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Can Fafa Picault succeed as the Union’s No. 9?

Photo: Rob Simmons

For Philadelphia Union’s Fafa Picault, 2018 was quite the year.

The lightning-quick attacker affectionately nicknamed “The Gazelle” tied for a team-high 10 goals while chipping in five assists.

It’s the type of season that draws attention. It’s the type of season that earned Picault his first cap last October since May 2016.

But things can change quickly.

Picault’s career year came as a winger. Now, the American is being deployed as a striker at the top of the Union’s 4-4-2 diamond setup.

So far, the results— to put it lightly— have been mixed. The winger-turned-forward failed to register a shot on goal in either of the first two games of the 2019 season. The concerns grew larger after Sunday’s 1-1 draw against Atlanta United FC.

In the 41st minute Picault rounded goalkeeper Brad Guzan, but his scuffed shot while falling was cleared off the line by backtracking defender Miles Robinson. The forward was again denied in the 87th minute when Guzan stopped his shot from point-blank range. If either chance had been converted, Philadelphia may have left the home of MLS’ defending champions with all three points.

And it begs the question:

Is Fafa Picault a true MLS No. 9?

“I think people forget I was a striker for most of my career,” Picault told PSP during the Union’s time in Clearwater, FL. “I played the lone No. 9 at St. Pauli. I also played the wing in the past, but I’m comfortable everywhere in attack.”

Picault managed four goals in 22 appearances for the German second division side, but his performance has taken off since coming to the City of Brotherly Love.

“If you look at the last two years I put together, I’m comfortable when I get in front of goal.” Picault continued, “Now, it’s just a question of being in different positions, but the theme remains the same: try to get the ball in the back of the net.”

It should be expected that a sluggish start was a likely possibility with the change of position. Before this season, the 28-year-old’s last 57 appearances had come out wide in former Philadelphia Sporting Director Earnie Stewart’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.

Comfort could be a factor in Picault’s early season struggles. It could also be the fickle nature of being a forward, where every make and miss are magnified. Three games are hardly a sample size, and production at that position can fluctuate wildly.

But Picault’s finishing has never been the strength of his game. Out of 40 players with 10 or more goals last season, the New York City native ranked 30th in G-xG (goals minus expected goals) according to American Soccer Analysis with a measure of 0.13.

Basically, Picault’s goal total wasn’t affected by poor finishing, but it wasn’t bolstered by a clinical nature in front of goal either.

The striker’s true strength is his ability to find the weaknesses in the defense’s spacing and exploit those vulnerabilities. He can sneak behind the backline with darting run or blow by defenders with pace.

“Obviously Fafa is a guy with the quickness to get in behind,” Union head coach Jim Curtin told PSP. “Also, he actually does a great job of poking balls away and turning it into attack quickly.”

That defensive ability to lead the press is valued highly by Curtin, especially considering what he asks of his forwards in the new formation.

“They’re our first line of defense,” said Curtin. “In this system it gets magnified even more. We won’t have the luxury of having wingers out there that are almost man to man against the outside backs.”

As far as offensively, the player and coach have the same vision. “I want to be in the box,” Picault said. “He wants me in the box, but with my natural tendencies I can create from the wide spots as I’ve done in the past. I think I have both attributes.”

For all of those tendencies, and his strengths and weaknesses, Picault possesses one characteristic that’s shared among all successful No. 9s— confidence.

Picault knows he can succeed after a rocky first three games.

With the formation change came fewer spots available for Philadelphia’s attackers. The front three became a front two. True wingers are now fighting with forwards for playing time.

Picault doesn’t feel threatened.

“Competition is competition.” Picault continued, “At the end of the day I can bring up my stats: 17 goals, 11 assists in 46 starts as a winger, and normally it’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked. At the same time, people forget easily, and it’s important for me to just keep doing my job.”

A reactionary change to the starting lineup isn’t likely as Curtin historically has given his strikers time to figure it out. Also, forwards Sergio Santos and Kacper Przybylko are both out with injuries. Cory Burke, who also scored 10 goals a season ago, has struggled to make an impact to start the season. And with two targets up top, the burden and blame is shared.

Picault will have more chances to prove he can lead the Union’s front line. He just needs to finish.


  1. pragmatist says:

    “He just needs to finish.” Literally, that is the entirety of the discussion surrounding Picault. He makes the runs, he embarrasses defenders with speed. He gets into the right positions…
    …and then launches a ball into the Delaware.
    If anyone remembers the Keanu Reeves movie “The Replacements,” Fafa is almost a twin to Orlando Jones’ character. He’s the fastest guy on the field and does everything right and makes jaws drop…until you have to do the one skill you are paid to do (Clifford Franklin couldn’t catch in the movie, Fafa can’t hit the net in real life).
    It’s a not a skill that is likely to become the strength of any player at this stage of their career if it isn’t already. But just like a basketball player that struggles with free throws, you just need him to become average, and everything else becomes easier.
    Hopefully pairing with Santos…when he’s available…will help kick-start Fafa. He’s still a 10-15 goal scorer, but with the team’s poor start his lack of finishing gets a brighter spotlight right now.

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    that his first instinct was not to open the left hip and simply redirect the ball in the goal in week one.
    that his first instinct was not to chip the keeper on the absolutely perfectly weighted through ball by The Kid.
    that he compounded the poor perception and took an extra touch to go around the keeper and did not have the forethought to consider a defender tracking back while casually passing the ball towards the net instead of burying it.
    I like his game. He’ll score some goals. He’ll bring edge and effort and skill. He’s a hell-un to manage in the flank channel and on the occasion when the team is able to establish half spaces in the attacking 1/3. I love how he can get the end line. but…
    …He’s no 9.

    • For sure. I think you agree that we still want him out there though. Pair him with a stone cold finisher and you’ve got something. Also, I loved the look in the first game where he and Accam were the wingback in a 3 man backline.

    • This.
      My thought about his 10 goals last year, was that it should have been at least 20 based on the opportunities he had (and in several cases, created almost singlehandedly). The speed is sexy, but the finish is a tease.
      This season is not an “anomaly” for Fafa, this is the player he has always been.
      The question is, do we have someone better?

  3. OneManWolfpack says:

    I would like to see him with Santos, who I think most people believe is better than Burke. Until then I will reserve judgement.

  4. There is the desired formation, then there is the players you have available. I can’t believe Curtin really wants Fafa “in the box” unless the ball is already past the 18. Finishing in tight spaces is not his strength – running past people is.
    Likewise, in Salt Lake game, Burke was regularly coming out almost to midfield to receive the ball. He did really well at hold up play, but then took a while to be available in the box and the attacking play passed him by.
    Knowing they want two up top, but acknowledging the personnel available, I would rather have Burke play in the middle/in the box like a solo striker, and have Fafa flit from side to side, running the channels where he sees opportunity.
    Fafa’s speed kills, but it’s virtually useless in a crowded box. Meanwhile Burke, your top #9 finisher from last year, is getting pulled too far out to be successful.

  5. NO

    Great guy. Incredible speed and above average ball skills make him the kind of player that can take on opponents and make them look silly. However he does not have the finishing skills. He never did. People point to the 10 goals from last year, but he should have finished so many more.

    With his skills, he is much better suited to a midfield/winger role. Get past a few defenders and then lay it off to a quality striker (I don’t know who that is right now).

    Get him out of that 9 spot and he sucks defenders away with him, so that true striker will have even more space to finish the opportunities.

  6. Jim wanting Picault pressing high and in the box tells me we’ll most likely see Jim try a forward pairing of Picault and Fabian in order to get Aaronson on the field. Defensively, Aaronson and Fabian can press each side of the field while Picault forces the ball out wide. Offensively, Fabian would drop and receive or link up with Aaronson with Picault looking for through balls.
    In theory it sounds good, but that’s playing two unnatural forwards as our forwards..

  7. NO

    Fafa should only play either as winger forward or outside midfielder. He doesn’t have the size and skill to play ST. No way anywhere near the middle of the field.

    What’s so hard to understand? It’s obvious.

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