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What’s Luis Silva’s role at forward?

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RSL’s unlikeliest of heroes is at the center of Mike Petke’s tactics.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Luis Silva is not a traditional striker in the same way that Yura Movsisyan is. As we’ve seen in recent weeks, that’s not a bad thing: When he starts, RSL tends to have a better passing and possession game in the final third.

In a way, that’s not particularly surprising. Silva is a hybrid player, and he’s been a midfielder, attacking midfield, and forward, all in different varieties and styles. And, sure, he may have been more of a forward in the last year in his non-playing Tigres days, and sure, he was more of a midfielder in college and at Toronto, where he started his MLS career.

Those aspects have now turned him into a forward that doesn’t quite fit the traditional mold. He’s probably playing closer to a 10 than a 9, but he’s not playing either role, really. He’s playing high up the pitch in possession, but he’s dropping deep out of it — in a sense, he’s leading the line, but only until another player is making a run either through a channel or on the wing.

In his 70-minute appearance against Minnesota United, Silva had all three of RSL’s through ball passes, which is something you’d expect from an Albert Rusnak and less from a Yura Movsisyan — or, for argument’s sake, an Alvaro Saborio. But for that distinction from that more traditional striker in passing approach, Silva is still only touching the ball in the opposition half.

WhoScored

This chart shows that Silva took only one touch in the defensive half. That was either his third-to-last or fourth-to-last touch, and while that almost certainly wasn’t the reason he was subbed out (but wouldn’t that be a strategy?), it’s further evidence that he was not dropping nearly as deep as I might have thought.

But here’s the thing: This chart is woefully incomplete. It doesn’t show us passing accuracy in the slightest, and I have to admit, that’s purposeful on my part. It’s not to hide it, but to instead call attention to that one piece of the puzzle before we look at it. So, without further ado:

Here we are. That’s not exactly a model of passing accuracy, is it? But my reckoning, Silva had a strong performance all the same — and you can’t just take that away with green and red and yellow lines.

And here’s the other thing: For all of our musing about Silva after that performance against Minnesota, it remains the case that he’ll necessarily be a different player on the road. If he starts against San Jose, he’ll be playing at least a marginally different role.

Let’s loop back to the original question: What is Luis Silva’s role with Real Salt Lake? I’m positing that, at least in the last match, he played not as a 9 and not as a 10, but as a false nine. And I know that’s very 2010-buzzwordy, but he’s definitely not in the Totti or Messi style here. Instead, he’s closer to a hold-up striker — that traditional 9 — who is doing so further away from goal than you’d expect. The effect could be the same: Defenders should be drawn out of position by such movement. I’d further posit that what we saw against Minnesota — a proliferation of shots — came because space was freed for Joao Plata, Jefferson Savarino, and Brooks Lennon.

Will we see this in the same way on Saturday? Probably not, but at least we have some sort of understanding of how Silva can be deployed in an effective way. Further investigation into how he’s played in other home matches for RSL — and how he’s deployed in away ones — will help us gain a better understanding still.