When Tranquillo Barnetta arrived in Philadelphia in late July, Zach Pfeffer must have had mixed emotions. Ten years his senior, the Swiss national would certainly take up minutes in the midfield and make it more difficult for Zach to see the pitch. But at the same time, Pfeffer must have seen Barnetta as an ideal mentor and a player whose actions he could soak up like a sponge.
Both players are versatile utility midfielders. Neither of the players does any one thing exceptionally well, but they don't have any obvious weaknesses either, although Barnetta performs at a much higher level across the board. But Barnetta, veteran of the Bundesliga and three World Cups, has had the career that Pfeffer dreams of and hopefully this mentor-protégé develops into something that helps both players.
In the beginning of the year Zach Pfeffer was the twenty year old utility midfielder and spot starter looking to finally make his mark for the Union. He played a variety of positions, including the box-to-box midfielder, the central attacking midfield role and both wing positions. Zach was the hero of the game when the Union finally turned around their atrocious start to the season. His injury time drive to beat Bill Hamid and DC. United earned the Union just their second win in nine games.
But outside of that highlight, Pfeffer looked like a young player still trying to find his way in the league. His first half red card in the third game against FC Dallas was exceptionally amateurish and left his team out to dry against what was going to be one of the best teams in the league. Pfeffer was never a perfect fit in any of the positions he played in; not crafty enough to breakdown defenses as the central attacking midfielder, too slow to electrify on the wings and not quite strong enough on the ball to play the box-to-box role. He was particularly weak in that latter role during the 3-2 loss at D.C. United, that saw the Union blow a two goal lead.
Perhaps it was the signing of Barnetta or that unfortunate game, but Pfeffer only saw the pitch two more times the rest of the season. Barnetta could do everything Pfeffer could, but had done it many times over and at the highest levels in the world.
But Barnetta did not earn confidence from the Union faithful automatically. During his first minute in the Blue and Gold he committed a foul in the box and put his team down a goal. Fortunately the Union tied the game before eventually losing. Even still Barnetta's first few games were really his Bundesliga pre-season and he was working himself into fitness.
By the end of the season he had reveal his true value. He brings a motor that rivals Sebastian Le Toux and seems to intuitively know the correct safe pass to continue to move the ball forward. By the end of the year, playing the equivalent of eight and half games, he had a goal and two assists and was second on the team in key passes per 90 minutes to Cristian Maidana. There was nothing flashy from the foot of Barnetta but when you work as intelligently and as hard as he does good thing happen over the course of the game.
Here's a look at the defensive stats for both Barnetta and Pfeffer, compared to Barnetta's prior season in the Bundesliga for Schalke 04.
Barnetta's defensive metrics fell off dramatically with the Union and are comparable to Pfeffer's. This could be due to the fact that the Union utilize very little defensive pressure from their attacking players, but the decline is alarming nonetheless. The metrics still are in line with what we see from Le Toux and they are strong compared to other wing players across MLS.
Looking key passes and shots attempted we see a fairly big difference in the way the two players approach the game.
While Barnetta's key passes declined, they are leaps ahead of Pfeffer. Pfeffer did spend more time in deeper roles but that does not account for the large drop off in setting up teammates for shots. On the flip side, despite playing deeper, Pfeffer took more shots when he was playing than Barnetta.
Here is a look at their passing statistics.
Pfeffer's very high 85% pass completion rate, combined with low key pass rate paints him as a very safe passer. The fact that Pfeffer did not attempt as many passes as Barnetta is also a little concerning given Pfeffer played deeper and more centrally.
If the Union are to improve from their current standing near the bottom of the league, they will need to see improved play from both Barnetta and Pfeffer in 2016. Both players seem capable of more and one more year together as mentor-protege will hopefully be beneficial to everyone involved.