Thursday, September 13, 2012

Danny Williams: A Starter In Any Game

Article by Anders Aarhus

Pencil in Danny Williams on the lineup card. Doesn’t matter what game, who the opponent is or who else is available, Danny Williams needs to be playing defensive midfield for the United States.

Williams has been criticized in three of his four previous appearances and with good reason. Played as a winger higher up the pitch the natural defensive midfielder struggled to impact the game looking timid in the attack overmatched at the international level. Finally though, we got to see the real Danny Williams.

In the 2-1 loss to Jamaica Friday, Williams came on as a 58th minute sub for Kyle Beckerman and slotted in at d-mid. In 32 minutes he completed 21 of 23 passes while helping limit Jamaica to harmless long-range shots. But his true coming out party was Tuesday night. The 1-0 win saw an overhaul of the US starting lineup, but of the five changes Williams was arguably the best. Making his first ever start for the US at his natural position the Hoffenheim man did a superb job protecting the back four, provided the vital link to the front six and had was inches from scoring a goal that would have made him the unanimous selection for man of the match.

When talking about Williams in the context of the national team, he’s being compared to Maurice Edu and Kyle Beckerman, the other defensive mids that have featured prominently under Jurgen Klinsmann. It can be argued Jermaine Jones fits in the d-mid category, but his role seems to be further up the pitch meaning there’s room for both he and Williams in the midfield. That said, when comparing Williams to Edu and Beckerman it’s clear he’s the best option.

Why Williams is better than Edu: First, take a look at the heat map from Tuesday. No surprises here as Williams occupied the space you’d expect a true defensive mid to, but he also managed to get forward when the US was in possession and provide an extra outlet for the attack. That’s an area where both Edu and Beckerman are lacking. While Beckerman is usually tasked with playing a simple passing game and staying very deep, Edu has often been asked to go forward. Friday’s game was an excellent example: both Edu and Beckerman started, the former given a more offensive role than the latter. Yet Edu was uninspiring in the final third and gave away possession far to easily. A quick look at his Opta map shows he gave the ball away 10 times with eight of those turnovers coming inside the US half (i. e. dangerous positions). In contrast, Williams lost the ball just four times during his 90-minute shift Tuesday.

It’s also interesting to take a look at the passing numbers for both Edu and Williams. The obvious observation here is Williams was much more involved, but in this case the chalkboard is misleading. In Jamaica the US struggled to hold the ball and had just 44 percent of the possession. Compare that to the 54 percent possession the US held Tuesday (more significantly the 80 percent they had in the first half) and it’s no surprise Williams’ passing numbers are considerably better. However, Williams did look more comfortable than Edu in the final third and showed he can be an offensive threat, unleashing a ferocious long-range shot that was kept out only by the post.

Why Williams is better than Beckerman: Kyle Beckerman’s biggest strengths are positioning and anticipation. His veteran savvy and ability to read the game result in very effective clogging of passing lanes and plenty of interceptions that break up opposition attacks. There’s no question Beckerman has a leg up on Williams in terms of the mental side, but read what the Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle wrote after the US win:

“…the fact is, Beckerman is not a superior athlete. He's a d-mid that's very, very good when his team's in possession, but very, very susceptible to late challenges and being overwhelmed physically when his side's chasing the game. That's what happened Friday.

Williams isn't as polished, but his athleticism makes him a little more versatile, and a little better at snuffing out the screw-ups of others. Beckerman still has a spot, but Williams should probably be the starter at d-mid next month.”

The Opta stats back this up. Both maps show Beckerman and Williams were in good positions throughout the game, but the nine “recoveries” Williams recorded stand out. Opta’s official website glossary defines a recovery as, “Where a player wins back the ball when it has gone loose or where the ball has been played directly to him.” That goes along with the “snuffing out the screw-ups of others” idea; Williams’ superior athleticism allows him to cover more ground, therefore getting to more loose balls and wining more second balls. Provided Williams can continue to develop as he gets more experience playing with the national team, it’s very likely he’ll be the unquestioned starter at d-mid going forward.

Bottom line: Danny Williams is the best d-mid in the US pool right now. He combines the best elements of Beckerman and Edu while adding more of a presence in the attacking third. His athleticism and impressive range will eventually allow Klinsmann to play two offensively minded midfielders. More importantly, when Michael Bradley is healthy the US midfield will be a force; Williams’ coverage allowing Bradley to get forward more and link up with the likes of Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan.

You know what, forget penciling in William’s name on the lineup card. Better use a pen instead.

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