Brenden Aaronson, the home-grown Philadelphia Union midfielder comes into the MLS Is Back tournament as a break out star. His side start the competition well with a 1-0 win over NYCFC. Following a promising rookie season, Aaronson is ready to continue progressing. He has shown versatility within the team’s tactics to play in central and wide areas of the midfield. His performances have also gained him one start for the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) in a friendly with Costa Rica. With continued progression he will be looking to carry on impressing and developing as an exciting prospect in the MLS.
An analysis of Aaronson’s strengths will always start with his ability to find space to receive the ball. In 2019 he played across central midfield, left and right wing, as well as behind the striker. He has started 2020 playing in the #10 role behind two strikers in both games scoring one goal.
Above we see the formation used by Philadelphia Union in the opening matches of 2020. Aaronson played, and started, in the same position in both games.
Aaronson has the freedom and ability to roam and find space to link up play from midfield to attack. Evident above, he frequently uses short passes to keep the ball moving and move defenders. Below we can see how Aaronson finds areas in the final third with space to affect play. With Przybylko playing centrally, Santos the other striker looks to move across the backline and receive the ball on either wing. This gives Aaronson the chance to find space in-between the opponent’s defence and midfield lines.
As Philadelphia build possession through the thirds, Aaronson finds space in between the lines. He has found a safe passing lane through to receive the ball. Both defenders closest to him are also marking the strikers of Philadelphia. Identifying the defenders’ responsibilities means he is able to find space to receive and commit a defender to make a decision – do they continue to track the strikers, or do they commit and look to close down? If they stay with their striker, they will have to ensure they block off any passing lanes through. Aaronson would have time to receive and move towards goal with the midfield too far away to close him down immediately. The player on the ball chooses a longer pass for the striker to run onto in this instance.
His understanding of the opponent’s movement means he is able to vary how he finds space. As well as arriving into space between the lines, below he identifies an overlap opportunity.
Aaronson sees the full-back go to close down Przybylko, coming central. This leaves space on the right side to attack. Being behind the midfielder closest to him, he is able to accelerate and get into space without being tracked. We can see Santos looking to get on the shoulder of the last defender in both the above examples. He can see that if Aaronson receives it, he will often look for an early pass. With the pace of other players such as Santos, the quick release of the ball can force defenders back.
When attacking the box, Aaronson looks to time his run to arrive late and often look for second balls. Here a cross is aimed at the centre forward. Aaronson looks to arrive late looking for a rebound or a headed pass from the centre forward if the cross is good.
Aaronson’s first goal of 2020 came from excellent movement and positioning. He picks up space on the edge of the box and times his run well to join the attack and find a dangerous position while still in space in a crowded box.
As the ball come in he has remained on the back of enough defenders who haven’t seen him coming into the box. He has time to receive the ball, turn and finish.
Even out of possession, Aaronson is finding space when possible in preparation for transitions. Below we can see LAFC in possession. Aaronson can see his teammates are closing down the player on the ball.
He is also close enough to make the ball inside into the CB too risky for the man on the ball. The Union force the defender to run the ball out down the line, where they are able to create a 2v1 overload. We can see that Aaronson has found space in between the midfield and defence should Philadelphia force a turnover. This type of movement shows his understanding of his responsibilities in the role. It also highlights his understanding of the possible next stage of play. He ensures that, while doing his defensive responsibilities, he is also ready for transitions and turnovers. This positional intelligence gives him opportunities to affect the game positively when Philadelphia has the ball.
Passing and Receiving
The key to Aaronson supporting his side moving the ball forward is his medium-range passes. By this we look at passes between five and 25 yards. In 2019 he made 633 pass attempts, of which 520 were medium range with a completion percentage of 84.2%. This is how Aaronson looks to build possession and work the ball forward. Again, this season, Aaronson has already attempted 33 medium-range passes, with a 75.8% success rate.
Aaronson shows quick feet and good vision for creating space on the ball. Against LAFC this season we can see below he is under pressure from two players while receiving the ball. Aaronson does well to judge the speed of the ball and the press of the opponents.
He is able to invite pressure while receiving the ball on his back foot and turning. This skill clears space for him to look up and make good decisions on the ball. Speed is not one of Aaronson’s strengths, so this ability gives him more time on the ball.
Again we can see below he receives a short pass in a crowded area of the pitch. Aaronson shows good use of scanning to understand the movements of others and the spaces available.
His link-up play ensures that Philadelphia are able to keep possession well. Aaronson once again makes opponents miss to create space for himself to receive and release the ball quickly.
On transitions, Aaronson works hard to force them for his side. The below image shows Aaronson in possession after forcing a misplaced pass. With 3 LAFC players close by, Aaronson turns out, dragging the ball back and opening up into the middle of the pitch.
He gets himself into a position where he is able to make a pass into the striker. There is good movement from teammates going forward to support in the second phase.
He plays short quick passes well, often playing two-touch football. He does not stop to watch after but moves to create space or receive the ball back. As he receives the ball in the bellow image, he takes one touch to set and then passes on short down the line. Aaronson immediately looks to move inside to the space created on the edge of the box. This positional awareness after the pass is key to Aaronson’s threat in the final third. With quick, progressive passing, his side are able to disorganise defences to create opportunities.
Aaronson shows good technique on the ball, being able to change pace well to create space to move the ball. He can slow down to draw a defender in before moving the ball out of his feet quickly to make space for a pass. We can see below, he has slowed and will move the ball out of his feet down towards the by-line before crossing. He looks to make defenders commit to a tackle and move the ball at the last moment.
In 2020 Aaronson is 14th in average dribbles per game with 5.17. This compares with top placed Bryan Rodriguez of LAFC who has 13.43. There is a large difference though Aaronson has a 60% success percentage and Rodriguez has 33.33%.
Aaronson’s protection of the ball is evident to see if the first game of 2020 against FC Dallas. He receives the ball while running forwards but chooses to slow down immediately and allow Bedoya to overlap.
He has an opportunity 1v1 with the defender but decides a pass is the safest option.
Later in the same game Aaronson shows his ability to protect the ball at his feet while under pressure. He has 3 men closing him down and turns to protect the ball and look for support behind him.
As he turns there are no available options and he is closed down again, this time by the FC Dallas striker and is forced back into the middle of the pitch.
As he is drawing in 2 players he sees the overlapping run and makes the pass to the full-back.
Being able to remain calm in possession is a key part of Aaronson’s game. For a player of only 19 years of age he is able to play with confidence and maturity. Aaronson looks to protect the ball and make the right decision of when the dribble and when to pass.
In the last game with LAFC, his number of progressive yards in possession was 114. Carlos Vela in the same game for LAFC had 192. This difference was down to the amount of times Aaronson uses quick passes to progress possession rather than dribble. He has not got the pace of players like Vela so needs to make the right decision of when to dribble. Vela was targeted more time 62 times to Aaronson’s 45. They both had similar receptions, Vela 39 and Aaronson 34. Out of 35 passes, 20 of them were short, along the ground to a teammate. He creates space and progresses play with movement and passing to disorganise defences.
Aaronson is 19 years old and of a slim frame and is adapting to the physical side of the game but works hard to protect the ball. He has been involved in an average of 10.34 offensive duels with a success rate of 35%. In the MLS, for offensive duels, Aaronson is 37th; Rodriguez of LAFC is first with 19.7 and 40.91% success.
Out of possession, we can see below, that Aaronson works hard on counter-pressing and across the pitch. He will hurry opponents and look to position himself well to block passing lanes.
Against LAFC, Aaronson applied pressure on a player 31 times and was able to make six tackles. There is a large gap between these numbers but shows his desire to hurry players on the ball. We can compare to Carlos Vela of LAFC in the same game only pressed six times and tackled once. This shows the different roles these two players have in their systems while playing in similarly attacking positions.
The start of 2020 has also shown his desire to improve in pressing high with his side. In 2019 he made six tackles in the attacking third. After two games in 2020 he had already made three. This shows he is working on the defensive side of his game with the style of high press the Philadelphia Union like to play.
In 2019 he averaged 21.1 presses per game. 2020 has started higher, over the first three games this is up to an average of 23.3. The below image is from the NYCFC game. We can see Aaronson pressing fast and aggressively, putting the midfield under pressure.
As the NYCFC player receives the ball, he is forced to turn back. Aaronson has covered the ground quickly and put the player under pressure as soon as he receives the pass.
What he will need to work on is pressing as part of a team. At times Aaronson will press high and chase the ball down without the support of his team. The below image shows a defender receiving the ball out wide. Aaronson immediately presses the defender.
As the player receives the ball he faces Aaronson who is pressing. Aaronson’s body position is looking to force the defender backwards. Although, he has left space for the defender to attack down the line, and has no support in that moment. This leaves the opponent with the opportunity to accelerate up the pitch after Aaronson has slowed down from his sprint.
The defender is able to bring the ball out with Aaronson chasing behind. An unmarked NYCFC player receives the ball and an attack is started.
There is enthusiasm and energy to Aaronsons play out of possessions. Though he will need to be smarter with his defending to be able to improve.
The other area of improvement Aaronson is working on is his final product. With three goals and one assist last season, Curtin will be looking for more from Aaronson in 2020. So far in 2020 he has the eighth-most touches in the opposition penalty area, 4.66 per 90 minutes. Jozy Altidore has the most with 6.5.
He has started 2020 well though his creativity and final product is still slowly being worked on. The image below shows Aaronson’s penalty area deliver in 2020. As we can see the direction and area of the pass is away from the goal and to the side of the box. These passes are often for another player to deliver a cross. As mentioned earlier, Aaronson is very protective of the ball in possession and looks for safe passes. There may be times where he can take more of a risk and look to be more direct in the final third.
He will need to turn more of these chances into goals and assists. In 2019 he averaged 1.85 shots per game. He had 35 shots in total last season with only nine on target. With this, his expected goals for the season was 3.7, therefore he finished with less than expected, with three.
This tactical analysis in the form of a scout report highlighted Aaronson’s qualities on the field for Philadelphia. There is no doubt that he is a talented passer of the ball and his movement is of the highest standard for his age. His performances last season gained him call ups to the USMNT and he will no doubt continue to be called up and look to stake a claim to starting role.
His ability to find space in all areas of the pitch shows his excellent reading of the game. Philadelphia finished 5th in 2019, one point behind Seattle and were knocked out in the conference semifinals by Atlanta. Aaronson and co will be hoping for a strong showing in the MLS is Back tournament and have started well with a win against New York City FC.
If Aaronson can add goals and assists to his game this season he will likely be considered amongst the top-level players in his position in the MLS. With Aaronson and Premier League side Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, the USMNT will continue to build a strong attacking midfield unit.