clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

It ain't all about Titi, pt.3: Fabian Espindola is the exception that proves the rule

In which we explore why it is important to consider the evidence that gets excluded from any analysis...

Remembering things past
Remembering things past
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The "Henry effect" appears to have been first coined earlier this season as a means of explaining Bradley Wright-Phillips's goal-scoring exploits for the New York Red Bulls in 2014.

It is a two-pronged hypothesis: first, BWP tends to score from closer to goal than similarly prolific forwards in seasons past; next, BWP gets more of his assists and "big chances" from the passing of Thierry Henry than other teammates.

To date, BWP has scored seven goals assisted by his captain - which is 33% of his MLS-leading season total, 21.

This, we are told, is an effect. Absent Henry, Wright-Phillips would be in the "also-ran" part of the Golden Boot conversation.

Perhaps. Henry is the best Red Bulls' best player, captain, and the focal point of the team's tactical set-up. There is certainly nothing wrong with praising him, and watching him play has been the best reason to get on a PATH train for the last four years.

But the "effect" doesn't seem to be entirely motivated by a desire to promote Henry. It was first articulated at a time when BWP wasn't getting much attention from voters for MLS's All-Star team. No one framed it quite so bluntly, but the subtext behind the "Henry effect" might be interpreted as a message to fans to keep on ignoring BWP, since he is little more than a tool for Thierry Henry's expression of his talents.

In due course, we may see the "Henry effect" revived as a reason to keep BWP from polluting the league's MVP discussions. Because BWP isn't American, isn't young (he's 29) and isn't an international star. He's a talented journeyman with a famous father, and that isn't a narrative the league is particularly interested in peddling. (Not to say there won't be plenty of valid reasons not to make BWP MLS's MVP this year - much depends on what happens for him and the other dominant players around the league over the next few weeks.)

His father (and, to a lesser degree, brother Shaun) do at least add a little glitz to his biography. And MLS does seem to have softened its take on BWP recently, releasing a video profile that managed not to take potshots at his on-field achievements by attributing them to a teammate, as well as a recent article cheering on his (very, very long) shot at the league's single-season scoring record.

So maybe the urge to diminish what has been - and hopefully continues to be - a fantastic season for a damn good player is receding. Certainly, it is not a good look when there is a rising star of the league making his name by similarly adapting to the needs of the stellar talent on his team:

This series has already discussed the proposed "effect" on two of Henry's former strike partners: Luke Rodgers and Kenny Cooper. Both have been cited as evidence for the prosecution, since both scored goals for RBNY while sharing a field with Thierry Henry.

One reason the motives of the analysis are questionable, however, is it fails to mention a couple of important data points: Henry's forward partners in 2013. Fabian Espindola scored plenty of goals for RBNY that year - 11 in all competitions. So too did Tim Cahill - he finished the season with 12.

Why aren't they part of this "effect"?

In the case of Fabian Espindola, it is because there isn't one. At least, there isn't one discernible by the terms proposed by the original analysis: the direct assistance of Thierry Henry.

Of Espindola's 11 goals for the New York Red Bulls in 2013, two came in US Open Cup, which is a tournament Henry did not play in. So we're talking about nine goals, all scored in the regular season. And not one was assisted by the captain.

No effect!

Yes. And also no. Proponents of the "Henry effect" might suggest he is the exception that proves their rule. And it is true he is an exception to the style of forward play encouraged in the captain's seasons with RBNY before and since 2013 - but he is proof of the fallacy of the "Henry effect", not its vindication.

Espindola was a regular starter for the Red Bulls, appearing in 28 league games (23 starts), one leg of the playoff series against Houston, and two US Open Cup games. He played plenty of times with Henry, including two occasions (both, incidentally, against Montreal) when he assisted the captain.

The centerpiece of the "Henry effect" is a pass or cross to the six-yard box for some rent-a-foot journeyman to tap in. Anyone can hit the target from point blank range: it takes the genius of Henry to get the ball to the places these bumbling no-marks require to make themselves look competent.

Tap-ins like this:


And this:


Henry scored 10 goals in 2013, so that's 20% of his scoring output for the season arriving in the form of gifts left on the doorstep by Espindola.

Henry doesn't score either of those goals without the help of his strike partner, which is not the same thing as saying that he cannot score goals without help, or that he needs Espindola alongside him to find success. The same, of course, applies to Espindola, who is a good enough player to carry a MLS attack - as he has been doing for D.C. United for large parts of this season.

Even if he had scored 20 goals for RBNY in 2013, and every one had been a tap-in provided by the captain, it would not have resulted in talk of any "Henry effect" - rather, it would have spurred discussion of the remarkable chemistry of two of the better attacking players in MLS.

Such chemistry - those two assists aside - isn't easy to pick out from the 2013 season. Espindola's nine league goals were often scored with Henry on the field, he just wasn't particularly relevant to any of them.

Take Espindola's last goal for the club as an example - the captain's role was simply to stay out of the way, since he was offside:


That's a good attacking player making something out of nothing. Espindola did that a few times in 2013, as he has done throughout his career. His very first goal for RBNY was the result of mugging Donovan Ricketts, who realized a little too late that he couldn't simply pick up a back pass; Espindola also scored a phenomenal (probably unintentional) header against Toronto. It remains one of the more extraordinary goals scored at Red Bull Arena:


Those three of Espindola's goals could be said to be almost entirely of his own making. He also scored a couple of penalties. But the remaining four followed a consistent pattern: he would get sprung behind the defense by a good pass, cut the ball to his left foot once he got into the box, and score with a shot to the far post. He did it against PortlandHoustonNew England, and KC.

Those goals were each set up by different players - Kosuke Kimura, Eric Alexander, Brandon Barklage, and Lloyd Sam - who all had one thing in common: they played on the right. And Espindola spent a great deal of his time for RBNY hanging out on the right hand side of the field, which is why he and Henry rarely directly combined for goals, since the captain likes to spend most of his time hanging out wide left.

The role under head coach Mike Petke is a different one for Espindola as he is being asked to play further up top, almost like a target striker -Kristian R. Dyer (bigapplesoccer.com)

Paired with Henry, Espindola effectively duplicated the captain's role. Titi would pull wide and drop deep on the left, Espindola would do much the same on the right - too often there was no one in the box to finish. When push came to shove, Petke preferred the method which had been hinted at in 2011 when Luke Rodgers played up front, and blossomed into an 18-goal season for Kenny Cooper in 2012. He wanted someone to play not necessarily as a center forward, but at least as a central forward.

The team tried to get Espindola to play the role, but he never really adapted to it - it's not his game.

I was outside, get the ball there, play back, go in, go outside again -Fabian Espindola on his role at RSL (bigapplesoccer.com)

Mike Petke put his trust in the newly-acquired Bradley Wright-Phillips and the scoring abilities of Tim Cahill for the eight-game run-in that culminated in the Supporters' Shield. BWP started four of the final eight matches - and might have started them all but for injury. Cahill was up front for four also. Ultimately, Petke reached for the Australian over the Argentine when he knew he needed two wins from the last two games to win a trophy.

But Espindola made four appearances in those last eight games as well: two starts and two off the bench. He scored two of his goals during the run-in. He just wasn't the man the coach trusted to do what needed to be done at the very end, because he never really adapted to playing the game his coach wanted him to play.

It's a little bit different, you know? I don't get to go one v one all the time because if I lose the ball, it is a waste of time -Fabian Espindola on his role for RBNY (bigapplesoccer.com)

Espindola was an important player for RBNY, and his goals were vital to the Supporters' Shield campaign: he scored in five wins and two draws; not one of his goals in the league was scored in a loss. His assists also contributed to two wins (one being a game in which he scored as well).

All told, you will find Espindola's name featuring on the score sheet of seven games from which RBNY gained a total of 20 points. And the Red Bulls won the Supporters' Shield by one point.

What does this have to do with the Henry effect? It speaks to the importance of tactics over individuals.

Espindola was not a bust for RBNY in 2013. He was among the team's leading scorers, and he scored at much the same rate he managed in his peak years for Real Salt Lake. But his tendencies are to drop deep and wide to run at the defense, looking for openings to pass or shoot. He is equally good at both. When allowed the freedom to play his game, he can be a consistent creative and scoring threat - as he has been for DC this season.

The fact BWP was thrust into a starting role almost as soon as he was suitably fit to play tipped Petke's hand regarding his tactical preferences not just for the unexpected Shield-winning run but also for the future. RBNY didn't necessarily need another starting forward, not when it was getting a combined 30 goals out of mixing and matching Henry, Espindola and Cahill. Especially not when that combination put the team in position to challenge for its first major piece of silverware.

But Petke clearly believed - and still believes - that the way to get the best of Thierry Henry is not to pair him with another version of himself (Espindola) but to have him playing off a pure finisher, who will lurk in the channels up front and has the ability to create lanes for passes from the captain or pull defenders to places that leave room for the club's most consistent goal scorer since Juan Pablo Angel to shoot.

It's a different way we play with a player like Thierry, who is very creative and likes to move all over, and Espindola has found it tough to play in this system -Mike Petke (newyorkredbulls.com)

The fact BWP gets a lot of assists from Henry is by design, not accident. The team is not idly stumbling around the field waiting for its resident genius to bail it out, even if it often seems that way. We know this because we saw the same approach used when Kenny Cooper was in town. And we know this because when it had an alternative, RBNY decided it didn't really like it.

That alternative was Fabian Espindola. He played well. He was a major contributor to the team's success in 2013. But he wasn't the answer Mike Petke was seeking, which makes Espindola the exception that proves the rule.

Except the rule is not "Henry sets up lots of goals for talentless hacks ahead of him". The rule is "RBNY wants a central forward staying up top to be a consistent outlet for passes from the captain".

And Petke had a guy who could do that in the squad in 2013: Tim Cahill. But he is the subject of the final installment of this series.

This piece is about Fabian Espindola, who gave RBNY a very good summary of his talents in 2013 but found it wasn't what the team wanted, nor was he greatly enthralled by the prospect of playing a different sort of game to the one that made his name.

He moved on, but the team had already moved on before the 2013 season was over. It picked up BWP and started him as many times as it could. Espindola was the exception that proved a simple rule: RBNY just feels better about itself when Henry has a reliable target man.

And that is the true Henry effect: RBNY has to find the best players it can to extract what it perceives to be the best possible work from its best player.

Espindola showed the team another way is possible. And he showed Mike Petke it wasn't the preferred way. BWP's isn't the first player the Red Bulls have found to do the job they think is needed alongside Henry, he's just the best the best we've ever seen do it.

And 20-odd games of never feeling entirely comfortable watching Espindola do what he's always done in MLS is the reason RBNY went shopping for BWP in the first place.