Sports like baseball and basketball have what some fans call “all-in-one-numbers,” even though none of them are exactly all-in-ones. Be they wins above replacement or box plus-minus, win shares or, well, win shares, both sports have seen smart people try to come up with ways to encapsulate a player’s entire contributions, each trying to give us an idea of somebody’s relative (and in some cases, absolute) value.
It feels like soccer is a ways from those in having those types of measures, but within more narrow contexts, there are still attempts to look at parts of a player’s skill set terms of single numbers. For example, some try to use assists to casually capture a player’s passing value, while others use competition percentage. Reality may be closer to a combination of both. Rates of tackles and interceptions sometimes get used to describe players’ defensive contributions, or at least their activity rates.
All of which is to say soccer has a long way to go before having a half-decent all-in-one number, even if, when it comes to strikers, we tend to use goals as a bottom line. How good is his defending, distribution, holdup play and runs? The conversation around the Portland Timbers and Thorns debated this extensively, last season, when most of the teams’ top scorers played deeper on the field. Shouldn’t goal scorers be judged by, well, how many goals they score?
That’s certainly how the Timbers’ new signing may be judged. Through his first two days in Portland, Brian Fernandez has had the likes of team general manager Gavin Wilkinson and Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese allude to his ability to get goals, but they’ve also taken time to emphasize the other qualities that pushed the Argentine to the front for their Designated Player search. Mentality, both said, was a major part of his draw, with each convinced Fernandez’s competitiveness distinguishes him on the field.
“First of all, he is a competitor,” Savarese said, Monday, when asked when Fernandez brings to the Timbers. “He likes to win. Every time he steps on the field, he wants to work very hard for his team. He wants to win.”
Positional versatility, however, may be the most interesting part of the profile they’ve emphasized, particularly as it relates to his goal-scoring potential. Regularly placed among Liga MX highlights while playing on the right for Club Nexaca, Fernandez spent much of his pre-Mexico career playing elsewhere, be that up top as a forward (in a number of different roles), on the left, or underneath another striker. “We weren’t looking to bring in a player that could just only play one position,” Wilkinson emphasized on Monday, and as his time in Mexico showed, Fernandez may be able to translate his goal-scoring impact to various players on the field. In terms of the scoresheet, the sacrifice of moving him from a central to a wide position may not be as severe as it would be with other players.
Before we get into how that impacts the Timbers, let’s make that impact clear. Fernandez had a stellar Clausura for Nexaca, but he’s also had success other places, most notably in his stop before Mexico, in Chile. Four months shy of his 25th birthday, Fernandez is enjoying the first part of his prime years, and given he lost more than a year of his development around his 20th birthday, Fernandez may be more likely to build on these numbers than the typical 24-year-old:
(Note: I use 2,000 minutes because a., it's a nice, round number, and b., it is roughly what a regular starter would see if he played two-thirds of a 34-game season.)
The data, above, only covers games since Fernandez started playing beyond Argentina, after Racing Club loaned him to Ligue 1’s Metz before the start of the 2017-18 season. Since then, Fernandez has also played in Chile and Mexico, putting in time at four different positions (once you combine wings and wide midfield roles, a decision that’s admittedly debatable).
Once you do that, though, you see a couple of things that further the assumptions we’ve made based on Fernandez’s last three months at Necaxa. First, to label him as only a right midfielder may not only be short-sighted but, looking strictly at the numbers, wrong. The versatility Wilkinson and Savarese alluded to is seen in his minute totals, but if you want to define him by one position, right midfield might not be the correct one.
Secondly, his goal rate across all these positions is remarkably similar. Statistically, it’s essentially identical. Granted, there’s barely enough time on the left or underneath a striker to read anything from those numbers, and the data itself is based off of lineup data which, in the way it’s gathered, may be too simplistic, or even incorrect. In totally, though, the post-Argentina phase of Fernandez’s career depicts a player who may be able to have a similar impact at a number of positions.
That brings us back to the Timbers. If you look at the team’s current setup in terms of attacking needs, right midfield seems like Fernandez’s best fit. We’ve covered how Andrés Flores is filling that role, right now, doing the work needed to liberate right fullback Jorge Moreira. But Flores is not the type of player who is going to replicate the numbers Fernandez produces. Nor are his offensive contributions going to rival those of players like Diego Valeri, Sebastián Blanco and Jeremy Ebobisse. Flores profiles as a different type of player. If your goal is to push the Timbers’ attack forward, right midfield’s the place to make a trade off.
This is not a new problem, either. Blanco’s 2017 arrival gave the team the production it would ideally want from the right side, but when, after Darlington Nagbe’s departure, he shifted to the left last season, production in terms of the traditional numbers dropped. Andy Polo proved important over the course of the 2018 campaign, but in terms of offensive contribution, he cast a profile similar to Flores this season. If you were looking for places where the attack could move forward, getting more production from right midfield stood out.
Contrast all that with what the team has been getting from their “second forward” position. Whether you want to see him as an attacking midfielder or, of late, more explicitly a forward, Valeri has been working high, in tandem with strikers for some time, now. While, this year, there have been debates about the level of his contribution, nothing about his traditional numbers over the last two-plus seasons hints at an attacking weakness.
In fairness, Ebobisse's production is important to consider, here, too, even if the steep growth of a 22-year-old with increasing playing time (and, not many minutes, yet) means even more context has to be remembered when considering his numbers.
Case closed, then, right? Perhaps, but we can’t forget some of the problems Portland encountered over the first six games of the season. Over the last month, Savarese and his players have been open, if euphemistic, about the role effort played in the team’s early struggles. With that addressed, the same weaknesses that surfaced during their 0-5-1 run may now be beyond the team’s purview. But during that time, Portland’s inability to adequately defend in wide spaces was one of the team’s most significant problems. Fullbacks weren’t being supported. Central defenders were then put in terrible spots. From its first and second lines back, the whole defense was contributing to the problem.
That’s where the folly of numbers comes back into frame. There is an old-school reticence to conceding data has any value, something that’s clearly out of step with 2019 sports. But there’s also a danger of seeing data points as more valuable than they are. For instance, if you buy into the primacy of goals scored, it’s obvious where Portland’s new signing should fit. Your case is made even easier because there are no truly powerful numbers that capture defensive contribution or tactical fit. Goals tend to not only be used as a convenient, naive all-in-one number when a player gets labeled as an attacker, but it also ignores that balance that has to be struck between attacking and defending, complementing strengths while covering weaknesses.
Over the last four games, Portland has struck the right balance, with changes to all of the mentality, personnel and formation playing a part in the team’s three-game revival. The challenge, now, is to take the new weapon a record fee’s acquired and, while incorporating him into a new approach, maintaining the lineup’s balance.
If there was an all-encompassing number that described that balance, assimilating new talent would be easy. Instead, the where, how, and when of Fernandez’s fit may prove more nuanced.