September 13, 2010
Juninho’s Passing Chalkboard Against Columbus

The Galaxy have finally got back to their old form, this past weekend, against the Columbus Crew, and while most of the discussion is on Beckham’s recovery (and his subsequent tight shirt), the true story is Juninho’s return and the immediate impact he has made on his team.

Juninho has been missing games for the Galaxy over a reported issue with his VISA.  The impact has been noticeable as the team has been unable to generate the solid possession needed to distribute to the team’s play-makers.

I created the image below after charting each of Junihno’s passes in the Galaxy’s 3-1 win against The Crew this past weekend.  I only charted what I considered an attempt at a pass, negating 50/50 balls (headers and challenges), and dribbling giveaways (which he had a couple of).

*note in this image, Galaxy attacked from left to right

Juninho's passing against Columbus Crew

According to my system, Juninho made 37 passes, completing 31 for a percentage of 84%, clearly the most accurate passer on the field.

His 6 misses, in chronological order, were:
1) lazy short pass
2) received the ball in a tight area, scrappy challenges made him mishit the ball
3) challenged by the defender, forced him into a mistake
4) sloppy pass
5) poor blind cross from the wing, intended to go into the box.  Instead went out behind the goal
6) received a lousy pass from Magee.  Almost pulled off a great pass in the box.

As you can tell by the chart, despite lining up to the left of center, Juninho roams to the right side occasionally, giving Donovan the ability to push forward on the flanks without having to worry about the middle of the field.  

The Galaxy’s success is directly linked with Juninho’s ability to spread the ball around the field.  Bruce has clearly given him the task of moving to space, making a quick and simple pass, and moving to space again.  Repeat.  Juninho’s success in this role makes him sort of the MLS version of Barcelona’s Busquets, who has a similar job of “Receive, pass, offer, receive, pass, offer.”  Looking at his pass distribution, around 15 (40%) of them are relatively east to west.  He doesn’t seek the difficult angle passes and rarely lobs a cross into the box (one of his six misses was a blind cross that went out of bounds).  He keeps his passes simple, by passing horizontally into space.  He is the foundation from which an attack is built upon, leaving others with the task of making creative runs and passes in an attempt to net a goal.  This strategy works well in tandem with Dunivant, who likes to overlap Juninho on the flank (kind of like an MLS version of Dani Alves) as well as with Cazumba, who can play more attacking on the wing, with Juninho staying back to distribute.  As I mentioned above, Juninho eases a lot of central duty from Donovan, who can instead focus on streaking up the wings while Juninho tracks back to receive the ball and share with the wingers and wing backs.

The chart shows a green check mark, which displays Juninho’s role in the Galaxy’s second goal.  In one of his rare forays up field, he distributed a simple horizontal pass to Kovalenko, who then executed a nice give-and-go to easily place the ball in the back of the net.

You can see, with help of this chart, why Juninho is so important to the Galaxy.  He shares a lot of qualities with Claude Makelele, who was massively underrated with his time in Real Madrid, despite many people today saying that he was the sole reason for their Champions League title in 2002.  Juninho doesn’t play the physical defense that Makelele is known for, but tactically he resembles Makelele quite a bit.  He rarely, if ever, is found in the opponent’s box.  Also, Juninho will track all the way back to his own goal in order to regain possession.  Like the Frenchman, he appears to lack the speed and physique to be an effective central midfielder, yet seems to always find the ball and the important pass to his teammates.

He plays quite a bit like Michael Carrick (as well as Arsenal’s Denilson), who despite playing more centrally, is the linchpin for United’s game plan.  Of course, Carrick is on another level of quality, but that’s not to negate Juninho’s similar importance to his team.  He’s only 22 years old and has adapted rather quickly to the rate of play in MLS.  Just ask his teammates what kind of impact Juninho has had in their game.  I’m sure his return to the squad has eased a lot of pressure off of Donovan, which should pay off dividends down the stretch.

The proof is in the pudding.  Juninho’s return clearly impacted the team positively, as their ball distribution, overlapping runs, and chances on goal were much improved from the past few games.  The hard work that Juninho puts in on the pitch allows for other players to have simplified jobs.  This clean and effective approach to the game caused The Crew, the best MLS team over the past three years, all sorts of problems on Saturday night.  It was a much deserved win for the good guys.

I look forward to analyzing his play in the weeks to come.

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