Gyasi Zardes and Lucas Zelarayan were certainly the main stars of Columbus Crew SC’s 4-0 victory against in-state rivals FC Cincinnati in the team’s debut at the MLS is Back Tournament, but they weren’t the only members of the team to perform at a very high level in the latest edition of the Hell is Real Derby.
Winger Youness Mokthar, who signed with the Crew 13 months ago, played arguably his best match in a black and gold uniform on Saturday. His contributions to the team were well-document in the box score, as he registered one goal and his first assist with Columbus, but they went far beyond those numbers.
The most telling number in Mokhtar’s performance against Cincinnati was his passing total. The 28-year-old Dutch player attempted an impressive 40 passes during the 90 minutes of the match, the most since he arrived in Columbus and nearly twice his average in 2019 when he registered 20.4 passes per match.
Mokhtar connected 82.5 percent of those passes and one of them found Zardes alone in the penalty box to score the Crew’s second goal of the match.
“He had an amazing game,” the striker said of Mokhtar after the game. “On that second goal, he turned on the pocket and it was a great pass that allowed me to give it two touches and score the goal. I thought he had a phenomenal performance tonight.”
The goal in which Mokhtar assisted Zardes helps understand one of the reasons for his great performance, even more than the one he scored himself, the fourth for the Crew in the match.
The fact that Mokhtar had an entire preseason with the Black & Gold for the first time and that he’s certainly better adjusted to the team, the league and the country than last season can obviously factor into any improvement seen from him in 2020. But his performance against Cincinnati was strongly influenced by a slightly different position on the field.
Since he arrived in Columbus, in the middle of the 2019 season, head coach Caleb Porter has made it clear he likes to use a pair of wingers in which one of them plays wider and the other frequently cuts inside to operate in the pocket. When Pedro Santos is deployed on his preferred right side, the Portuguese tends to be that second kind of winger as he constantly dribbles the ball inside, looking for a good spot to attempt his shots.
That pushes Mokhtar to play wider on the left flank, a role that doesn’t necessarily suit his skillset, as the Dutch player has to use his speed and his dribbling ability, neither among his main assets, to create chances and places him far from the penalty box.
With Santos not in the starting 11 against Cincinnati and Luis Diaz deployed on the right, Mokhtar could change his positioning and play more centrally, as the Costa Rican winger thrives when able to use his pace to dribble past opponents near the sideline.
Mokhtar’s more centralized positioning can be seen in the graphic below, which shows his passing attempts in the match. The winger even spent some time on the right side of the field.
From a more central position, Mokhtar is not only more involved in the game, but he's also in a better spot to combine with Zardes, as he did in the second goal, and Zelarayan and to use his good vision and passing ability to be another treat in the Crew’s offensive system.