From August 2014 comes James Bufton's first Scouted Football profile: Matías Laba. We still think it's incredible that James wrote this when he was 15. Enjoy!
Matías Laba has won more tackles than any other player in Major League Soccer this season, has made more interceptions than any other midfielder, boasts an average pass completion rate of 85%, is only 22 years old, and yet remains relatively unheard of outside of North America. It’s a modern day mystery why the rest of the footballing world are yet to take to notice.
Watching him shuttle across the back-line, nullifying the opposition and turning over possession, you wouldn’t suspect that Laba has only played in MLS since April 2013 and has only played for his current club since the start of the current campaign. Toronto’s well-documented transfer spree last winter – signing three designated players in the form of Jermaine Defoe, Michael Bradley and Gilberto – put an abrupt end to Laba’s time in Ontario. Supporters at BMO Field had warmed to him, and with his young age most expected him to boss the midfield for years to come.
In fact, Laba had the highest tackles won per game ratio of any player in the league with 3.56 over his sixteen appearances under Ryan Nelson and had even scored the winner in the road trip to New England: he couldn’t have made a better start. Many suitors lined up in pursuit of his signature domestically and abroad, and, in exchange for future considerations, he was eventually dealt to the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Head Coach Carl Robinson was quick to wax lyrically about Laba after securing his services, speaking to whitecapsfc.com he said this of his new addition: “He brings something that we haven’t got in our squad, he’s a defensive midfield player with a great tactical understanding of that role. He plays with great intensity, and obviously he covers a lot of ground.” Since the early days, he’s done very little to disappoint, he’s taken no time to settle into his new surroundings – thanks in large part to the existing contingent of Latin Americans already in the team – and his impact on the field has been immediate.
There is an essence of stability attached to his play and this steady composure has built up trust from team-mates and fans alike. Gershon Koffie, frequently Laba’s partner in the double-pivot of the 4-2-3-1 formation, said that “playing with Matías gives me the license to go forward and get some chances,” – which has led to prolonged form observers haven’t seen before from the 22-year-old Ghanian – “I know he’s there to work the defensive part and delay opponents before we can get back in formation.”
Nigel Reo Coker, currently on periphery due to this partnership, compared Laba to Javier Mascherano upon his signing: “You can see he’s neat, tight and compact. He reminds me of Mascherano. I was fortunate enough to play with Javier at West Ham, and they’re very similar characters." It’s not exactly difficult to draw similarities between the two hard-nosed Argentines and, in some respects, it would appear that Vancouver’s version aims to emulate his compatriot with the passion he exudes in every display.
Members of the roster are developing themselves because of the job Laba has done since arriving in British Columbia: Steven Beitashour and Jordan Harvey now have extra confidence to maraud forward, in the knowledge that he is capable of shifting across and covering in case things break down while they are out of position; Johnny Leverón and Carlyle Mitchell have encountered fewer difficulties replacing Andy O’Brien and Jay DeMerit thanks to this protection, in doing so picking up invaluable belief in their own abilities, and Koffie has added the aforementioned consistency to his locker. For a young team lacking experienced heads, this is of tremendous value.
Many were disappointed not to see the young designated player selected to the 2014 All Star team. Although it holds little meaning asides from the commercial benefits, there is something quite uplifting about seeing hard work recognised, and moreso, something rather frustrating in reputation or brand value outweighing merit. Voting often come to down to popularity among the consensus, but if you compare stats and take into account the gravity of each player’s role within their respective sides, there isn’t any argument that Laba deserved a nomination.
Using Squawka’s comparison matrix, I compared five specific statistics of Laba, three All Star midfielders and Diego Chará, who probably should have been at Caleb Porter’s disposal against Bayern Munich too. While the numbers should not be interpreted as the gospel, they can highlight certain aspects that would otherwise go unnoticed – in these circumstances especially – to great effect. It’s fair to say that the five players I chose do not serve identical roles in the middle of the park, yet the result of which portrays a range of strengths and weaknesses. Looking at the sample, each player tends to have an area where they excel and an area where there is perhaps room for improvement, however with Laba there is consistent excellence, and considering his age and inexperience compared to the other names, this is good reason to be encouraged.
No midfielder is close to Laba with regards to tackling and he leads the league for midfielders in interceptions with a total of 57 at time of writing, though this has been imperative to the Whitecaps this season, it’s what he contributes to possession which tends to go unnoticed in particular. What makes him so unique is what he does after breaking up the play, after making an interception or completing a tackle, immediately dispersing passes from across the back-line to start the counter-attack.
It’s the speed of transition which has inspired the impetus to Vancouver’s attack this year, and due to the efficiency of the change in momentum, means Pedro Morales has more than enough time to pick out one of the many threats in front of him inch perfectly. Moreover, at only 22, Laba is showing maturity years ahead of his age, as is reflected by the number of fouls he’s committed in relation to the number of challenges he’s been involved in. For the sake of context, Chará is the only player who can compete with Laba on duels, however has committed almost twice as many fouls [36-60] and is actually six years his senior, if that means anything to you.
The fact that Robinson has afforded so much responsibility to Laba speaks volumes about his exponential growth, since his reckless dismissal against Colorado at the start of the season he’s barely put a foot wrong, well aware of his importance to the team. Incidentally, after receiving his marching orders in the 77th minute, the visiting Rapids went on to not only equalise but steal maximum points, testament to the [justified] reliance on Laba’s services. He’s become somewhat of a leader, not of the same ilk as Jay DeMerit, but equally as effective, inspiring others around him with his collected demeanour and meticulous approach to decision-making – he is a captain without an armband if you will. Funnily enough, back in his homeland, Laba wore the captain’s armband for Argentinos Juniors, a sight I’m sure we’ll see again in the foreseeable future.
While Morales has received most of the plaudits at BC Place this year, he owes a lot to his fellow offseason arrival. The Chilean maestro has formed a strong relationship with #15; he is only able to express himself so fluently because of the assurance sitting behind him, the ammunition he supplies to the frontline hinges on this. Although Laba and Morales fulfil contrasting roles in the line-up, they share an unteachable reading of the game: the former anticipating the opposition’s movement in attack before going on to break up the play, the latter anticipating the runs of his team-mates and positioning of the defenders before going on to create a chance. This understanding has brought balance to the Whitecaps engine room, but also newfound interchangeability, and this fluidity in midfield has started to pay dividends on the goal-scoring front.
The screen grab above is from Vancouver’s recent 2-0 win over Sporting Kansas City and is taken from the moment Morales made the attempted pass to Sebastián Fernández which ultimately diverted past Andy Gruenebaum for the opener. Morales, stationed in a more natural number ten role on paper, is in an area one would expect Matías Laba to occupy, but circled in red is Laba, making his way back from a position further up the field.
What we see here is the freedom both have been granted from their cooperation, should Laba feel the need to/be instructed to press higher or contribute to the build-up in the final third, he can now does so without holding any reservations. Pedro will drop into the space vacated, more often than not alongside or around Gershon Koffie, and temporarily pull the strings from deep. This is what you get when you have two players blessed with this incredible footballing intelligence on the same wavelength, a new dimension if you will and even more reason for opposing coaches to worry, however this is only what we’re seeing after five months of playing together: there is so much potential still to be explored.
Morales’ creative talents, David Ousted’s regular match-deciding saves and Darren Mattocks’ goals are pivotal to Vancouver and will only increase in significance as the race for the playoffs draws closer to the finishing line, yet the MVP this year is none of them, it is Laba, without him the idea of making the postseason would be nothing but a pipe dream. It’s difficult to comprehend such an impact after only two thirds of the campaign, and as the months and years go on, we’ll see an even more complete and effective midfield enforcer.
It’s unclear at this point how long he will remain in his current environment, Toronto GM Tim Bezbatchenko claimed that “Vancouver has a high hurdle to get over in order to keep him permanently,” and though the stipulating details of the move remain vague at this point, you can guarantee he’ll be hot property if there’s even a whisper of availability. In the end though, I could definitely see Laba making his way over to Europe. He has the ideal temperament to handle the change in culture, the levelheadedness required to deal with the weight of pressure and, most importantly, the hunger to reach the next level with every performance.