Soccer demands much more of today’s player than it did in the past. Nowadays, your position as listed on the lineup sheet doesn’t necessarily encapsulate the entirety of your role on the field. Many defenders do much more than just play defense. Attacking players do more than score and facilitate goals. For Columbus Crew SC, Justin Meram is the embodiment of that reality.
2017 marks the 28-year-old Meram’s seventh season in Major League Soccer, all of which have been spent in Columbus. Including regular season and playoffs, he’s appeared in 170 games, made 118 starts and logged over 10,000 minutes. During that time, his evolution into one of the most dynamic two-way wingers in the league is unquestioned. It’s a reason he recently signed an extension that’s effectively paying him designated player money given that targeted allocation money was used in the deal.
But what goes into it? How is Meram an effective player both in attack as well as helping out defensively? What makes him dangerous around the opponent’s net while stout in tracking back? Furthermore, what stats help confirm it all?
Examining Justin Meram’s Multifaceted Impact for Columbus Crew SC
Anyone who follows Crew SC or MLS in general knows that Meram makes his money primarily as an attacking left winger. And since he became a regular starter in 2014, he’s only gotten better in the role both as a goal scorer and chance creator. In that span, Meram registered a total of 25 goals and 26 assists for the club. Among mainstays on the roster since then, only Federico Higuain (27 goals, 25 assists) had a higher combined goal-assist total over that period.
A good measure of player effectiveness at contributing to the score sheet is a little something called minutes per goal+assist. It tracks how efficient players are at either finding the net or facilitating their teammates ability to do so. Essentially, the shorter the time span between goals or assists, the better.
But that’s not the final iteration of this statistical nerddom. Delving further into attacking efficiency comes an analysis of how many goals and assists a given player tallies as a percentage of the team total…with a catch. Goals and assists that occur when the player is either on the bench or not in the squad altogether don’t count towards their percentage.
Below is a graphic that includes all MLS players who have at least four goals up to this point. It includes both minutes per goal+assist and percentage of goals and assists accounted for while each player was on the field.
Though sorted by minutes per goals+assists, Meram ranks top ten in both stats. This serves to show how important he’s been to Crew SC’s success in the final third. His ability to continue to do so will play a significant role in whether the club can return to the postseason in 2017.
Taking Them On and Winning
One of the more fascinating stats Opta tracks is successful take-ons. Basically, a player gets credit for one if they funnel the ball towards an opponent in a one-on-one situation and dribble past them. Lionel Messi has one of the more famous examples in recent years when he embarrassed Jerome Boateng en route to a goal during the Champions League semifinals in 2015.
Oh, by the way, Saturday is the two-year anniversary of this famous (or infamous, depending on your prespective) event. And in 2017, Meram has proven himself adept at taking on defenders on the way to goal. Might we see some dribbling brilliance from him against the New England Revolution this weekend?
Either way, the stats provide clear confirmation of his take-on ability. He currently has 22 successful dribbles this season. That’s tied with the Seattle Sounders Osvaldo Alonso for the highest total in MLS. Some of his take-ons have directly resulted in goals. In Crew SC’s 2-0 win against Orlando City SC on April 1st, Meram scored both goals and his second tally of the game came after blowing by Orlando defender Scott Sutter.
That day, Meram completed four successful take-ons, accounting for 40 percent of the club’s total on the day. The following two visuals detail Meram’s success with the ball at his feet which contributed to his 77th minute insurance goal.
Excelling in the Two-Way Game
As mentioned in the opening paragraph of this article, the modern game requires certain players to assume responsibilities beyond the scope of their position description. Meram is rudimentarily listed as a midfielder who operates primarily in an attacking role. But that doesn’t paint a complete picture of what he does on the pitch for Crew SC.
Not only does Meram score goals and tally assists while also dribbling past the opposition with ease, he’s also effective at winning possession. The advanced Opta data once again highlight this element of his game. He’s particularly adept at winning second balls. Meram’s 44 recoveries in 2017 is fourth best on the team, trailing only Wil Trapp (65), Harrison Afful (50) and Artur (45).
Meram’s ball-winning acumen was on full display in Crew SC’s 3-2 win over the Portland Timbers on March 25th. Despite only playing 60 minutes, Meram registered five recoveries. That trailed only Afful and Artur, both of whom played the entirety of the game. He also was the only player to finish with more than a single tackle. Even though it was a good decision to sub him off as his replacement, Niko Hansen, scored the game-winner, Meram’s defensive contribution can’t be understated.
Meram is, first and foremost, an attacking midfielder by trade. Though he gets deployed primarily as a wide player, his playmaking ability makes him effective in the number ten role if need be as well. But he’s also a perfect embodiment of soccer’s continuing trend towards hybridization when it comes to certain positions. Meram doesn’t shy away from doing the defensive dirty work associated with such a role.
All of this makes Justin Meram the dynamic player that he is for Crew SC. His exceptional work rate as a two-way midfielder is on full display game in and game out. It’s a reason he’s currently among the best players in MLS and an under-the-radar candidate for league MVP at season’s end.