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Much Ado About Nouhou

Kayla Mehring / Sounder at Heart

A statistical deep dive into the debate around Nouhou’s offensive and defensive contributions.

Ok. Fine. Let’s talk about Nouhou.

As much as one can generalize the discourse of an entire fandom through various outlets both analog and digital, it’s pretty safe to say that for frustrated Sounders fans, the biggest talking point this last week has been Nouhou Tolo.

Before we get into the bits of this that can be registered as criticism, I want to make it very clear that I really REALLY like Nouhou. I have no knowledge of him personally, though he seems like a pretty funny and affable guy. His on-field persona, however, is exactly the kind that fans really respond to. He’s demonstrative, he never lacks for effort, he makes clutch tackles. He’s been the recipient of a lot of positive press over the last couple of years and it’s easy to see why. He’s an incredibly entertaining player to watch and root for.

He’s also very very good at certain things. He’s an excellent 1v1 defender. He reads attacking runs really well. He does this one weird thing better than anybody in MLS. Keep an eye out for it. He is so good at eyeballing a slow rolling ball and judging that it’s going to make it out of play JUUUUST before an attacker can get to it. Not only does it win possession but it’s the kind of thing that can grind an attacker’s soul to dust. It’s a weird specialty to have, but it’s one he boasts and it never fails to make me gleefully cackle with schadenfreude.

He’s also the Sounders worst attacking player, and their biggest liability in possession. This is not ideal, but not catastrophic when he’s deployed as a member of a back three, but for a modern fullback it can be a real problem. Not the ONLY problem mind you, but I don’t think it’s one that can just be brushed under the rug of “Well, he’s a defender so it’s fine”. Fullbacks attack now. They attack for the Seattle Sounders. Seattle uses Morris on the left as an inverted winger which means that if you want width on that flank, it’s gonna fall to the left back. When that left back is Nouhou, you’re not getting much from that flank.

Even this weakness could be worked around if the middle of the park wasn’t gutted by injuries to your first and third-choice center midfielders. Now Seattle’s attack is struggling centrally and on the left. I don’t think I have to tell you that teams who have two weak channels are pretty easy to defend against. Of course, this in turn also causes congestion on the right flank and makes those players’ jobs a lot harder. You see where I’m going with this. For the way that Seattle are currently lining up, they’re going to struggle offensively with Nouhou as the left back.

This isn’t news to the Sounders by the way. Seattle signed Brad Smith twice to give themselves a more attacking option in that position. (They’ve also brought in Joevin Jones twice for similar reasons.) Due to the formation shift combined with an offer that was simply far too good to turn down, Brad Smith was moved this offseason, and while I don’t think you can criticize moving him, I think this team is probably looking a little bit better with him there in certain matches.

I’m not a big believer in the eye-test. My eyes are stupid and biased and they lie to me all the time. This is very likely to them being attached to my brain which is also very stupid and full of innumerable biases. However, when we’re analyzing defenders we’re going to have to use them a bit, but I mainly like to look at data. If you’re one of those fans who thinks “data has no place in soccer,” “the game isn’t played on a spreadsheet m8,” “too many variables out there on the pitch stats will always lose to the human spirit etc., etc,” you probably aren’t going to love this article, and that’s fine. But for those of you that want to wade through some weeds with me, let’s sit down and talk about Nouhou.

The Good

He’s a good defender! Soccer analytics has come a long way, but it’s still difficult to judge defensive ability through the use of statistics. This is for a number of reasons, but I’d highlight the following as the main causes.

1. Soccer defenders work as a unit, it’s hard to isolate each individual players’ contributions to defensive efforts.

2. Doing a lot of stuff doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing a good job. I like defensive actions, players like defensive actions. However, you can’t bring up how many tackles a player has done without somebody bringing up that thing Paolo Maldini said about how if he has to make a tackle, he’s already made a mistake. I like the idea of Paolo Maldini just staring down an attacker real good and knocking him off the ball through sheer force of will and disciplined positioning, but teams don’t always defend the same way. As such, you’ll see defenders with a lot of defensive actions that are really good. You’ll see defenders with very few defensive actions that are really good. You’ll see players with a lot of defensive actions that are really bad, and you see where I’m going here.

I’m comfortable saying that Nouhou is a good defender, because I have data that suggests he’s a good defender, and I also have seen many many examples of Nouhou being a good defender with my own eyes. The data is a little weak here, and so are my eyes, but if we combine them I think we can pretty confidently acknowledge that Nouhou is good at defending. All defenders make mistakes, even Paolo Maldini, but if I had to pick a Sounder to 1v1 defend against somebody with everything on the line, Nouhou, I choose you.

Here’s some data about Nouhou being good at defending!

 (last 365 days of MLS Play) - Data courtesy of FBREF.com

These are really good defensive action numbers! Nouhou stays busy. He’s not much for high pressing, even when compared to other fullbacks, but that’s not really an issue for him, and my suspicion is that he isn’t being asked to do that so he probably shouldn’t.

g+ (Goals Added) is a metric from ASA that measures “a player’s total on-ball contribution in attack and defense. It does this by calculating how much each touch changes their team’s chances of scoring and conceding across two possessions.”

The key here is “on-ball contribution.” This model isn’t trying to measure a player’s positioning, their empty runs, their shifts etc., etc. This is an on-ball measurement. As one might imagine, a lot of what this data finds can be surprising. But not so much in the case of Nouhou here. We see that he’s a plus-plus defender (interrupting)!

 Via American Soccer Analysis

That’s tied for second best amongst fullbacks. That’s pretty good!

Nouhou has certainly had some wobbles this season when it comes to defending, but I think you’re stretching the bounds of a credible argument to suggest he isn’t good at it.

The Bad

Nouhou is real, real bad at attacking!

Even if we just use your basic counting stats (and I don’t like to, but let’s start with the basics), he obviously hasn’t scored any goals, he has two career MLS assists (real assists mind you, not those MLS secondary ones) in almost 9,000 MLS minutes. That’s 0.02 assists per 96 minutes. That’s an incredibly low number. If you don’t believe me, here’s a list of goalkeepers with an equal or higher rate of assists per 96 minutes.

Brad Knighton
Joe Willis
Troy Perkins
Alec Kann
Dayne St. Clair

Obviously, I’m not at all bothered that he hasn’t scored a goal. He’s a left back. He’ll probably score one someday and it will be great fun when it happens. I’m not even all that bothered by the lack of assists, after all, it’s not always Nouhou’s fault that the guy on the end doesn’t score, but let’s look at chance creation.

0.38 Key Passes per 96 minutes — This measures how many times a pass from Nouhou has wound up creating a shooting chance for a teammate.

0.05 xA per 96 minutes — This measures how valuable those attempts were.

Where do you think Nouhou’s career rates for xA and KP lineup compared to all MLS Fullbacks since 2013 with at least 6000 career minutes?

Did you guess “probably pretty close to the bottom”? Because, if so, you are correct.

0.38 KP per 96 minutes is the 5th lowest rate in the data era, and 0.05 xA is tied for the 4th lowest rate of xA per 96 in the data era.

(Author’s Note: I wanted to be as charitable as possible to Nouhou in this section, so I also went back and ran these number without the year 2021 included as he played left center back in a back three more often which is a different role than a standard fullback, and it did improve his numbers a minimal amount to

0.03 A per 96 minutes

0.06 xA per 96 minutes

0.46 KP per 96 minutes

This improved his rankings a position or so in some of these, but really if we’re talking about the difference between the fifth and sixth worst rate of key passes since 2013, we’re willfully ignoring the forest to argue over trees.)

But passing isn’t the only thing a fullback does. What about those fun-to-watch lung-busting jaunts upfield? He actually doesn’t do them to nearly the degree I would have suspected, and when he does go at defenders he’s, let’s say … reasonably successful (a little over 60% of time).

He is also in the 78th percentile of fullbacks for doing megs and that’s pretty sick!

 (2022 MLS Play) - Data courtesy of FBREF.com

The main thing I’m noticing by looking at this data, is that I think nobody is more aware of Nouhou’s limitations in the attacking third than Nouhou. He doesn’t actually seem to want to get forward all that much. Look how low those touches are in the attacking third. Look at how infrequently he carries the ball into the attacking third, look how rarely he’s targeted for or receives passes, particularly progressive ones. I think that’s actually a credit to him as a player. He knows what he’s good at and would prefer to be in the best position to do that.

So… What? You want to sell Nouhou?

I don’t think that’s the ideal outcome here. I also don’t think there are many players around MLS that aren’t for sale at the right price, and certainly if somebody came in with a banger of an offer for Nouhou, Seattle are going to sell, but other than that, no, that isn’t something I would personally be actively looking to do. As for trades, I think you have to look at that on a case-by-case basis, but again it isn’t something I’d strongly advocate for at this time. What I want is for Nouhou to be playing less than he currently is. I think if you’re the Seattle Sounders, the better situation is bringing Nouhou on late to close out a game than it is to bring Jimmy Medranda on to chase a game.

Medranda has been very good at this role so far, but there are clearly reasons why he isn’t being handed the starting job and I don’t think those reasons have anything to do with his performances.

 (Last 365 Days of MLS Play - Data courtesy of FBREF.com)

This is purely speculation on my part, but my guess is that there isn’t a lot of confidence in Medranda’s ability to carry a large minute load, and that’s completely understandable given his unfortunate issues with injuries.

Nouhou clearly has value, I just think his particular skill set suits a formation Seattle aren’t really playing a lot this season, or is better deployed tactically either late in a match or in specific matchups. Seattle are struggling right now because their attack is slow and predictable and they’re once again struggling with transition play. That can not and should not fall squarely at Nouhou’s feet, but for reasons discussed above, having an actual attacking threat on that flank is going to make the entire team better. If Medranda can’t handle the minutes load for that particular job, Seattle going out and finding somebody who can is a very reasonable suggestion for this transfer/trade window. Especially since Nouhou hasn’t exactly been known for going 2000 minutes a season either.

In Conclusion

Nouhou is a very good but also very limited player as a left fullback in Seattle’s currently preferred formation. There are a lot of reasons to believe that adding a more adept attacking player in that role could result in an overall offensive improvement, at the very least I think it would give Seattle more flexibility. As always, there will be costs and factors to this that neither I nor you or probably anybody but Brian and Garth are privy to and acquiring said hypothetical player may not actually be worth it once those are factored in. I’m just a guy writing an overly long article about Nouhou, but I wanted to provide a more nuanced statistical look at a guy that most of us love, shortcomings and all. Nouhou is no way entirely to blame for the recent downtick in form, but that doesn’t mean that his position isn’t one that couldn’t be upgraded.

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