While 2017 saw the introduction of a promising young Ghanaian into the league, Latif Blessing really had to earn the right to be a starter in Major League Soccer. Following his signing to Sporting Kansas City from Liberty Professionals FC in the Ghanaian Premier League, Blessing went on to start only 17 MLS matches in the 2017 campaign. While 2018 saw MLS new boys Los Angeles FC acquire Blessing on a free transfer, his place in the starting lineup was still not guaranteed.
While Blessing continued to grow and learn the tactics of his newest coach Bob Bradley, 2019 was the season Blessing had really earned his place. With 31 starts in 36 MLS league fixtures, Blessing has become an integral part within Bradley’s side. This tactical analysis scout report will break down key aspects of Blessing’s game, as well as the tactics Bob Bradley employs so that we can understand how Blessing fits into the LAFC team.
The system that Bradley has employed is one of real tactical flexibility, however, Blessing’s most used position on paper looks like an attacking midfielder in a 4-3-3 formation. With many players operating across multiple positions within each match, the role that he plays looks more like that of a traditional number eight. Blessing shows the flexibility of playing both deep and in advanced positions, depending on the match-situation.
Although tides are turning in the modern game, there still aren’t too many central midfielders with the physical characteristics of Latif Blessing. At only 5′ 5″ tall, one might think that Blessing’s lack of height and strength in the heart of the team would be a weakness to LAFC. As Bradley’s philosophy is heavily based around patient and secure possession of the ball, Blessing’s lack of height makes little difference as the ball is most often on the ground.
As with many smaller players in the game, Blessing does have a quality that makes him exceptional in the role: his low centre of gravity allows him to change speed and direction at an incredible speed. There are benefits in and out of possession to having these qualities.
When his team is out of possession, Blessing has the ability to nick possession of the ball back from opposition players, in particular when they attempt to stay on the ball. The two images below show a trend when Blessing is defending 1 v 1. He anticipates an extra touch from an opponent and shifts his feet quickly to put himself between the ball and opponent, thus securing possession and often drawing fouls.
Close control on the ball
As Blessing’s agility and balance are incredibly difficult to contest, it makes him a nightmare to attempt to take the ball from. His ability to twist, turn and accelerate over the first 5-10 yards often allow him to retain possession of the ball and allow LAFC to progress the ball forward with the next action. Even in close-quarters, Blessing shows confidence on the ball and trusts his technical competencies to manipulate the ball and get his team out of pressure.
A small nuance to how Blessing is so successful in 1 v 1 situations is his ability to ‘freeze’ an opponent. Slowing down or even coming to a complete stop will force the same from his opposing defender. At this point, Blessing is able to use his superior acceleration and balance to break pressure with a longer touch into space.
Role within the system
As briefly mentioned in Blessing’s general positioning within the team, the Ghanaian may seemingly line up as an attacking midfielder. When looking to secure the clean progression of the ball in the build-up phase, it’s not uncommon to see attacking midfielders such as Blessing drop in-front of the opposition midfield line in order to support the attack.
In addition, it seems part of Blessing’s role in supporting the attack is to get ahead of the ball into the right half-space when the right-sided forward is in possession of the ball. The benefit of this within the team structure is that his movement attracts defenders. This helps to open up space for others to attack which is evident in the below images. In the event that Blessing is used with his runs ahead of the ball, he has the technical and physical competencies to beat opposition players in 1 v 1 situations. This again helps to open up space elsewhere.
The following two images show a passage of attacking play from LAFC in which Blessing plays a key role. In the first image, Blessing makes a darting run into the right half-space between four Orlando City players which draws opposition players across. The second image is taken just two seconds later. Notice how Blessing’s movement has attracted five Orlando players which opens up space for Diego Rossi to move inside with the ball. Seconds later, LAFC had equalised.
Areas to improve
While Blessing does help support the team’s build-up by dropping deep, in possession of the ball he does have a tendency to play sideways or backwards. Despite LAFC placing strong value in playing passes that help continue safe and secure possession of the ball, there are many opportunities in which playing forwards is an option, but is passed upon.
The below image shows one example of a moment in which a penetrating pass could essentially put at least an extra two San Jose players out of the game. Blessing chooses the safer option of a lateral pass in this scenario. While maintaining possession of the ball appears to be paramount for LAFC, the forward passing option is low risk and may have a greater opportunity of creating a goalscoring chance.
When LAFC are in possession of the ball, Blessing’s body shape and angle of support is another area that can be debated for improvement. Blessing has a fantastic ability to take the ball and turn under pressure which helps him get out of difficult situations. This, at times, can be relied upon too much. When supporting centre-backs who are in possession of the ball, Blessing can often appear with a closed body shape and unable to see supporting options ahead of him. The angle at which support is offered also becomes an important factor. Straight lines in support make it difficult to orientate the body to play forwards next. Blessing’s identification of space at an angle may help receive the ball in a more favourable situation and allow him to have a broader view of his options.
The subsequent images show Blessing behind the oppositions line of midfield pressure. Playing between the lines is often discussed as being positive in the sport, however, when passing lanes are denied, the number of attacking options become limited. Top midfielders in the sport are able to take up positions between lines in which they can still be found with a penetrating pass.
The red passing line above shows no route to safely pass through the lines to Blessing. The white line, however, would see LAFC progress the ball safely through opposition lines and into a favourable attacking position
If Blessing is able to shift across to the right half-space in the below image, it firstly would allow his teammate playing right-back to take up a higher position on the pitch and force opposition players back. Receiving on an angle from the centre-back would also allow Blessing to be on a half-turn and the ability to play forwards with his next action.
Again the passing lane to play directly into Blessing is denied. In addition, notice Blessing’s body shape. If the ball was played into him, it would still be difficult to play forwards with the next action as he is unable to assess incoming pressure and/or options in support
Some of what’s been discussed in this analysis hinges on the LAFC system of play, meaning the positioning Blessing takes up, as an example, may be deliberate in order to free up space for another player. One thing that we can be sure of: Latif Blessing has clearly earned the right to play within this high-performing LAFC side. His ability to ensure possession of the ball is valued in the same way Bob Bradley expects will be a large part of the reason he’s been able to secure a starting position within the team. As a young professional, I’m sure Blessing will keep learning and grow within the game. As with every player, there are areas for improvement which I’m sure Blessing and Bradley will be aware of.