Analysis

Haris Medunjanin is hurting the Union

Photo: Earl Gardner

Haris Medunjanin is not an MLS starter.

Anybody can make a controversial statement. This particular statement has its roots not in soccer, but in current basketball trends.

Strategies and techniques in one sport can be used to analyze other sports to find interesting conclusions that may otherwise not be so apparent. Coming at this issue from a different way of thinking helps shine light on a (not so) hidden issue.

Basketball and soccer are similar

Soccer has twice as many players and a bigger field, but ultimately, the sports share many concepts on offense and defense:

  • Keep your opponent out of dangerous areas.
  • Close down shooters.
  • Attack defenses before they get set.
  • Put yourself between the ball and your man (or the ball and the goal, if you’re defending the man with the ball).

Many soccer teams could learn a lot from how modern basketball is played in terms of how these strategies are executed.

One of the most important concepts in basketball was succinctly stated: “You can win either by scoring more than the other team, or by stopping them from scoring as much as you do. A bucket is equal to a stop, which is equal to a bucket.” This was later shortened to the formula “bucket=stop=bucket”.

In soccer terms, scoring a goal and stopping a goal have relatively equal value.

Using this diagram to simplify modern basketball, the ball starts on offense with No. 1, usually their point guard, who starts far from the basket. The general goal is to penetrate the defense to either get a shot close to the basket or to draw another defender so that another player becomes open.

Defenses that have a weak No. 5 find it nearly impossible to play consistently good defense, as the offense can succeed at their goal more easily and often. These weak No. 5s are increasingly getting benched, as teams are discovering that even the best of these offensive players can’t overcome their lack of defense. In this year’s playoffs, an archetypical all-offense no-defense No. 5 got torched so many times that his coach eventually just said “can’t play him”, and he barely saw the court for the rest of the series.

The Union have a soft middle, and Medunjanin at the heart of it

The Union are using Medunjanin as their No. 1 on offense. Their offense typically starts by getting the ball to him and letting him pick out the pass to move the offense forward.

However, where basketball No. 1s can focus primarily on offense because they have plenty of backup on defense, Medunjanin is currently playing more like a defensive No. 5, and he can’t play defense.

This puts him and the Union in the same conundrum that many NBA teams have faced recently:

What do you do with a player who is supposed to defend the heart of the defense but can’t?

Continuing to try it just results in losses piling up. There may be occasional victories, but it’s not a tenable long-term strategy.

When things are going well, the offense looks great. The player looks like a key contributor.

But bucket=stop=bucket, and no individual player can create enough offensive opportunities to counterbalance his lack of resistance in the heart of the defense.

It’s a simple numbers game. A player will not be actively involved in every offensive possession. A player in the heart of the defense will be actively involved in every defensive possession.

Given enough possessions on both ends, the lack of stops will eventually outweigh the creation of chances. Bucket=stop=bucket. If a player allows more chances than he creates, he is a liability.

And so Haris Medunjanin is a negative as currently deployed.

For every opportunity he creates, you can find two plays where his poor defense leads to good opportunities for the opposition. Teams cannot consistently win games while allowing more scoring opportunities than they create.

Medunjanin is not the sole reason why the Union have not won a game since last August (there are many reasons, and half the streak predates him), but he is probably the biggest reason why, over the course of every 90 minutes this season, the Union seem to come out looking the worse of the two teams.

He is being put in a position in which he cannot succeed. Both Earnie Stewart and Jim Curtin deserve some blame for the situation both for putting him there and for not providing him weapons to target to at least maximize his offensive value, but he must also shoulder the blame when, for example, he points out where he should be instead of actually getting there.

What’s the solution?

There are two options.

  1. Push him up in to the CAM role and see if he can still have significant offensive impact. The CAM in the Union’s system has significantly less defensive responsibility, so if his offense does not suffer too much, this could minimize his poor defense while allowing him to continue driving the attack. 
  2. Bench him. Bring him in when the Union are already trailing and the reward of scoring outweighs the risk of conceding.

The Union do not have the option of continuing to deploy him as a No. 6 or No. 8 defending the heart of the defense if they are trying to win games. Those positions must be able to provide defensive cover. It is a mandatory part of the job description. Medunjanin is not able to handle the job.

In basketball, teams have learned that playing weak defenders in the middle is a losing strategy.

It’s a losing strategy in soccer too. It’s time to acknowledge this and fix the problem.

34 Comments

  1. Matt Thornton says:

    Honestly I’ve been thinking about this problem a ton, and my initial thought is to look at the mid-aughts AC Milan team that played a Christmas tree formation 4-3-2-1. They deployed a terrific metronomic passer flanked by a savage and tenacious midfield defender and another, smoother but defensive midfielder. The trio of Gattuso, Prilo, and Ambrosini.

    Its a pipe dream because we know both Jim and Earnie don’t believe in changing the formation, but a Jones, Haris, Bedoya 3 in midfield could yield a similar result while protecting the back line much more than the current setup.

    You can also clip the top of the tree and flip it to a 4-3-1-2 if you wanted to get both CJ and Jay on the field with Alberg or a better able #10.

    The biggest problem with the Milan comparison? We don’t have a Kaka, and probably never will.

    *sigh*

    • CPfeif13 says:

      Same reason I have kept throwing a 4-3-3 out there.
      .
      Midfield three the same (Jones-Medunjanin-Bedoya). Fits the tendencies of each player: Bedoya can drift right, Medunjanin has two defensively responsible partners, Jones is playing next to veterans…makes the most sense to me, plus it is very closely related to the 4-2-3-1 they currently use.

      • Yup. We need to either push Bedoya out to the wing and insert Jones to the middle, play the 4-3-3- you mention (or a similar midfield setup in a 4-4-2).

  2. Adjust, or Die says:

    Formation doesn’t play to his strengths… so he actually fits in perfectly because our whole roster doesn’t seem to fit this formation. I know basketball much better than soccer and every basketball team worth a damn adjusts to play to the teams strengths. The Union are poor at adjusting from game to game, but from what I’ve seen their halftime adjustments aren’t that great either.

    So with that said is it the calm collected distributor in the midfield hurting us or the coaching? I don’t know, but I like the thought of trying Haris at CAM with Bedoya behind him with a balanced mindset and Jones behind him with a defensive mindset.

    • We have literally adjusted or tactics to every team we have played and started out either equal or the better team (excluding Orlando). Those mid game adjustments have been poor though.

    • Great One says:

      This is true, it’s sad that the two options presented here really are our only two options because we will not change the formation under any circumstances. We have changed tactics slightly however.

  3. I think the basketball and soccer comparison here isn’t a like for like because there is nothing limiting possession in soccer.
    .
    When there is no shot clock in lower levels of basketball, it’s often helpful to work the ball on offense in order to wear out the team currently on defense. It’s always harder on a player’s legs to play defense. It’s no different. So it may make since to have players who can successfully move the ball (and thus the defense) even if you lose some defensive coverage.
    .
    Furthermore, unlike the NBA there are no restrictions in playing a zone defense. If you have a strong shot blocker in basketball, you can park him in the paint so it can cover your other players defensive deficiencies. If the Union had a stout number 6, Medunjanin could roam more freely. Unfortunately, Bedoya doesn’t have the defensive chops to play 6 and Jones doesn’t quite have the experience.

  4. I prefer option 1 so that he can shoot more than last week. Last week he was the best offensive player on the field!

  5. YES I LOVE YOU ADAM.

    Put in Jones at the 6. He is the sideline to sideline destroyer we needed for years.

    • Great One says:

      This is so true. He definitely needs a lot of work, but we aren’t going anywhere as it stands right now. At least let him get the experience. What is Alberg/Bedoya/Ilsinho doing at the 10 that Medunjanin can’t? Nothing.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      He has played there once. Two weeks ago for the Steel. It was not a rousing success.

  6. I agree with the premise that his defensive liabilities are hurting the overall team, but can’t get on board with him playing as the 10. He already stated how he likes to play deep, see the field and start the play. In our current formation, which was we were reminded of this week that it will not be changing any time soon, our ten has to be able to play with his back to the defenders, which doesn’t seem like that meshes with what his preferred style is. We saw what happened when we played someone out of their preferred spot at the 10 with Bedoya, why would we do that again with Haris?

    • Yes, he’s an 8. He’s Nogueria except he has another 8 playing next to him instead of a 6. I think he’d look like Bedoya did when he played the 10 if we tried it, although I’m up for anything at this point. Honestly Jones is an 8 too. The #6’s we have on this team are Carroll and Creavalle and the only potential 10 on this roster is Najem.

    • Though I think playing Haris at the ten is an option, I think it’s a bad one. As you say he likes to see the field, and from what I’ve seen of him this year, he doesn’t do well with his back to goal. He either gets overwhelmed quickly by faster more agile defenders, or he just makes back passes, which aren’t conducive to attacking. So to me there’s only one option, and that’s to the bench. If the coach and SD want to go back to basics, then actually go back to basics and DEFEND first. Seal the hole that is wide open in the mid field.

      • Pretty much how I saw that scenario playing out in my head, not athletic or fast enough to react to a defender stepping. They’ve dabbled with the inverted triangle, which could get you Haris, Jones and Bedoya on the field at the same time, but I don’t know how much this strays from the preferred 4321. If they are open to that, I say try it, if not, then yeah, not sure what else you’re going to expect going forward other than a nice play from Haris then 2 chances for the other team.

  7. Wait, is basketball played with a round ball? JK. I had to play bball growing it bc nobody was playing pick up soccer in East Oak Lane.

  8. I get your argument, but the headline is all wrong. Medunjanin is not hurting the Union. He’s a gifted player and one on a very short list earning his pay. He’s not being put in the best position to help this club. I’ve said it here before: you don’t bench arguably the best player on this side because he doesn’t play defense. The problem is Curtin knows that Medunjanin is his play maker but he doesn’t want to take Bedoya out of the middle, and he doesn’t want to play Bedoya at #10 either. So he has designed his own trap: Jones is forced to the bench. That might not be so bad if your Centerback pair were stronger. OR, as I believe, they were better organized. I see so much of this team’s failings as a direct result of poor management and a lot less about their talent. But I think I might be in the minority. I think a better manager has this team in that tight pack of conference rivals in the 11 – 12 point range right now.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      In Adam’s defense, I probably should have changed the headline to “How basketball explains Haris Medunjanin.”

      • It’s OK. I appreciate click bai…. I mean a compelling headline. A good publication — especially one on sports — should take a little license and provoke, I think.

  9. He definately is a Pirlo light type player. Liking a position and being effective in it are 2 separate things. The Milan analogy is perfect.

  10. jpat2411 says:

    Amen.

  11. Look the one huge problem with this offense lies with the entire offense not just Harris. No one moves on and off the ball. They pass to the flanks or in the middle and stand or walk. I can’t count how many times I’ve yelled stating that they should be moving into space and\or moving for support. Half the time Harris has limited options for creativity bc this team doesnt make runs or they don’t know how to create that offensive press as of late. Thus, leaving Harris to go side to side or back. I’m not saying the poor offense in the midfield isn’t his fault, he has a lot to do with it. He can start to press right away with the ball to create that offensive urgency that can maybe force everyone to move more. The bottom line for me is that you can have the best midfield passer in the league, but if the rest of the team are standing still watching then even the all star will look like an amateur at times. Another point is that this team has to get their possession under control before anything else can happen. This is another problem that other teams seem to grasp and have success with.

  12. el Pachyderm says:

    If you are going to deploy a regista… you have to have him next to a destroyer. So either Derrick Jones can be a destroyer, can become a destroyer or you start shuttling C+C Music Factory back in like last season (GASP). Personally I’d like to see if Derrick can do it under very strict tactical guidelines.
    .
    From this place, both the defense is shored up, and playmaking exist going forward. Now about the 10?

    • To me, Derrick Jones shows clear signs of being able to develop into a destroyer. I saw him destroying people all over the pitch when he and Haris started the season together.

    • Zizouisgod says:

      Exactly.

      All you need to do is look at how Bosnia-Herzegovina played him. He’s part of a deep lying set of midfielders with an attacking midfielder (many times, Pjanic) playing in front of them. They only ever played him further forward vs weaker teams.

      He’s in a position that’s familiar to him so he can succeed there if you use his talents correctly and putting Jones next to him is the right move. You can then put Bedoya in front of them, not necessarily as a 10, but a central midfielder who can help link play into attack.

      • it’s almost you should look to the highest level of coaching/playing where the player was the most successful and use that as a model: Harris next to a destroyer. Bedoya out wide…

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        If you play Jones next to Medunjanin, the opposition ignores Jones and double-teams Medunjanin. Jones with the ball will not hurt the other team.

      • Zizouisgod says:

        Perhaps, but if that’s the case, there is a numerical advantage for the Union in other parts of the pitch, no?

        Plus, Jones isn’t the only other option to distribute the ball. If you put Rosenberry back in, he’s a viable outlet and with Bedoya not in the 10 role, he can drop deeper to link play. Elliott has shown his ability to distribute as well. Jones doesn’t need to play through balls or anything too daring, just be an effective ball-mover and know his safe outlets.

        There will always be tactics that the other team uses to counter this set-up and you just have to be prepared to make these adjustments as they are needed.

  13. pragmatist says:

    More discussions about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic…
    .
    If this doesn’t magically turn around in the next 3 games, fans won’t be apathetic, there will be another casket.
    .
    At which point we become a mockery of ourselves. So, really, this will not end well unless wins magically appear.

    • Pretty sure Merlin died a few hundred years ago, so that kind of magic isn’t around anymore. (love your post btw)

  14. Haris cannot be a #10. All his beautiful passes are long balls, not through balls. You will undermine his game entirely from the 10-spot.

    I respectfully disagree with the conclusion of the article, even though the analysis is sound. Soccer requires an appropriate balance of offense and defense, and you will not obtain that by benching the best offensive player on the team. If you bench Haris the team will be lucky to ever score a damn goal, and that’s a sure way to guarantee that we never break this streak. His value on corners and free kicks alone is immense on this squad.

    Haris has got to stay in the XI. I think Jones can be the destroyer next to him, and if he gets injured, let’s dust Brian Carroll off for the rest of the season, since protecting the back line is exactly his jam.

  15. Defense shmefence. I wish we played like Atlanta. It must be crazy fun to be a fan of that team. Even if they lost every game, I would still watch them.

  16. Alicat215 says:

    I’ve told people for twenty years…….the most similar sport to footy is hoops!

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