As young players move from one level of soccer to the next, they consistently report that the speed of the game, and adjusting to it, is the biggest challenge they face. A perceived increase in speed of play is the visual aspect of a felt decrease in time to make decisions. Coaches that bring young players through to a club's first team, then, must devise versions of their systems that allow for simplified decision-making for young players so they can adjust to the new pace at which the game is played and the scarcity of time that is felt.
That simplification of the game may end up being Haris Medunjanin's most significant contribution to the 2018 Philadelphia Union season. The big Bosnian, playing in a holding midfield role, possessed few of the traits typical of a deep-lying player. In possession, though, he contributed a unique type of value that was almost irreplaceable, particularly early in Mark McKenzie's tenure at center back.
Medunjanin was nearly always an easy option for McKenzie and Auston Trusty. And when he was covered, Medunjanin was pointing out the spaces left behind, encouraging the young center backs to exploit the now-unoccupied zone he left behind. The availability of Medunjanin provided a layer of protection as the Union built out of the back; under duress, you could always default to the simple option, and when the defense stuck to him that was one less defender in midfield to monitor.
Only Medunjanin and Michael Bradley were involved in greater than 40 passing sequences per match, on average, in 2018. The value of having Medunjanin as both a crucial piece of the buildup and, further, a "controlling midfielder" (to steal Earnie Stewart's term) is the counterpoint to the lessened defensive bite produced by a midfield lacking a true destroyer. The defensive protection offered by a destroyer to a young center back duo can also be measured against the attacking simplicity Medunjanin brought to each match. The Union seek to be innovative, and while other teams (often those with a certain Mr. Pirlo, but also at least one with Steven Gerrard) have played with a less defensively powerful holding player, that player is often backed experienced, veteran defenders, and those defenders are supposed to find the holding midfielder even under heavy pressure. The Union's setup was unique in that Medunjanin was always a good option, but he wasn't necessarily the primary option. Jim Curtin wanted his center backs to play forward after winning the ball back, and that meant there were many moments when Medunjanin acted as decoy, with Trusty and McKenzie empowered to play through the lines or over the top if the geometry of the game provided them a lane. The complexity of his tasks: to mentor, to simplify, and also, of course, to create made Haris Medunjanin an essential part of the Union lineup. This is why, even as the season began taking its toll on the Bosnian late in the season, there was often a continued need to have him on the pitch, his presence as much as his touches becoming a large part of the offense.
A new shape and new roles will make Medunjanin's 2019 season an interesting one. For a player that has set up all across the midfield in the past, a change in formation doesn't necessarily signal a problem. Instead, the big question will be how the veteran can best be used in a transition-oriented philosophy rather than a possession-focused one. He's capable of playing quick, accurate long balls, but the physical workload demanded by a constantly compact system may wear on a player that will turn 34 soon after the season begins.
But don't count on Medunjanin to be scared of extra work. His intensity on the training pitch set the tone for the team last season, and he will strive to remain one of the most important players in the squad going forward. It's an attitude that the Union will need across the roster next season as they seek to return to the playoffs and secure the club's first postseason win.