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A Breakdown of the Graham Zusi-at-Right-Back Experiment

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Last week’s Sporting KC match gave us a decent sample of play to look at. Here’s what we can learn from it about Graham Zusi as a right back.

MLS: FC Dallas at Sporting KC
Graham Zusi, awkwardly bragging on both his fullbacking skills and Minsky’s pizza.
Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

With the top-shelf discussion and banter generated by this year’s preseason piece on the Zusi-Gerso connection still fresh in my mind, it is — for me, at least — absolutely worth taking a look at how Sporting Kansas City Designated Player and still-USMNT stalwart Graham Zusi has taken to his position change to right back now that the games have started to actually matter.

Up until this past weekend, though, there wasn’t a great opportunity for a decent sampling of Zusi’s play as we can expect to see it throughout the season. Both the season and home openers were played in uncommonly frigid weather, and at the home opener in particular, FC Dallas showed that they clearly had no interest in attacking and were more than happy to bunker down for the point in deference to their midweek CONCACAF Champion’s League fixture.

With Saturday’s 2-1 victory against the San Jose Earthquakes, though, we finally did get a game that might be representative of games down the line of the schedule for how Zusi might look as a full-time right back. The Quakes wingers — Albanian international Jahmir Hyka and Tottenham Hotspur academy product and Jamaican international Simon Dawkins — are no slouches, and unlike FCD, San Jose, to its credit, came to Children’s Mercy Park intent on both defending and attacking.

While Hyka and Dawkins both spent time on each wing, if you look at the Opta defensive statistics of both Zusi and left back Seth Sinovic, it was clear that the San Jose gameplan entailed trying to expose Zusi as the defensive neophyte compared to Sinovic:

Zusi had five interceptions won to Sinovic’s two.

Zusi also led in tackles won, four to two.

Zusi had one unsuccessful tackle, while Sinovic had none.

Same with shots blocked—Zusi blocked one while Seth didn’t have to make any.

Zusi also picked up a yellow card for a professional foul that thwarted a San Jose counterattack down his flank.

No matter which way you cut the numbers, San Jose were much more active coming down Zusi’s wing than Sinovic’s, regardless of who it was from San Jose. The lifting of Jahmir Hyka for Shea Salinas an hour into the match was a subtle tribute to the work Zusi and Sinovic had put in to that point—Hyka had been rendered so ineffective that Salinas actually ended up with more successful passes in the Sporting KC half than Hyka had, even though Salinas spent less than half the amount of time on the pitch as the Quakes’ #10.

There are a few caveats to make when considering Zusi’s stat line from Saturday’s game (in addition to the obvious one that it only represents 1/34th of the regular season, and who knows how the league will adjust to Zusi as time goes on). First, the relatively higher number of tackles isn’t necessarily a good thing—winning four of five tackles for a newly minted fullback may represent a coup in terms of technique, but not necessarily in terms of positioning, as superior positioning tends to mitigate the need for tackles (much in the same way that, say, superior positioning mitigates the need for spectacular saves from goalkeepers).*

*A short history note—Italy’s Paolo Maldini may be the best defender of the post-Beckenbauer era, and he rarely ever had to tackle, averaging just over half a tackle per game. He famously said, concerning tackling, “If I have to make a tackle, then I have already made a mistake.”

While high tackle rates may not necessarily be something to encourage, high interception rates absolutely are, and by both the number and eyeball tests, Zusi appears to be picking up this part of his craft quickly (although it surely helped that, as wingers go, he was already more defensively-oriented than many). A couple of times during the San Jose match, Zusi was able to step up in front of his marker to intercept a pass, and a couple more times, he was able to pressure San Jose attackers into making errant passes.

Zusi’s performance at right back is hardly a detail merely for Sporting KC fans — he is Fabian Johnson’s injury replacement with the US men’s national team for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Panama. While Zusi may not be at the same level as Johnson, in terms of being a winger/fullback hybrid sort of player, he is a like-for-like swap for the dynamic Gladbach player, and with other right back candidates DeAndre Yedlin and Eric Lichaj also unavailable, it is entirely possible that the right back decision for Bruce Arena comes down to Zusi versus Michael Orozco for these two crucial qualifying matches (personally, I’d deploy Geoff Cameron at right back with a center back pairing of Omar Gonzalez, who is a regular for a defensively solid Pachuca outfit, alongside either John Brooks or Tim Ream, but hey, I’m just a wiseacre with a platform who pretends to know something about soccer).

USMNT implications aside, though, Zusi’s relative ease (compared to the rockiness his transition could have entailed) into right back has to come as good news for Sporting KC fans. Yes, he is massively overpaid as a fullback. Yes, it means his days as a winger — at least at this level of competition — are likely over. But with last year’s breakout fullback Saad Abdul-Salaam hindered by a nagging injury, Zusi needed to make the transition from attacker to defender as seamless as possible, even with Blue Testament favorite Igor Juliao and first round SuperDraft pick Colton Storm waiting in reserve as failsafe options. Peter Vermes’s 4-3-3 system relies heavily on its fullbacks to provide both attacking width and defensive cover for its central midfielders, and Zusi has so far mostly been able to provide some of both.

Whether he will continue to do so remains to be seen — like I said, we haven’t yet seen how the league will adjust to Zusi as a full-time right back, and nor have we seen Zusi go up against some of the league’s speed demon wingers like Kekuta Manneh and Dominic Oduro, who will likely expose Zusi’s (and Sinovic’s) relative lack of pace. This will be something to watch for in the future—both because it underscores the imperative for Zusi to keep picking up on the positioning nuances of playing right back and because between Zusi and Sinovic (and holding midfielder Ilie Sanchez, who is about as quick as the DMV sloths from Zootopia), center backs Ike Opara and Matt Besler will have an awful lot of pace to make up for against such quick counterattackers.

But for now, we finally have a game that represents a decent sampling of how Zusi might stand up to an attack that is specifically targeting him, as opposed to an attack that isn’t an attack (Dallas) or an attack thwarted by weather conditions (DC United). And the early returns are, if not perfect or even ideal, at least promising for a player who is most certainly under the microscope by dint of his reputation, wages, and profile as a franchise player for a model MLS club.