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What can the Union expect from Tranquillo Barnetta?

The Union signed an outstanding and exceptionally versatile midfielder in Tranquillo Barnetta. How will he fit in with the Union and how might he compare to the league's elite?

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Union just made arguably the biggest signing in their history when they signed Tranquillo Barnetta last Wednesday. He saw 26 minutes of action against the Red Bulls Saturday, but his last club action was for FC Schalke 04 in the German Bundesliga, where he split time as a central midfielder and out on the wing. Curtin has said multiple times during the last few days that he sees Barnetta playing centrally as opposed to out on the wing. Where exactly he fits with the Union has yet to be determined, but what does the versatile midfielder do well?

Here's an analysis of his statistics from last season compared with the attacking and central midfielders of the Union this season: Andrew Wenger, Eric Ayuk, Cristian Maidana, Sebastien Le Toux and Vincent Nogueira. And since the MLS All-Star game was last week, I've also a compared his numbers to the best wingers and central midfielder in MLS: Ethan Finlay, Graham Zusi, Fabian Castillo and Kaka. It's dangerous to compare the statistics of players across team and leagues. Different tactics and styles will influence certain numbers and make them difficult to use as comparisons. But at a high level this can give an indication of a player's strength and weaknesses.

Here are five things the numbers say about what the Union can expect from Tranquillo Barnetta.

1.       Barnetta will be very active defensively

Here is a chart of tackles, interceptions, clearances and blocks per 90 minutes compared with the Union players.

union def90 barnetta

It's really not even close. Barnetta averages 3.1 tackles per 90 minutes and the next highest is Ayuk at 2.4. He even registers 0.6 blocked shots per game, whereas the only midfielder who has registered a blocked shot so far this year is Ayuk. The only statistic where Barnetta loses to a Union player is in interceptions to Nogueira. He shows similar dominance compared to the MLS All-Stars.

MLS def90 Barnetta

It looks like Zusi is the only midfielder in the survey that defends with any regularity. Barnetta's strong performance here will be a welcome addition to a Union side whose defense has suffered all year.

2.       Barnetta will touch the ball a lot regardless of where he plays and won't turn it over.

Here is a chart of how many passes these players attempt per 90 minutes.

passes attempted barnetta

Despite splitting his time between central positions and the wings, Barnetta passed the ball nearly as much as Nogueira, Maidana and Kaka, and significantly more than the wings. Part of this could be due to a higher pace of play in the Bundesliga, but he's clearly used to being on the ball regardless of position.

He also has a low percentage of bad touches to passes. Bad touches are calculated by combining's dispossessed metric with their unsuccessful touch metric. Here you can see that Barnetta, Maidana and Nogueira are among the league's best in this statistic.

bad touches barnetta

It's worth noting here how Ayuk and Wenger really struggle with bad touches. It's also surprising to see how bad Castillo performs in this statistic, but that might be an indication of FC Dallas' counter attacking style of play, which will have Castillo working at a higher pace when he has the ball.

3.       Barnetta is a great passer, especially when adjusted for pass aggressiveness, but it remains to be seen if he's elite

Barnetta's pass completion rate of 72.1% compares favorably to the wingers but less so with the central players.

pass completion barnetta

This statistic might be the most manipulated by the league quality. Given the high pressure defenses that are played in the Bundesliga a 72% completion rate will translate very well in MLS. When you factor in the types of passes he makes, his numbers look even better. Here is a chart that looks at the number of crosses, long balls and through balls attempted as a percentage of total passes attempted.

aggressive passes barnetta

As you can see, Barnetta attempts many more aggressive passes than the Union wing players and is similar in style to Maidana and Nogueira. It's more than a little disturbing to see the Union's wingers pass completion percentages combined with how few aggressive passes they attempt.

4.       His ability to create chances for others compares to Maidana and Zusi

Barnetta averaged 2.8 key passes per 90, which while below one of the league's best in Cristian Maidana, is well ahead of the Union's other wingers and Nogueira.

key passes barnetta

It's quite possible the Union have a passer as dangerous as Maidana on their hands, and one that creates at a higher level than other MLS All-Stars, and did so in a higher league.

5.       He's not going to be a prolific goalscorer

Here is a chart of the total shots attempted per 90 across the players in the analysis. Barnetta's 1.7 shots per game come right in at the average of the other players.

shot attempts barnetta

His shooting percentage of 15%, while solid, also is average for the survey. Again, he may find more success in MLS and be more dangerous for the Union.

shooting percentage

While we're staring at all of these charts, here are a few other observations to take away.

1.       Many still question the value of statistics in soccer, but I would argue that looking at a collection of statistics in the proper context is an effective way to assess a player's overall skillset. For example, Union fans know that Maidana is one of the best creators in the league. But they also know that he's not active enough defensively and isn't a great shooter. The statistics clearly give you that view of Maidana.

2.       Similarly, go back and look at Wenger's statistics compared to the other wingers and you can easily see why he is having such a horrid season. He's not putting up defensive stats and his passing and shooting statistics are well below the others. Whatever "other things" that Curtin sees in Wenger are not showing up in any of the important statistics.

3.       Also take another look at Nogueira and compare him to the All-Stars. It's hard to see why there was not a more vocal outcry caused by his exclusion from the All-Star team. His numbers line up with anyone there, even Kaka's. He's even having a solid offensive season given he sits the deepest of all the players in this analysis. He intercepts the ball, touches the ball a ton with a low level of turnovers and has a very high completion percentage. He's even been scoring goals this year.

Wherever Curtin plays him, Barnetta looks to be a player that will be an explosive player combining with Maidana and Nogueira, and one that could challenge for All-Star consideration. I'm most excited about what he might bring defensively to the Union, which is an area that is sorely lacking.

What do you take away from the analysis?

All data from