In 2021, many USMNT players have upped their game to where every camp roster can be seen has having anywhere between 5 and almost a dozen “snubs” (depending on how mad online you get). One such player that has upped their game in my eyes has been Luca de la Torre. As someone who watches a lot of Heracles Almelo over the past 2 seasons, I think he has shown a skillset that could contribute to the USMNT either off the bench or as a rotational starter. Some might ask “Really? Heracles? You watch that club?” and the answer is yes. I think it started with about a month’s stretch of matches where there wasn’t a “top five league” USMNT pool player with a match the same time as Heracles, so I tuned in and kept tuning in.
RECENT HISTORY AND POSITION CHANGE
I’m always going to be perplexed why there wasn’t more hype around Luca post-2017 u20 World Cup. 1 goal and 4 assists (legit assists, too) are good numbers. Remember all the hype Josh Sargent had during that u20 WC? Luca assisted half of his goals. But there was no loan in the works or seemingly no interest of a transfer, just back to the Fulham reserves with an occasional cup appearance. He had small injuries here and there, but it feels like Fulham either didn’t take care of him or his agent told him to stay put. This isn’t a shot at the club as a whole, because some excellent players have come from there. But this specific situation doesn’t feel like either one of the parties did as much as they could.
He showed up to Heracles Almelo on a free transfer as a winger in the summer of 2020 after his Fulham deal ran down, but manager Frank Wormuth (former German u20 coach and DFB Head of Coach’s Education courses for 10 years) quickly decided his future was as an 8 and worked with him to catch him up to the level needed. He started lining up as an 8 around December 2020 and had positive outcomes. Some work was needed defensively, but the on-the-ball and in-possession things were clicking immediately.
RETURN TO THE USMNT AND TURNING DOWN THE GOLD CUP
His work did not go unnoticed. He received a callup from Gregg Berhalter to the March 2021 USMNT camp and looked very good in both substitute appearances. The calls for a look in the summer got louder but club commitments made things complex.
Heracles started preseason *very* early. One of the earliest in all of Europe. They played a dozen preseason matches. If Luca went to the CONCACAF Nations League, he would’ve had a 15-day offseason after the Costa Rica match instead of a 5-week offseason. Going to the Gold Cup meant he would’ve missed the majority of Heracles’ preseason and potentially lost his spot in the starting XI. I don’t think it would’ve happened, but the only opinion that matters here is Wormuth’s and he’s very particular about certain details for his team.
HERACLES’ CURRENT SEASON
The preseason for Heracles didn’t start well as they lost their center back captain to crosstown rival FC Twente. When asked, Wormuth bluntly said “They could pay him more and we could not.” A 4-3-3 against PSV on opening day resulted in a 2-0 loss. Wormuth quickly switched to a 4-2-3-1 and it started to look better. Had some good results early, but the team has had mostly bad luck and poor finishing since their draw against Ajax.
Leading attacker Rai Vloet was suspended by the club while under police investigation for being involved in an alcohol-related car crash (where a 4-year-old died). He was reinstated on January 10th with the investigation still ongoing. 2nd best attacker Ismail Azzaoui tore his ACL for the third time and is out for the season. And Delano Burgzorg, who is a very-frustrating player to watch but is still their leading scorer, is out “until early 2022”. That’s a lot of goals (22) from last season that have been unavailable.
LUCA’S CURRENT SEASON
We are one match over the halfway point in the Eredivisie season, so it would be a good time to evaluate Luca de la Torre’s performance so far.
On matchday 1 he played what looked to be a “rotating 6” with Kiomourtzolgu in a 4-3-3 and it didn’t go well. Heracles were without their best defender, Marco Rente, and had to play their true 6, Lucas Schoofs, at CB. Not optimal when playing PSV in your first match. But over the course of the season, he’s typically played in a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1. However, he has recently been the “10” for the club through multiple attacking injuries. His style is one of progressing the ball quickly to the wingers/strikers or combine with the fullbacks when the play has slowed down. There are many passes I’ve seen him give to left back Giacomo Quagliata and thought “that would be a money pass to Antonee Robinson” as many of those passes have put an overlapping fullback into a good position of attack. Recently, a long switch to LB Quagliata and back heel to RB Fadiga in the match vs. Groningen are great examples of Luca making passes that put players in positions of strength.
As far as *who* he has completed the most passes to, Quagliata and Fadiga are #1 and #3 on the list with CB Knoester at #2 The passes to Knoester are usually to either reset a possession or a quick switch. The left-footed Knoester is one of the better ball-progressing CBs in the league, so it’s rarely a pointless back pass from de la Torre. He does well to position himself as cover when the fullbacks are released, especially on the left side.
For a box-to-box player, the numbers are all there. High number of duels, dribbles, and has a lot of distance covered.
Current Eredivisie rank:
Duels won – 21st with 97 (10th among midfielders)
Dribbles completed – 9th with 31 (73.8%), 2nd in % completed among those w/ 30+ attempts.
Distance covered – 2nd with 209 kilometers while playing the lowest number of minutes of anyone in the top 10 (Note: the distance data from the Cambuur match hasn’t been added yet).
Pass completion in opponent’s half (min. 500 total passes) – 7th at 84% and is the first player not from the top 3 of PSV, Ajax, or Feyenoord.
Now to really get in the weeds, he has an Open Play xA of 1.64 (ranks 42nd and leads Heracles) and has an xT (Expected Threat) of 1.01 (ranks 77th). Considering his team, good numbers, not great.
However, his xT Through Carries is 0.46, which is 34th in the Eredivisie and above players such as Steven Berghuis, Albert Gudmundsson, Joey Veerman, Frankie Midstjo, and Riechedley Bazoer. He is one of the better midfielders at progressing the ball through carries in the league.
The question I hear most is “If he’s so good, why doesn’t he have any assists?” I made a YouTube video that gives a bit of an answer to that question while showing other things.
Stat site Soccerment gives his overall passing performance a score of 60. Which is good enough for 8th in the Eredivisie. It comes with 8 factors:
Passes own half p90, Pass accuracy own half, Passes opp. half p90, Pass accuracy opp. Half, Long passes p90, Long pass accuracy, Forward passes %, Possession losses p90
This is some good Eredivisie company for a player in the bottom half of the table to be in.
His ball progression is impressive in both the eye test and the statistical analysis. Thanks to Robin Wilhelmus, he’s attempted 156 progressive passes with 138 completed (88.5%). Only two of those were in his defensive third. That’s 8.19 progressive passes in the middle and final thirds per 90. Here’s how that number compares among other USMNT midfielders:
de la Torre – 8.19
Acosta – 5.13
Adams – 4.12
Lletget – 3.79
Roldan – 3.66
Busio – 2.67
McKennie – 2.50
Note: The data for Luca is from a Dutch stat site and the other players data is pulled from fbref which doesn’t count the defensive 2/5th of the field. Luca’s numbers don’t count the defensive 1/3, so there’s a 6-7% difference in counting progressive passes via field positioning. It’s not a perfect comparison but it’s the best I can do with the resources I have.
He’s also had 43 progressive runs so far, which is 2.6 progressive runs per 90. He’s had 113 passes or carries into the attacking third in 17 matches, or he gets the ball into the attacking third 6.8 times per match.
So that’s a combined total of 199 progressive runs and attempted progressive passes in 17 matches.
He’s known as a dynamic, ball-progressing 8, but he’s also able to ride out windows of pressure from the other team and defend space or even straight up man mark a player. In the match against Ajax, Berghuis had trouble getting the ball in the right middle third and it’s no coincidence Luca’s role was as the left-sided pivot.
He’s also extremely effective at pressing. He has 388 pressures, which is 23.4 per 90 and he ranks in the 90th percentile in the Eredivisie in pressure regains.
I just gave a lot of numbers because the eye test shows he’s having a good season and the numbers more than back it up.
He’s given away two penalties this season. The one against NEC Nijmegen was not good. Giveaway and untimely/freak-out tackle while down a goal and a man. The one against Vitesse? The more I watch it, the more I’m surprised the official called it. In re-watching the whole match, the official let a lot of physical play go in the 1st half (with an outright shove on Luca by Bazoer) yet called a soft hand from behind on the shoulder in the 18. On one hand, you can’t give attackers the chance to go down, yet the call didn’t go with the tone the official set both before and after the penalty.
As far as Heracles goes
They’ve been very unfortunate with injuries, but even when healthy they’ve had trouble simply putting the ball in the net. The most recent match v. Cambuur is their season in a nutshell. 3.52 xG for Heracles vs. 0.44 xG for Cambuur and it ended in a 1-1 draw.
In matches against Vitesse, Heerenveen, PEC Zwolle, Sparta Rotterdam, and Go Ahead Eagles, they earned 1 point. Why is that significant? Heracles’ xG for those matches is 5.61 to their opponents’ 5.39. While it’s a somewhat small sample size for xG, the fact they have just 1 point and couldn’t snatch a win at some point shows their performance in front of goal.
The 2nd half of the season will be interesting to watch. He’s one of Heracles’ top performers (CB Rente being the other). There have been pundits taking notice of what he can bring and there’s a feeling he’s on the radar of most Eredivisie clubs.
Heracles have an option for another year, but in the Eredivisie that would mean a 25% salary increase. Heracles supporters think it will happen and want it to happen. I do think he will be valued as long as he’s there. When Heracles lost to the nine men of Go Ahead Eagles 4-2, that was the only match Luca did not play in because of traveling back from the US. After the game, Wormuth said “We did not look like a real team in the last 15 minutes.” The fact Luca was not available 100% factored into that statement being made.
SO…WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE USMNT?
First, I’m not going to turn this into being “anti-This Player”. There are a lot of players who haven’t played particularly well for the USMNT that still get paid a lot of money to play soccer as their job. They make more money in one year than I do in five years. I view that as an overall success in life. Now that I’ve said that…
I personally think Luca can do a job better than other players who’ve had well over 1k minutes in the Berhalter era and for that, I’m disappointed he only has 13 WCQ minutes. I think going forward he should be in the WCQ group (hopefully as early as January). I think he would be a great off-the-bench option if midfield ball progression isn’t happening with the starters. Even if he doesn’t do anything that wows the crowd, he’s fairly ball secure and usually keeps the play moving within 3 touches. And he knows some of the core from the CONCACAF grind of the u17 and u20 level. He spent time in u17 residency with Pulisic, Adams, and McKennie. Familiarity is already there.
He’s also shown he’s fine defensively. 6.87 tackles, interceptions, and passes blocked per 90. He’s much better at off-the-ball positioning to make the ball go elsewhere this season, too. When he wins the ball, he does so in a way that either gets it up the field quickly or gets it to the LCB so he can start the possession.
If you asked for one sentence why Luca de la Torre should be in the WCQ picture moving forward, it would be: “A ground-covering 8 that constantly looks for quick progressive passes to overlapping fullbacks.”
- Plays quickly
- Combines with fullbacks well
- Covers lot of ground; Called “Superfit” among TV pundits in the Netherlands
- Can hold the ball until a progressive opening develops
- Can do a job defensively and in the press
- Can be “too safe” w/ passing in the opening 10-15 minutes
- Struggles in duels against players much larger than him
- Rarely defends set pieces, usually in a one or two-man wall or cleans up outside the 18 on corners
If you made it this far, thank you for reading. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find Eredivisie stats since they are harder to find than the top 5 leagues. The original idea of this article is to help those USMNT supporters that don’t watch Heracles Almelo weekly. And since the Venn Diagram of USMNT supporters and Heracles supporters is basically two separate circles except for me, I figure I’d get to writing. Thank you @lambertsmarc, @RobinWilhelmus, @JohnSpaceMuller, and @CarlonCarpenter for all their help with statistical data and how I can/should interpret it.