Life Without MAR: How Can The Club Improve Under Christian Lattanzio?
Just 14 games into Charlotte FC’s existence, Major League Soccer fans across the country were surprised to learn that Miguel Ángel Ramirez was fired from his position as head coach. After joining in July of 2021, Miguel helped guide the club through the construction of the squad, development of an on-pitch philosophy, and seemingly connecting with fans across the Carolinas. Whether you believe the club has rightly or wrongly moved on from their inaugural appointment, it’s undeniably unfortunate that Miguel’s relationship with the club reached this point.
Instead of rehashing the details of MAR’s departure, I’m more interested in diagnosing what’s gone wrong for the club during his tenure, and what’s next for the club as they prepare for their upcoming match against the Montclair State University Red Bulls. If you’re interested in the details of Miguel’s dismissal, I highly recommend Mint City Soccer Show’s most recent podcast episode. Their analysis and discussion of what’s been reported is insightful and provides valuable context for what exactly brought us to this inflection point in the club’s early history.
That being said, the purpose of this article will be to review the performance of the club under Miguel and explore what Charlotte FC fans will hope to see change under interim coach Christian Lattanzio. To start, let’s look where the club stands in the Eastern Conference:
After 14 games, CLTFC is in 8th place with 16 points and a -5 goal difference. While I would say this is close to what we expected, the reality is a good deal more fragile than simply saying the club is just outside the playoff spots. Four clubs sit behind Charlotte with a game in hand and could pass them with a win in their next match, and all but one already have a better goal difference. While the goal should be to continue to fight for 7th place with those above us, our current standing is better described as a fight against slipping further down the table. So, should Charlotte settle for 8th or is there more to fight for under new management?
Displayed above is the xG Difference of every club in the MLS. xG Difference is calculated by taking the non-penalty goals a club has scored (NpxG) and subtracting it by the total Expected Goals (xG) a team has scored this season.
Based on their overall xG Difference, I’m inclined to think better days are ahead for the Queen City this season. With a -2.2, Charlotte have scored about two fewer goals than the quality of their chances would predict. Depending on the context surrounding these numbers (team tactics, player performance, etc.) this value can be interpreted as Charlotte have finished their chances poorly, they’re rather unlucky, or somewhere in between over their first 14 matches. And, given the lack of consistency throughout the season in our front line availability, any combination of those explanations would be fairly understandable.
While the club has played 14 matches, Jozwiak has only played 181 minutes and is coming off an injury, Swiderski arrived late and has gone back and forth from Europe for international matches and visa completion, and, while the former Colorado Rapids forward has impressed, Andre Shinyashiki has only just arrived at the club as well. As Jozwiak continues to settle into the league with Karol and Andre, the relationship between the front line and the creative players behind them will begin to develop and create more high quality chances for them to finish.
While it’s easy to simply say this, the data does a nice job showing that this progression is already happening:
If this graph of Charlotte’s rolling averages looks familiar, it’s because I tweeted it the night before MAR’s dismissal with a message to trust in the players and manager… oops. While that sentiment might have been poorly timed, the data behind it is the same and still gives reason to believe in the way the club’s performances have progressed. Each point in this rolling average figure takes the average xG (blue line) or xGA (red line) of the match on that day, the match before, and the match after.
While the first figure shows a poor finishing side throughout the season, the added context of Charlotte’s attacking improvement over the last month is reason to believe the club is headed in the right direction. It would be easy to write off this progress now that the club is transitioning to a new head coach, but, as I mentioned above, I think the progress has more to do with Charlotte adding new players than the club adjusting to Miguel’s system.
In fact, I think Lattanzio taking the helm during this two week break will provide an opportunity for the club to regroup, evaluate where their performances have fallen short, and consider adjustments to the tactics and lineup. So what does that look like? In my opinion, it centers around addressing how MAR’s tactics limited chance creation quantity and shot quality.
Starting with the simplest metric, shots per game, we can see Charlotte is just about league average. It’d be easy to just look at this graph and decide Charlotte should shoot more. More shots should mean more goals, right?. But it’s important to consider how the top teams in the MLS are distributed across this chart. Philadelphia and FC Dallas are top ten in the league in xG produced this season with shooting numbers very similar to Charlotte, while New England and San Jose sit just outside the top 5 in shots per game while sitting 11th and 13th in their respective conferences. Taking more shots could help, but there’s more to it than that for Charlotte, and there are smarter ways of approaching how to be more successful in the MLS.
When we dig a little deeper into shooting data, the issues for Charlotte gain some important context. As we transition from shots per game to shots on target per game (or per 90 minutes), things look a little better at first. Charlotte is actually tied for 7th in the league in shots on target, a promising statistic considering their middling shots per game. In fact, their shot on target percentage is top 5 in the MLS, indicating when they do shoot they’re one of the best in the league at testing the goalie.
Unfortunately, the tests Charlotte pose for the goalkeepers they face aren’t that difficult, as they’re dead last in the league in converting their shots on target into goals (there are better, more convoluted ways to show they aren’t testing opposition goalies, tweet the Mint City Analytics Twitter account if you’re curious). Their last place designation is even more troubling when you consider their above average shots on target, suggesting it’s not necessarily the quantity that’s holding back Charlotte’s offense from producing more goals.
To summarize the last two graphs, Charlotte takes an average amount of shots, with an above average chance of getting them on target, but they’re league worst at converting those shots on target into goals. Taking this into consideration, along with their -2.2 xG underperformance, are the forwards for Charlotte FC just bad at finishing quality chances? While it’s an interesting question and one worth exploring when there are more minutes for the newer forwards, the early data shows Charlotte’s forwards aren’t particularly worse than any other club’s players at finishing.
In my opinion, the biggest issue for Christian Lattanzio to address starts further back in the formation.
This graph shows the shot-creating actions and goal-creating actions per 90 minutes of each MLS club this season. A “creating action” is an offensive contribution that is within two actions of creating a shot or goal. StatsBomb’s data, provided by FBref, breaks offensive actions down into live passes, dead passes (free kicks or corners), dribbles, fouls, shots, and defensive stops.
If you look in the bottom left quadrant, you’ll see the Charlotte FC crest tucked behind Minnesota United’s, placing them in a peer group with The Loons, Kansas City, and Vancouver as below average in shot and goal-creating actions. While we’ve reviewed a couple areas where Charlotte could improve offensively, most of what we’ve already presented here stems from the inability to create quality chances in Miguel Ángel Ramirez’s system. Not only is the shot creating action volume below average for the MLS, Charlotte is near the league worst in expected goals per shot at 0.09.
Based on the offensive data available to us on football reference, this is the area where Charlotte struggles most. Over their first 14 matches, they haven’t created enough chances and the chances that they create are low quality. While the rolling average figure shows a club that was improving defensively and finally coming together offensively with improved players, I think over time the club’s style of play would’ve required a change in order to produce more goals and compete for the playoffs.
We’ll never know how Miguel Ángel Ramirez would’ve adjusted to this reality, but it’ll be important to the start of Christian Lattanzio’s time as Charlotte FC head coach to address these areas. And while there has been talk of another young DP signing coming in the summer, the talent is available in this squad to excel in the MLS. With tactical adjustments, Jordy Alcívar and Ben Bender have the playmaking abilities to lead an MLS playoff quality midfield. It’ll be up to Lattanzio and his staff to make the most of the talent available to them if Charlotte is to achieve their goal of playoff contention in their inaugural season.