Alhassan – When all is said and done

2013 was, in many respects, a successful year for Kalif Alhassan. After an injury ravaged 2012, he bounced back to play some part in all but four regular season games last year. And yet, the Ghanaian attacker’s prospects of holding down a starting spot in Portland look slimmer than ever going into his fourth MLS season, so is it time for both parties to go their separate ways?

After a good preseason, I’d hoped that we’d finally see the best of him, and he registered an assist and two shots at goal in the first game. All was going according to plan. But, after starting the first two games, he started only two of the next eight and never really got a consistent run in the team until the backend of the season, when he started seven of the last ten regular season matches. This was not the breakthrough season I’d had in mind for Kalif.

The signings of Steve Zakuani and Gaston Fernandez, as well as potentially the drafting of Schillo Tshuma, all put further blocks in Alhassan’s route into the side. Rodney Wallace and Darlington Nagbe both saw more playing time last season, despite Wallace’s yo-yoing back and forth on national team duty, and it’s hard to see either of those guys dropping behind Alhassan in the pecking order. Of course, Wallace started last season on the bench, and went on to had a banner season with 7 goals and 6 assists in a little under 2000 minutes of play, so nothing is set in stone at First Kick.

Alhassan scored 3 last year, having scored once in the previous two seasons, which isn’t a bad figure for a guy who didn’t complete a full 90 until the last week in August. In fact, shooting has never Alhassan’s problem, or at least, the actual taking of shots hasn’t.

The vertical lines represent Valeri’s 2013 figures, as a reference.

The vertical lines represent Valeri’s 2013 figures, as a reference.

Out of Wallace, Nagbe and Alhassan, it’s the latter who has shown a tendency to pull the trigger more often than the others, but when accuracy and goal scoring are taken into account, Alhassan’s stock dips. Timbers fans won’t need to have the point that Kalif Alhassan is a taker of lovely shots, scorer of few goals underlined too hard.

Being outscored by his positional rivals wouldn’t be such a concern if Alhassan had the assists to bolster his case, but this year saw the second slight dip in an assist rate that’s stayed fairly steady at 1 every 5 full games or so. Compared to Nagbe with 1 in every 9, it’s decent, but not great, and Wallace’s rate of 1 in 4 and Valeri’s 1 in 2 show who the creators were in attack. Nagbe makes up for his relative lack of assists – 8 in over 7000 minutes – with goals because he’s not the guy who picks the moment to play the killer pass, he’s the guy who takes the game by the scruff of the neck and gets it done. His 9 goals, added to his 4 assists, gave Nagbe a total of 13 goals he had a direct involvement in, the same number as Wallace (7 goals, 6 assists). Alhassan had a total of 6, with only 3 of each.

Looking back over Alhassan’s key passes – passes that lead to shooting opportunties – what you notice is how many of Alhassan’s final balls are lay-offs, or leave the recipient with a lot of the work still to do. The greatest beneficiary of Alhassan isn’t Wallace or Valeri, nor is it Ryan Johnson or Frederic Piquionne. Nagbe, he of the driving runs from deep, ties for the lead along with Will Johnson – two of our forward players who do their best work outside the box.

Assthassan

Last season, Alhassan never found his niche in the attack, being neither a creator nor closer of chancers, but rather as a mercurial presence who drifted in and out of games without every really stamping his mark on the attack. He was played deeper at one stage, in a more central role and did reasonably okay, which might’ve been enough in 2011, but until the last 10 games of the season, he didn’t really play much at all.

An injury to Valeri limited his playing time over the close of the season, and opened the door for Alhassan in particular to grab more minutes.

Playing Time

18 points was a pretty impressive haul for a team whose primary playmaker and attacking lynchpin was in and out the team, and Alhassan deserves credit for his part in it. His 3 goals all came in the last 11 games, and it was his strike that won the day against Seattle. Yet, despite all this extra playing time, did he really do enough with it?

Last 10 Games

As Valeri flitted in and out of the side, both Nagbe and Wallace upped their work in the opposing half, seeing more of the ball over the run-in than they had, on average, in the previous 24 matches. Yet, Alhassan was making fewer passes, and less than 1 per 90 minutes resulted in a teammate getting a shot at goal (he registered no assists). And of his 7 starts, Portland only won 2, amassing the other half of their 18 pts in the 3 games Alhassan started from the bench.

With a base salary of $80,000 in 2013, Alhassan doesn’t represent a big against the salary cap. It’s only a little over the league-wide median salary of $75,000, which makes it an arguably fair-to-good price to pay for a back-up, especially one with 3 years of MLS experience under his belt, and still only 23. However, when the strongest argument for a player’s retention is his relative cheapness, it doesn’t say a lot for his case to keep his spot on playing merit.

Value For Money

And even though $80k might be “cheap”, when reckoned into value for money terms, Alhassan’s salary doesn’t seem quite so low for what he actually delivers in real terms.

Alhassan was the right guy in the right place, but at the wrong time. Yes, he played a lot in his first year – only five players saw more time than Kalif – but he spent most of the year stuck out on the flanks in a 4-4-2, where long stretches of matches would pass him by. With a more progressive coach in charge, there could’ve been a role for Alhassan as the team’s primary creative force in center, but it wasn’t to be. Then along came first Darlington Nagbe, and then Diego Valeri, to draw the attacking attention away from Kalif, leaving him on the outside looking in as others prospered in the very role he seemed most ideally suited to.

I like Kalif a lot, and I do think he adds a dimension to the squad, but I worry that the idea, or promise, of Alhassan blinds me to the reality which is that, in the vast majority of cases, Alhassan is merely “okay”, and I’m not sure that that’s good enough. There’s not a lot of end product from Alhassan, and he lacks the work rate and running of Nagbe, or the robust style and timing in the tackle of Wallace out of possession. With Ryan Johnson moving on, the Timbers need to find goals from somewhere, and Kalif just doesn’t contribute enough in this regard to hold down a starting spot, and with the signings been made, it’s getting harder to even justify his spot on the bench.

And then there’s the man himself. As I said, he’s 23 and should be playing regular soccer somewhere, not completing matches once in a blue moon. A move might just be the shot in the arm he needs to find that level in his play that he’s only ever given Timbers fans a glimpse of. Selfishly you want to keep all the good players on your squad, but given the playing argument for keeping him is largely based of a series of “What if?” worst case scenarios, this is one instance where I’d be happy to see a guy leave not because he’s a bad player going, but because he’s a good player who might finally get his chance to be great.

5 Comments Alhassan – When all is said and done

  1. Patrick B

    I appreciate all of the number crunching and statistical analysis – it makes for an interesting read – but I don’t think it’s fair to draw conclusions, especially in KAH’s case, on a moneyball approach to player evaluation. As you mentioned, he’s younger than the players you’ve compared him too. Also, most of his minutes came off the bench in games where we had a lead and were in bunker mode. And you also don’t take into account the drastic improvement in KAH’s defensive game from 2011/2012 to 2013. I just feel like its apples to oranges when you compare starters with 2500+ minutes and guys off the bench with 1000- minutes, especially with the kind of season we had last year when we were trying to close down so many close games in the last 30 minutes.

    Reply
    1. Patrick B

      I hate to be the guy to reply to my own post but one other thing is that KAH often times subbed in for either Nagbe or Valeri which puts him at a disadvantage playing without one of his two best offensive teammates on the field.

      Reply
      1. Kevin AlexanderKevin Alexander

        That sort of underlines the point. He’s a sub, for the most part. Like Sal Zizzo, in that he’s a guy that is popular and now and then he’ll make you sit and go “why isn’t he starting more?”, but then regresses back to the mean, back to the bench.

        I want to see Alhassan play more, cos he is a guy I genuinely like watching just for the joy he has for playing. The only problem is that I probably put him 3rd, maybe even 4th, in the depth chart for a role in his favored positions in attacking midfield, which is great from a Timbers POV since that’s the very definition of squad depth right there, but I’d just rather see him play, even if that meant the Timbers had to struggle over a bumpy three game spell because Kalif wasn’t there to cover for a bad run on injuries. He still has use a late game sub, for sure, but again, I want to see him play more than that.

        The figures were more me making the case that there’s no strong statistical reason to keep Kalif around as he doesn’t add a lot of end product, which was an attempt to clear the road to then make the irrational case that we should sacrifice our depth so that Kalif could find somewhere where he is first choice and can finally make his mark on a team.

        Reply
  2. fdchief218

    At the same time, however, Kalif had the opportunity to show that he had something really special when he DID come on and didn’t.

    I don’t think you don’t really have to focus on the “moneyball” aspect of his game, just look at the proportion of shots, shots-on-goal, and goals and that tells you a lot about Kalif’s form.

    He’s not a bad player. But he seems to still make a lot of bad choices on-field which leave him in a poor position to either score or deliver an incisive ball to another player to score. I’m not sure why this is; inexperience, coaching, the way the guy’s head works…but I can tell you that everyone standing around me was as shocked as I was when Kalif went on a for-Kalif scoring tear late in last season. We just expected a lot of dribbling and a tackled-loss-of-possession; that was his thing.

    That said, I think I’m higher on him than Kevin’s article suggests. I’d like to see him starting in our CCF and Cup matches this season to see if he can pull his game up. I think he can, but you’re right in that I think we need to see him in a full match to see IF he can…

    Reply
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