In December of 2018, Jhegson Sebastián Méndez was signed to Orlando City by then manager James O’Connor. They needed more athleticism and bite in their midfield and replaced some older players such as Peruvian international Yoshimar Yotun. Yotun was a less mobile player in central midfield despite being an excellent passer of the ball. Orlando City felt a fresh breath of midfielder was important for the club to progress to play the kind of football they wanted to play, a player similar to N’golo Kante at Chelsea. He has played as a holding midfielder for Orlando City in the past, particularly under O’Connor in his first season.
However, Orlando City has a new coach this season, Oscar Pareja, with new tactics. This scout report will be a tactical analysis of Mendez’s role under Pareja ahead of the restart of games in the MLS. We will also be taking a look at, in this tactical analysis, why ‘Sebes’ Méndez will be vital for The Lions for the rest of the season, in this scout report.
Orlando’s Midfield Pivot:
There have been a number of systems that Méndez has played in already, just in the two games against Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids. These were the first two games of Pareja’s reign. The Lions drew the first and lost the second. In both of these games, however, Méndez occupied the role of the midfield pivot. Against Real Salt Lake, he partnered Junior Urso in central midfield in a 4-2-3-1.
Urso, in this Orlando side, moves further forward and tends to push behind the opposition’s midfield line. This leaves Méndez to act alone as the pivot. A role in which he has flourished in this season for Orlando. A midfield pivot acts as the link man who collects the ball from the backline and distributes the ball to the rest of the team, whether it be to play the ball out wide, play it through the central corridors, or else be a wall pass and play the ball back to the supplier
This is exactly the role that Méndez occupies. He is extremely important for Orlando in the first two phases of attack for the team. He sits behind the opposition’s first line of the press, shifting left or right depending on the ball-side. Orlando is very patient in their build-up and tend to circulate the ball between the backline and Méndez before progressing up the field.
Once the ball is played through the opposition’s first line of the press, it is now in the second phase. This is where Méndez is vital for Orlando City in possession. He either acts as a wall pass, and play it back to the supplier, or else he plays to the fullback to progress as Orlando tend to move the ball up the pitch through the flanks instead of the central corridors.
Méndez is very much a safe, ball-playing pivot. He opts to play short square passes or back passes over risky balls. According to Wyscout, his average passing percentage over the two games this season under Pareja has been 90 percent, with a pass per game average of 51 passes. However, the majority of these passes were to the central defenders and to the fullbacks. During the Real Salt Lake game, Méndez only attempted 5 progressive passes in the whole 90 minutes. He also completed 60 short-to-medium passes and finished the game with a pass range of only 16.9 percent.
The footage above backs up these statistics. Méndez opted to play the ball back towards the goalkeeper rather than using a riskier pass. He could have played the ball back towards the centre-back or switched the play to the ball-far central defender. He could have even tried to hold off his presser and bring another Orlando player into the game.
Against Colorado Rapids, Méndez shared his pivot role with Andrés Perea and Urso in this game. They rotated midfield positions quite often in this game, which gave ‘Sebes’ Méndez more attacking responsibilities than he had in the previous game.
This change led Méndez to have 25 less completed passes than he had against Real Salt Lake with 35 passes. He made zero key passes during the game and only completed 8 passes to the final third as well only 5 progressive passes. Orlando struggled to create chances in both games. His lack of offensive ability was a reason behind this. However, it is his defensive capabilities where he is key for this Orlando side.
Against Colorado, a game in which Orlando City were beaten, Méndez shone with his defensive responsibilities. Pareja switched to a 3-5-2 for this game, with Méndez operating as the holding midfielder in the midfield three. He was tasked with marking the player that was in Zone 14 at the edge of the box or in the central corridor. Urso and Perea marked the half-spaces. Generally, for Colorado, they used Younes Namli and Kellyn Acosta in attack, and both these players operated at the edge of the box.
Apart from Namli’s goal in the 64th minute, in which he successfully dribbled past him before scoring, Méndez did a very good job at nullifying both players, limiting them to zero key passes each and forcing the Rapids to play 76 percent of their attacks down the right flank with only 18 percent through Méndez’ zone. He tended to mark them tightly. If one player left his zone, he would pass him on to the nearest midfielder.
In defensive transition for Orlando, Méndez doesn’t drop back into shape. Instead, he hunts down the ball player looking to counter-press and wins the ball back quickly. He averages 5.68 counter-presses currently per 90 in the MLS and is ranked 18th in this category. This suits Pareja’s style of play as he orders Orlando to press high when the opposition plays out from the back.
Méndez likes to suffocate his opponent with his high press hassling the ball carrier. When Orlando are in the defensive phase, he does not only have to press the players in the central corridors. He also aids the fullback in winning the ball back. He shifts across to the ball-near fullback on his side and doubles up on the winger or over-lapping fullback. The whole Orlando blocks shifts across also so that they can outnumber the opposition on the ball-side. This can be seen in the footage below.
He also currently holds the seventh-best rank in the MLS for ball recoveries as well as 22nd for defensive duels, which clearly displays his cruciality for Orlando when they lose the ball. Méndez has rapid speed for a midfielder with the ability to cover a lot of ground per 90. Due to this, when he is attempting a ball recovery, he tends to come at the ball carrier from an angle and curve his run. This aids in preventing him from fouling the ball carrier. In both games this season, he only committed four fouls in 191 minutes of football.
He can also go shoulder-to-shoulder in his defensive duel instead of trying to tackle him.
When Orlando have the ball further forward, Méndez stays back occasionally with the defence. This is because the rest of the midfielders push forward, and they need someone to protect the backline. Méndez is tasked with winning the long ball or else winning the second ball from the long ball.
Due to his high ball recoveries numbers, he has a success rate at winning the second ball. However, where he struggles is his aerial duels as he is only 5 foot 6. He has averaged 2.37 aerial duels per 90 minutes and has a success rate of 0 percent. This can lead to him being exposed by a more physical side with a target man or tall midfielders.
Pareja rectifies this during set-pieces. Méndez’s role at defensive set-pieces, especially corners is to occupy the area at the edge of the box. With the lack of height, Pareja feels like he can utilise Méndez’s ability to suffocate his opponent on the ball. When the ball is in the first phase of the corner, Méndez sets himself to anticipate the ball dropping to the edge of the box. Much like winning the second ball, he wins the second ball from the corner. Due to his box-to-box ability, he can win the ball and carry it forward to set Orlando on the counter.
He occupies a similar role during offensive corners. Also, due to his height, he is wasted in the box marking. Instead, he sits at the edge of the box anticipating the ball to drop so that he can regain and recycle possession for Orlando. This is not the only reason he is at the edge of the box. Due to his success at ball recoveries and pace, he is there so that he can counter-press the opposing ball carrier and prevent danger high up the field.
Orlando are lacking potency up-front as well as creativity, most noticeably, their captain and ex-Champions league winner, Nani. They have started poorly under new coach Oscar Pareja. However, if they are to achieve their aims of a play-off place, without their creative sparks, having a solid defensive system is key to this as it will keep them in most games. Jhegson Sebastián Méndez is going to be absolutely crucial for this. He will need to perform well as the protector of the backline by winning the ball back in his counter-pressing. For the resumption of the season, Orlando City fans will be hoping to see a lot more contribution from Méndez going forward.
However, he will be one of Orlando’s most important players of the season. He suits Pareja’s system perfectly in how he wants Orlando to perform. He has done a fantastic job so far in the MLS in 2020. Méndez will most surely be looking to continue his good run of form in the restart. Orlando City fans in particular look forward to watching him continue these good performances. This scout report and analysis of Méndez from this season portrays this.