Nobody's Lionel Messi, But LAFC's Carlos Vela Sure Is Trying
Bob Bradley, LAFC’s manager, has very specific ideas about how he wants his team to play. He frequently speaks about those ideas at press conferences and constantly communicates them to his team from the touchline. In addition, they are a recurring focus of the ESPN+ docuseries, “We Are LAFC.” While the whole series provides an interesting look at Bradley and LAFC’s expansion season, one particular scene in the first episode is fascinating, given the benefit of hindsight. Discussing his vision for changing his players’ ideas about football, he says, “I’ll talk a lot about Barca, not because they’re the only team in the world, but because there are little things there that can be good examples for us.”
Once the team gets on the field, it is apparent that some of the same tactical principles that have been hallmarks at Barcelona have been instilled in the home team at Banc of California Stadium. LAFC want to maintain possession of the ball; as soon as they lose possession, they aggressively press the opponent.
In attack, especially in the final third, Bradley’s side does something else that fans of Barcelona might recognize. The team relies on a talented, left-footed, right winger to produce goals.
The Barcelona nugget alone would be of note, given how LAFC have performed in their season and a half, but it’s the next exchange that’s been the story of the season in MLS so far. Bradley recalls his first meeting with Carlos Vela, a meeting which was punctuated with Bradley telling Carlos Vela that he wants him to be as good as Lionel Messi.
In the 2018 season, Vela played like a star. He had 14 goals and 10 assists in about 2500 minutes played. While that’s undoubtedly very good, it is not as good as the standard that Messi has consistently set. Not being as good as Messi, of course, is hardly an insult, it’s just every other human being’s reality.
Comparisons, especially those involving a soccer deity, are tricky, so let’s start with some context. La Liga is a much better league than MLS, and Lionel Messi is objectively a much better player than Carlos Vela. That said, Bradley wants his team taking ideas from Barcelona, he’s asking Vela to be as good as Messi, and so far in 2019, Vela is coming closer than you’d expect, and closer than MLS has ever seen.
Vela has strung together a superlative season through 14 games, with 13 goals and 5 assists in just under 1300 minutes. For spectators, LAFC games have the same feel of inevitability that Barcelona games do. It’s not if Vela is going to do something spectacular, it’s when. That Vela and Messi share a languid style of play only adds to the parallels. Both look as if they’re calmly navigating the field as the action orbits around them.
From just the boxscore numbers, Vela’s 1.22 non-penalty goals and assists per 90 minutes is right behind Messi’s 1.40, but the similarities actually grow when examining the underlying numbers. Vela is also just behind Messi in xG+xA per 90, shots per 90, and key passes per 90, while edging him ever so slightly in xG per shot and fouls won per 90. Vela’s shotmap;
looks like someone cut and pasted a portion (maybe not the best portion, but certainly a portion) of Messi’s map.
Recently, on 538 Michael Caley wrote about how much Barcelona have relied upon Messi to do everything this season. Vela is carrying a similar load for LAFC. Both players are responsible for at least 40% of their team’s goals while also accounting for at least 20% of their team’s assists, xG, xA, shots, and key passes (though taking out set pieces Vela drops to 17% of key passes while Messi remains above 20%).
Their respective workloads also show some of the subtle differences in how they’re deployed. Vela accounts for a much higher portion of LAFC’s touches in the box than Messi does for Barcelona, which can be partially explained by the presence of Luis Suarez. Another possible explanation is that Messi is relied upon for ball progression quite a bit more than Vela has been. Messi contributed 12.4 deep progressions per 90, which accounted for 15% of Barcelona’s total deep progressions. By contrast, Vela is only at 5.9 deep progressions per 90, which accounts for 11% of LAFC’s total.
This goes without saying, but the strength of Barcelona is Lionel Messi. He is the single most productive force in modern football, and everything Barcelona does runs through him. He’s their best goal threat, he’s their best creator, and he’s their best ball progressor. Carlos Vela is LAFC’s best goal threat and their best creator, but he’s not close to being their best ball progressor. Three players on the team -- Mark Anthony Kaye, Eduard Atuesta, and Latif Blessing -- have more deep progressions per 90 minutes played than Vela, and they all play central midfield.
Those midfielders have been the strength of LAFC. Their ability to apply pressure, and then turn that pressure into transition opportunities for their talented attackers forms the foundation that has allowed Vela to focus his efforts on producing once the ball is in the final third because he doesn't have to worry about getting it there himself. This is, of course, why you can’t actually compare anybody to the legend himself. Vela, is having an amazing season, his attacking output is almost keeping pace, but he’s simply not asked to do an entire aspect of the game which Messi excels at. Vela might look like Messi in attack, but Messi plays midfield at the same time and Vela doesn’t have to.
Vela is outperforming expected goals by a wide margin, and his teammates have been marginally better than expected at finishing off chances that he provides. He’s a thirty-year-old who, to this point in the season, hasn’t had to face the same amount of fixture congestion that he will later on. Admittedly, there are reasons to be skeptical of this early run of form from Vela. However, it’s just more fun to believe that Bob Bradley has figured out what makes Vela tick and that someone should have told Vela they want him to be as good as Messi a long time ago.