BRIAN SCIARETTA - Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Fabian Johnson is one of the best U.S national team players, but where should he play on the field?
The versatile Johnson has floated between left back and left midfield ever since he started playing for the United States in 2011. The bonus for U.S team is that he has excelled in both positions but it is becoming clearer that the midfield is where he is most valuable to the U.S team.
It is no secret that the U.S team has always struggled at the left back before Johnson so why move him away from that position?
Here's the answer: he is very good defensively as a midfielder and works well with the left backs even when he is further up the field.
Here's the evidence. Aside from his first cap against France when he came on late in the game, Johnson has played left midfield for the U.S team five times
Slovenia, 2011: Johnson played 61 minutes at left midfield and was subbed out with the U.S team leading 3-1. When he was in the midfield, Timothy Chandler was at left back. This was the first great offensive performance from the U.S team under Jurgen Kinsmann.
Germany, 2013: Johnson played the first half at left midfield before leaving at the half with a strained hamstring. When he left the game the U.S was leading 2-0. DaMarcus Beasley played 56 minutes at left back and Edgar Castillo played 34 minutes at left back. The final score was 4-3 in favor of the Americans but the U.S team dominated the first half with Johnson in the midfield. It was far from the best German team but it was still a quality opponent.
Jamaica, 2013: Johnson started at left midfield before being subbed out in the 76th minute. When he left the game, the U.S was ahead 1-0. It would later win 2-1 for its first ever win against Jamaica on the road.
Panama, 2013: Johnson started and played 87 minutes at left midfield and left with the score 2-0 which is how it ended. DaMarcus Beasley started and played the full 90 at left back.
Bosnia, 2013: Johnson started the game at left back where he played the first half. The U.S team was trailing 2-0 at the half and then Johnson was moved to the midfield. Edgar Castillo was then placed into the left back position. The U.S team scored four goals in the second half and conceded once for a 4-3 victory.
The numbers for Fabian Johnson in the midfield
One of the common concerns about moving Johnson into the midfield is that Edgar Castillo and DaMarcus Beasley are liabilities defensively as left backs and cannot shoulder the burden.
So far, those numbers simply do not add up.
In those five games listed above, Johnson has played 314 minutes in the midfield and the U.S team has conceded just two goals. One was when Timothy Chandler was playing left back, the other was when Edgar Castillo was a left back. The goal the U.S team conceded with Castillo at left back was the fault of the players on the right side. Bobby Wood failed to close down on a cross and central defender John Brooks was beaten in the air.
The only goal that was the fault of the left side of the field when Johnson was in the midfield was against Slovenia when Chandler failed to hold his line in an offsides trap. Considering Chandler isn't in the picture anymore at left back, this isn't an issue of concern.
So the team plays well defensively with Johnson in the midfield as only one goal has come down the left side during that time. The goals only tells part of the story since opponents haven't even been able to create many opportunities down the left side. When looking at the media's ratings of U.S games, Castillo and Beasley have had their best performances for the U.S when Johnson has been in front of them.
More importantly, in those 314 minutes with Johnson in an attacking position, the U.S team has scored and incredible 12 goals for a ridiculous ratio of one goal every 26 minutes. It is a safe bet those offensive productivity numbers won't hold at that rate if Johnson continues to play in the midfield but it does suggest the team clicks with Johnson's presence in the midfield.
These games have not been against weak competition either. Two of the games were against European teams on the road. Another was against a German team that lacked most of its stars but still consisted of above-average Bundesliga players. The win over Jamaica on the road was at a venue the U.S team has never won before.
Bottom line, Johnson belongs in the midfield. His presence in an attacking role works. He adds more to the attack without creating any noticeable void at left back.