After failing to make the Playoffs in the Major League Soccer 2019 season, the San Jose Earthquakes were looking for better luck before the COVID-19 pandemic. With the MLS is Back Tournament set to begin on July 8th, they will have a chance to show improvements to consider them as capable to compete for higher seeds in the future.
Creative attacking winger Cristian Espinoza is one of the main exponents under Matías Almeyda’s tactics. The Argentinian, who was acquired by La Liga’s Villarreal back in 2017 and then loaned out a few times, came to the MLS as one of San Jose’s Designated Players.
In this scout report, I will run a tactical analysis to break down Espinoza’s role for the San Jose Earthquakes and conclude on what we should expect from him in the upcoming MLS Tournament.
His positioning spectrum
One of the main attacking attributes for Espinoza is his versatility. The Argentinian can adapt well to many roles and playing under different formations. He spends most of the time on the right flank as a winger on San Jose’s 4-2-3-1, but he was seen on the left side too during the two games played this year in the MLS. Because of his creativity, Espinoza could also play well on a centre attacking midfielder position.
As we can see below, the Argentinian heatmap show he has a heavy impact on the right side of the pitch. Most of the time he will stay wide waiting for the ball with the intention to receive on the weak side so he can have more space to use his pace and dribbling ability.
In the image below we see how Espinoza usually waits wide for their teammates to give him the ball and then try to resolve the play, facing the defender or crossing the ball.
On the defensive end, he is frequently asked to follow the opponent full-back through the pitch, as we can see in the image below, while sometimes he stays high waiting for his teammates to recover the ball to lead the offensive transition.
Dribble to disrupt defenders
Espinoza can make damage in transition but his dribbling skill becomes more important to disrupt an organized defence. It is clear that in San Jose’s tactics, the Argentinian is the most capable to be successful in 1v1 situations, clearing the path to finish their attacking plays.
Another aspect that stands out from his dribbling ability is the simpleness that he has to go right or left when he faces a defender. This makes it much difficult to defend him as he can cut to the centre spaces or go wide.
In the following image we can see this, so the defenders must be aware and manage their body position to prevent Espinoza from surpassing them giving him the opportunity to shoot or assist.
During MLS 2019 season, Espinoza finished as the third player in both total dribbles (255) and dribbles per 90 (8.49, shared with Hárold Mosquera) categories. In terms of efficiency, his 58.43 % of successful dribbles is pretty solid, ranking second behind Aleksandar Katai.
Another skill that Espinoza uses a lot is to run with the ball. He is a main factor in taking the ball high up the pitch with his progressive runs. In that category, he also ranks in the top places in both total progressive runs and progressive runs per 90. It is common to see him running and covering lots of meters when he has control of the ball.
When it comes to measuring Espinoza’s impact on San Jose Earthquakes attacks, it is a must to highlight his assists. It is no coincidence that he is top-20 in touches to the box, as most of his assists came from low crosses or passes to the box, showing great ability to find teammates in quality shooting positions. Espinoza ranked in the top-10 in total assists and assists per 90. He also ranked sixth in key passes with 30 through the season.
As mentioned, one of Espinoza’s preferred move is to get into the box and then throw a low pass or cross pretty near the goal line, giving his teammates fair chances to score, just like we see in the image above.
Regarding the crosses, the Argentinian led the league with 208 total crosses and finished second in crosser per 90 (6.93). It is clear that because of his position as a winger and his dribbling ability, many times he is going to take crosses to finish plays. Above we can see the image from a well accurate cross from Espinoza that led to an assist.
In relation to his shooting, Espinoza is a player who tries a lot, being top-10 in the league in total shots. This rank goes up if we consider only shots from outside the box, being seventh in the league in that category. Below we can see the Argentinian cutting to the centre to take a shot.
If we consider his shots, his assists and key passes, and his crosses, it comes clear that Espinoza has a large role in his team’s attacks.
The one thing that Espinoza needs to contribute more, in order to make even more impact and complete the attacking circle, is to score more goals. The Argentinian has scored only two goals in the MLS, while his xG ratio is 4.61.
The image below could be a glimpse of why Espinoza finds it difficult to score. The shots that he takes from wide positions, with the goalkeeper well-positioned and defenders closing the angles available to target the goal and lowing the chances to score, like the one we can see, are frequent in him.
If Espinoza could get more into central spaces, maybe he could exploit more his scoring chances. At the same time, he would find it difficult as those spaces are more crowded.
Anyhow, if we consider this tactical analysis, it is important to Matías Almeyda to have a player like Espinoza who can play in so many positions and roles and contribute no matter which tactics is his coach going for. Whether it is as a winger or it is as an attacking central midfielder, his team can benefit much from his creativity.
This scout report reviewed Cristian Espinoza’s characteristics and there is no doubt we are talking about a potential top MLS player. After he could not adapt well years before playing in La Liga, and a not so impressive time at Boca Juniors, the Argentinian winger seems to have found a home in San Jose Earthquakes and a coach that trusts him in Matías Almeyda.
His team will now have to face the Group B of the MLS is Back Tournament playing against MLS 2019 champions Seattle Sounders, FC Dallas and Vancouver Whitecaps. It will be a good opportunity for San Jose to show they are prepared to be more than a middle of the ranks team. About Espinoza, if he can add some goals to what he is already offering with assists and his creative style, he would then be welcome into the top-tier MLS players.