D.C. United made a splash move to acquire Julian Gressel from Atlanta United last week. But if the German was used at right-back, would it be a waste?
In a salary-cap driven league like Major League Soccer, the allocation of your resources is critical. You cannot spend willy-nilly at positions of lesser importance than others. This is why the three Designated Player slots are often used on strikers, wingers and central attacking midfielders. They are the most difficult to find and expensive players, and so teams gear their best resources to finding effective players in those positions.
As such, when teams invest heavily in a new signing, how they intend to use that player is hugely significant. Spending money must be done so smartly and efficiently, not just for the sake of it.
Last week, D.C. United secured one of the largest trades in MLS history. They acquired Atlanta United star Julian Gressel for potentially north of $1 million in allocation money, which is split between $650,000 in 2020 TAM, $100,000 in 2021 TAM, and $350,000 TAM in performance-based clauses. They will then sign him to a new contract, which, as The Washington Post reports, will not be cheap:
"“United is prepared to pay him up to $700,000 annually, two people close to the situation said. The sides are expected to engage in serious talks soon, but those two people said Gressel and United are ‘in the same ballpark’ in terms of compensation.”"
It is a substantial investment in a versatile player who does not have an obvious starting role under head coach Ben Olsen. With new signings Edison Flores and Yamil Asad set to join Paul Arriola as the trio of attacking midfielders to play behind centre-forward Ola Kamara, there is not an obvious starting attacking role for Gressel, especially if Arriola returns to the right-wing as is anticipated.
But the way General Manager Dave Kaspar speaks about Gressel, the German will be used in an attacking manner. In the official club statement unveiling the signing, Kaspar said:
"“Last year, he led Atlanta in assists and chances created while also scoring eight goals so we’re looking forward to adding his impressive goal creating ability and eye for goal to our roster in 2020 and beyond.”"
And in The Washington Post report, he is reported as saying:
"“He is a player with high energy, a great attacking piece who has a tasty final ball and can score goals.”"
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And yet, at this current stage, if you had to envisage a role for Gressel in the D.C. United set-up, it would likely be at right-back, behind Arriola with Russell Cannouse and Junior Moreno anchoring the midfield in Olsen’s preferred 4-2-3-1 shape. If that is the case, does that not seem like a waste of massive investment?
Perhaps Olsen envisages Gressel as a part of a rotation in the wide positions, which would be no bad thing. Great MLS teams have depth and versatility in attacking areas. But should Gressel be resigned to right-back, his usage must come in a manner reminiscent of Trent Alexander-Arnold for Liverpool, in which he is offered the freedom to advance up the pitch, service attacking teammates from wide areas, and create chances with his terrific delivery and vision.
This is, after all, where Gressel excels. Per Ben Baer of mlssoccer.com, since 2017, when he made his debut in MLS, he ranks seventh in chances created from open play, fourth in successful crosses, first in big chances created, which are opportunities in which the shooter is reasonably expected to score, 15th in chances created from open play per 90 minutes, and fifth in successful crosses per 90 minutes.
Gressel is a tremendously creative player, one of the best in the entire league. To resign that type of impact to a primarily defensive role seems like a waste. Quite how Olsen and D.C. United use Gressel in 2020 will be fascinating, but if they are to challenge for the playoffs and more, solving this conundrum will be crucial.