn't seem to be completing his passes from deep, so he's not serving the typical "drop between the defenders" role we sometimes see Kyle Beckerman in — and, to an extent, continued to see him in.

Additionally, we know from FourFourTwo that Sunny received more passes from Morales than any he did other player, but that Sunny to any one single player didn't track in the top 20 or so passes. Interesting, no? He was tied for fourth-most successful passes on the team, so it's not like he wasn't highly involved.

Let's wrap up with a look at Sunny's shots, which we'll use more for reflection on his influence and perhaps something we hadn't noticed before.

Look at this. These three shots came from corners. That means that, for one reason or another, Sunny was able to get his head on to one of Javier Morales's set pieces. While he wasn't particularly successful on this occasion, three shots from corners in MLS usually means a player was dominating whoever marked him. Don't be surprised if we see Sunny scoring a goal or two from corners this season, because he's showing a talent for getting shots away.