Major League Soccer has seen its biggest stars come into the league through the use of designated player signings. While the roster limitations certainly brings on many critics, there is also an argument to be had that these rules enhance the quality of players coming in as DP’s because of the three designated slots allowed per team. Either way, teams must carefully shape their rosters around three players that are supposed to come in and be superstars. For some, that has happened, for a handful of others, that has not. In the first edition of this scout report, we will conduct a tactical analysis on three potential players based in Europe and South America that should consider a switch to the U.S in the near future.
It would be unjust to not kick off this analysis with former Liverpool and Manchester City star, Mario Balotelli. If nothing else, the Italian is made for the spotlight and the glitz and glamour of a certain U.S city provides just the perfect stage. Los Angeles, that is. Fortunately, Super Mario is still at the ripe age of 29 and playing his trade in Serie A with relegation candidates Brescia. Balotelli’s recent form is nothing to write home about but his lowly return of 5 goals in 19 games should be taken with a grain of salt considering he posted a career-high tally of goals with Nice just two years ago, 24 goals in 35 games. Balotelli has been rumored to be interested in a switch to the states ever since his spell with A.C Milan in 2015, but the move has never come into fruition because of the likely excessive transfer fees and wage. However, a move this summer could come just at the right time for both parties.
So what would Balotelli bring to the league exactly? Other than pure entertainment, both on and off the pitch, he is an extremely reliable option for goals if given a supporting cast of some sort. What makes Mario so unique is his style of play. Despite his large stature (6’2” 210 lbs) he is not on the pitch to just play as a target man. He does however perform brilliantly in air, winning around 2 aerial duels per 4 balls. He is also not going to go chasing after long balls. He’s fast but lacks the pure straight-line speed that many modern-day MLS centre-backs posses. Even if he did, Balotelli operates on his own rules as seen in his heat-map below.
Balotelli often finds himself drifting into space on the left side of the pitch where he can receive a ball and get a shot off with his right. The squad lacks any real creativity, bar Sandro Tonalli, a highly-touted defensive midfielder who has provided Balotelli with some service. Thus, Super Mario has been forced to make chances for himself. Brescia average just 10.7 shots per game which is nearly three shots lower than the next team above. Flashing back to his 2017 season with OGC Nice, we can see Balotelli’s natural instinct to link up with teammates who are on the wing, which then draws out a defender for him to receive the ball in space.
If he isn’t making a late run into space or posting up in the penalty area, Balotelli is also comfortable with scoring from outside of the box. Of his 18 goals in Ligue 1 in the. 2017/18 season, three of those goals came from outside of the box. A number that is very impressive for a supposed “advanced” striker as described by many when he arrived in the Premier League. While we could go on about Balotelli’s past records, the conclusion is that he would fit the MLS perfectly. Combine Zlatan’s dominance in the air for the Galaxy with Josef Martínez’s positional awareness and you get Mario Balotelli. MLS general managers, make a move.
Next up is a player who may not excite MLS fans right away, but is certain to make an impact for any team lacking a presence in the midfield: Markus Henriksen. The Norwegian, like Balotelli, has had a pretty underwhelming season. The only difference being that he isn’t to blame. After a very impressive six years at Dutch club AZ Alkmaar, Hull City secured him for a little over five million dollars. He made 15 appearances in the Premier League with Hull before they were relegated in 2017. Henriksen made another 70 appearances for the Yorkshire based club. In the 2017/18 campaign, Henriksen impressed next to fellow Scandinavian Sebastian Larsson, who was an all-around workhorse. After a change in management two years later, the midfielder found himself shut out of Hull’s plans as the club oddly decided to move on from him. This however came with no success as the asking price was too high and Championship play-off contenders Bristol City scooped him up on a one year loan. To date, he’s only made four appearances for the Robins while also appearing for Norway six times in the UEFA Nations League.
Henriksen’s contract expires this summer, and despite the complications Covid-19 may bring, he’ll likely be suiting up for a team that is not based in England when football does resume. MLS could be a very good opportunity for him to reboot his career while he’s still in his prime at 27 years old. In terms of tactical fit, Henriksen fits the mold of an MLS centre-mid. Standing at 6’2” and weighing in at around 190 pounds, his build closely resembles that of Minnesota man Jan Gregus who has been one of the most efficient players in the league during his first two matches. Unlike Gregus however, Henriksen offers much more in the final third and has shown his prolificness in front of goal on numerous occasions. In his 2015/16 campaign with Alkmaar, Henriksen had an impressive return of 12 goals and 6 assists in 28 appearances from the midfield. In that season he was given a more free-roaming role and was often found occupying space as the highest man as seen below.
In this brilliant sequence, the Norwegian found a gap between two opposition midfielders and checked in to eventually receive, turn, and hit a brilliant ball into the back of net. Henriksen consistently showed his long-range striking ability in Holland. Upon his switch to England, he was much more limited in his role but also found success as a deeper midfield. In his last nine matches with Norway and Bristol City, Henriksen averaged nearly three interceptions per match. The ability to be a pure creator like he showed in 2016 to a rock in the midfield shows his versatility that is so coveted in Major League Soccer, where players are often asked to adapt to new roles. For Henriksen, he could play as a six, eight or even ten.
Seen in the heat map above, Henriksen has been a solid figure as a left-sided defensive-midfielder as of recent, but his positional adaptability could be utilized to plug any missing holes in a franchise’s midfield.
Lastly, we have a slightly controversial one. While Mario Balotelli and Markus Henriksen represent financially realistic transfers, Vélez Sarsfield youngster Thiago Almada is quoted to have a release clause in the region of $30 million. An incredibly steep figure for even some of Europe’s giants, especially considering he’s still just 19 years old. In addition to the hefty price tag, Almada has been tracked by Manchester City, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid. This alone would most likely rule out any move to America for Almada. But, let’s not forget a young Argentine who turned down Europe in favor of a move to Atlanta United. Once touted as the new Messi, Ezequiel Barco has benefitted massively from the physical nature of American soccer and could be pinpointed as the first player to startup the South American revamp in North America. After Barco came Pavón, then Pity Martinez, then Matías Pellegrini. The list goes on and it would not be utterly insane to see Almada make a quick stop in Major League Soccer to work on the physical aspect of the game that he clearly lacks at 137 pounds. While still a teenager, the MLS presents an opportunity for him to grow into his body and develop the technical side of the game at the same time.
By and far the most exciting player out of the three, Almada would bring a level of hype that some of the most recognized designated players in the history of the league have not drawn. The parallels to Barco both on and off the pitch are remarkable. Barco, who cost Atlanta around $15 million, only played 38 senior games for Independiente in Argentina. Almada has made 38 senior appearances. A bizarre coincidence. In those 38 games for the two, Barco racked up 5 goals and Almada scored 7. Both respectable numbers considering the two were deployed as left-wingers. Taking a deeper look at Almada, it becomes clear that he is still a raw prospect. He’s got a lot of talent, but the notion that he would be named in Pep Guardiola’s matchday squad consistently is a bit outrageous considering he’d be competing against the likes of Phil Foden, Leroy Sane, and Gabriel Jesus for that attacking spot on the bench. However, Almada could develop into a superstar with the right steps in his career. First off, until he gets to Europe, Almada needs as many touches on the ball as possible. In this example below, the Argentine drifts into the center after a botched set piece. He does well to recognize the space and check-in to receive the ball which in turn draws the opposition centre-back out. Almada then plays a perfectly weighted ball over the top to complete the 1-2 sequence.
He’s crafty and while he has been able to show glimpses of that creativeness on the left flank, putting him at the 10 or even as a secondary striker could further unlock the playmaking ability he possesses. This is further highlighted by his progressive style of play, both with the ball and without the ball. Almada boasts an 82% pass completion rate which puts him in the top 5 of all players in Superliga Argentina. While he has attempted nearly 10 fewer passes than the next player above, his positioning on the wing is mostly to blame. Despite the above, Almada is still a very good option on the left flank as highlighted by the high volume of progressive runs, most of which are outside the box or even behind the halfway line which is a testament to Velez Sarsfield’s possession-based approach to games.
Interestingly, these runs mostly formulate from the centre of the pitch, where Almada most likely feels most comfortable. In short, a move to the MLS for Thiago Almada will probably never formulate, but tactically he fits the bill for a modern-day designated player in the MLS and should not be brushed over by MLS clubs as he could become a loan candidate.
All three players bring something exciting to the MLS and all are at different stages of their career. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that they each can offer something very important to any potential MLS suitor. As Major League Soccer continues to grow and talent is steadily increasing across all 26 teams, teams must now look at taking financial risks with the aim of separating from the rest of the pack. The players analyzed would all require significant financials with any deal, but now more than ever can the MLS climb up the ranks in world football.