Dani Rojas: Ted Lasso’s Keymaster

Much has been made of Ted Lasso’s complete and utter lack of comprehension of the game of football. I, myself, wrote a 3,000 word piece on it just last week. But his instincts for dressing room chemistry were expected to help AFC Richmond become greater than the sum of their parts, and I walked away from that breakdown feeling surprisingly optimistic.

That is, assuming Lasso’s gamble to bench Jamie Tartt would payoff like it did in the second half against Watford, with a revitalized squad and a potentially reengaged superstar eager to finally be part of the team.

Spoiler: It did not payoff. Quite the opposite, actually.

Now, look, everyone knows that Tartt’s recall to Manchester City is the nail in Richmond’s coffin. What this article presupposes is, maybe it isn’t?

First, I want to clarify something before we move on – Richmond is NOT better off without Jamie Tartt. I was in no way suggesting the team was better with him off the pitch. So let’s dispense with that nonsense straight away. No more shenanigans, no more tomfoolery, no more ballyhoo. The lad is a singular talent, and this is a devastating loss…

BUT…

Lasso clearly discovered something in that second half? (Or his assistant, Mr. Beard, did. Lasso doesn’t strike me as the “X’s and O’s type.”)

No matter how tempting it is to write off this Richmond team, I keep coming back to the game-winner against Watford. Something in the build-up play indicates this team has yet to unlock it’s full potential. And Dani Rojas is the key to all of it. One of the keys at least. The Keymaster? Or maybe he’s the Gate Keeper and Lasso is the Keymaster and Roy Kent is Venkman. But then Coach Beard would be from the EPA. That can’t be right. Admittedly I was out all night getting pissed with the boys at the Crown & Anchor. Anyhow.

Here’s the full lead up to the third goal. Watch as the play developed in the midfield.

Richmond 3rd Goal Build Up
The build up to AFC Richmond’s game winner against Watford.

The biggest takeaway for me is how high up the pitch Roy Kent is when this action starts. Cockburn’s tendency is to check to receive the ball, which is what you want from your forwards. But Jamie was notorious for also being in that space, presumably because he didn’t trust anyone to get him the ball. Or maybe they just didn’t want to pass it to him because he’s so selfish and arrogant that every time they do it makes them want to puke. But that’s just me speculating. Either way, the result was the same. There were just too many bodies in the middle of the pitch, and as funny as this may sound considering his advanced age, Roy Kent was getting bottled up by his own strikers’ tendencies.

Roy Kent in the space Jamie Tartt usually takes
Advanced computer simulation of AFC Richmond with Jamie Tartt on the pitch.

Obviously the manager was sending a message to his star. Pulling anyone that isn’t injured before the half is a HUGE f*** you. But it also might signal that Ted Lasso is beginning to grasp the tactical nuances of the game. Swapping Tartt for Roberts, a forward that stays as high as possible at all times, cleared the middle of the pitch for vintage Roy Kent.

Space for Kent through the middle
Acres and acres, mate.

You probably don’t want your #6 as the farthest man forward all the time, but if he can still get up and down then Richmond could become extremely potent in attack. That’s a big if (don’t make me go all heat map on you again), but by unleashing Kent’s ability to get into the final third, this squad can become much more lethal.

All of this would be moot, though, if it weren’t for Dani Rojas’ triumphant return to the training ground. It’s not a one-to-one comparison; Tartt and Rojas are stylistically VERY different players. The major knock on Tartt (apart from his left foot cross) is that he’s not a team player. No one would ever make that accusation about Rojas, whose return to the pitch has seen him playing with the joy of a kid back on the playground with his mates for the first time in months. But from a production standpoint, the two are extremely similar.

Jamie Tartt AFC Richmond
Jamie Tartt’s Spidey Graph at AFC Richmond, courtesy @StatsBomb.
Dani Rojas CD Guadalajara
Dani Rojas’ Spidey Graph at CD Guadalajara, courtesy @StatsBomb.

The charts above, known as “Spidey Graphs” (by me), come courtesy of StatsBomb and paint something of an all-around portrait of Tartt’s and Rojas’ contributions on the pitch. They’re both more or less great in key facets of their game from open play, like shots, crosses, and xG. Notably they’re both also extremely low turnover players. To be fair, the Rojas numbers come from his time at CD Guadalajara last season against weaker competition, while Tartt’s are from the current campaign in the Premier League, so take that for what it’s worth, but I’d argue they’re still noteworthy for one big reason.

The main difference, if I’m reading these Spidey Graphs right – and I’d like to think that I am – is that Rojas is an elite dribbler. That probably doesn’t seem like a big deal, and Tartt was certainly excellent with the ball at his feet, but the expectation was always that Tartt was trying to create enough space to shoot. The on-ball defender had his work cut out for him, no doubt, but the other defenders could be fairly confident the ball wasn’t going anywhere else before getting launched in the direction of the goal.

Rojas, on the other hand, is unpredictable with the ball at his feet. He’s lethal in front of goal, but the joy that he exudes both on and off the pitch translates into his game as well. He loves to share the ball and get others involved, and he’s just as likely to pass after working his way inside the box as he is to shoot, meaning every defender has to be on high alert. Moreover, that willingness to pass encourages his teammates to stay in motion because they believe that Rojas might give them the ball in a great position. The result is a chaotic swarming attack plus a gravitational effect around Rojas that creates space for everyone else in a way that Tartt simply never did.

In the context of the Watford game-winner, Rojas would have been an asset in both the lead up and the finish. Rojas, not unlike Messi, often drifts wide right. If even one of those defenders gets caught up in his orbit, Kent has the same space for the same run, but the blitz on goal doesn’t lose out on a star striker just because he dropped too deep into the midfield. Considering all of that, it’s easy to imagine the play developing the same way, only instead it finishes with Dani Rojas flanking Kent on his right in addition to having Obisanya on the left.

Rojas on Right Flank
Advanced computer simulation of AFC Richmond with Dani Rojas on the pitch.

With all that being said: Rojas is still injury prone. He’s yet to suit up for Richmond, and he struggled to stay on the pitch at Guadalajara. Despite his obvious talent, the Premier League has a way of breaking players down physically over the course of a campaign. The Grey Hounds may benefit from the fact that Rojas is finally fit with only a handful of fixtures remaining. But he is going to have to prove that he can stay fit for an extended period of time before he can be taken seriously as a replacement for Tartt.

More importantly, Ted Lasso is going to need to prove that the second half against Watford was more than a fluke. If he truly understands what he has in Rojas, he and his bearded friend will find a way to keep their young star on the field while maximizing the talents of their veteran one, along with everyone else on the pitch.

Live from the Dog Track, let’s go Grey Hounds!

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