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What happened to RSL’s midfield on Saturday?

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A lack of unified approach left RSL shallow in the middle.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at San Jose Earthquakes Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Luke Mulholland is no defensive midfielder.

If we didn’t know that before Saturday, we certainly learned it against San Jose Earthquakes, when he played the position with both Kyle Beckerman and Sunny absent.

Of course, that’s not to say he can’t play in similar roles — he’s proved a pretty capable box-to-box guy, and he spelled reasonably well in attacking midfield positions, too. At his heart, he’s a pure central midfield guy that will chase down the ball, make a few tackles (some of which are good, some of which aren’t) and really put everything he has into the match. That’s what he does. It’s his tenacity that makes him a unique player.

But when I went to look at the stats from Saturday’s loss to San Jose, an interesting pattern emerged: Mulholland may not have been quite as bad as I thought in the role. His poor passes stood out, but they didn’t really jibe with his 82 percent passing success rate. He didn’t get into the final third, but that wasn’t what we expected in the role.

This all makes me wonder: What is Luke Mulholland, anyway? I’ve been preaching that ‘box-to-box’ role, but it’s clear that RSL coach Mike Petke doesn’t always need a role like that in his side. Or at least it doesn’t seem that way — several times, he’s gone with a lineup that uses other midfield roles. And that’s fine. It might just be that Mulholland is simply a straightforward central midfielder, and he can play different roles with varying success. Yes, even a deep-lying midfielder.

But if we’re wondering why we might have assumed that his passing success rate was so low, we need look no further than his passing success rate on the season. It’s not good: 72.2 percent, says WhoScored. So, yeah. It’s low. And maybe in this instance we were harsh — but we would have had reason to assume.

If Luke Mulholland wasn’t quite as bad in passing as we thought, then we have to also ask ourselves why that midfield just didn’t work. The simple answer? I think it’s actually back to Luke again — kind of.

See, in the graphic above, you can see the direction of passing, and it’s very rarely going through the center. That, to my mind, is the actual issue at hand. It’s not about percentages, but it’s that he simply wasn’t able to regularly go through any central players — like Jefferson Savarino, for instance. Now, that could very well be down to the positioning of Savarino, so I don’t want to be too hasty here. But when we see a truly successful midfielder, we see them connecting important dots, and when players in wide positions are the ones controlling the ball, it’s harder for those central players to get involved. As a result, it’s harder for the ball to arrive at the feet of Yura Movsisyan or Luis Silva, neither of whom had particularly good nights. And why didn’t they? There are lots of reasons, but I actually think this is down to a midfield combination concern. Here’s Jefferson Savarino’s passing.

See, what we have here is Savarino making a bunch of short passes — in essence, playing a combinatorial role. He did get some key passes off, but he also was stuck very centrally. So when I wondered if it was down to the positioning of Savarino, I think the answer is a definitive “nah.”

Maybe instead what we have on our hands is a case of Mulholland simply playing things too wide — or maybe that’s what Savarino should have been doing instead of staying fairly central. Of course, we did see that Petke made a halftime adjustment, bringing Luis Silva deeper into the mix and giving Mulholland a player to feed. Maybe it helped; it clearly didn’t make the biggest difference.

So, let’s loop back to the title. What did happen to RSL’s midfield on Saturday, anyway? I think you can distill it to a few points.

  • There was no unified approach between Jefferson Savarino and Luke Mulholland, both of whom were playing in sub-optimal roles
  • Mulholland spread play wide; Savarino kept it central, and there was a fair degree of overlap in position — again, no unified approach
  • Without a supplemental midfielder, Luke was left doing his normal job and Kyle Beckerman’s, neither of which he could do at full capacity.