After six straight matches allowing a goal, Orlando City’s defense finally recorded a clean sheet Wednesday in the 2-0 win over D.C. United. Tonight, the Lions’ back line will be tasked with a huge challenge as the team hosts the Chicago Fire and MLS’s top goal scorer, Nemanja Nikolic, at Orlando City Stadium.
The 29-year-old, Serbian-born Hungary international has taken the League by storm, scoring 11 goals in his first 13 matches and playing a big role in the Fire’s surprising campaign. Signed as a Designated Player, Nikolic wasted no time adjusting to MLS and has proven to be a great addition to the Illinois-based team.
While most of the teams are still figuring out the best way to deal with the European forward, The Mane Land took a deep look at his goals (watch 10 of them below) and jumped to some conclusions that could be useful to Orlando City’s defenders later tonight. All of that is much easier said than done, but here is what they could do to contain Nikolic:
Keep Him Outside the Box
All of Nikolic’s 11 goals were scored inside the box and only one of them was on a penalty. The forward found the back of the net eight times with his right foot, two with his left foot, and one with his head so far, showing he can score in multiple ways.
The Fire’s striker is not as comfortable when he has to operate outside the box, though, considering that only seven of his 43 shot attempts this season came from behind the lines. He also does not possess the proper skill set to play as a facilitator, as his single assist and below-average 73.1% passing accuracy show. So, it sounds like a smart idea to keep him far from the box, right?
Stay Close at all Times
Another telling stat from Nikolic’s numbers is the fact that he scored nine of his 10 open-play goals with a single touch on the ball. Chicago’s striker does not need much time or space to finish and, God, he finishes a lot.
According to WhoScored.com, Nikolic ranks sixth in shots attempted in the League, averaging 3.3 per game. Orlando’s center backs have to stay as close as possible to the Fire’s striker every time he’s inside the box or he can make them pay for that.
Protect the Right Side
Another point revealed by Nikolic’s stats is that he tends to move from the center of the box to the defense’s right side where he finds himself in good position between the defenders to finish with his preferred right foot. He successfully made this move in six of his 10 open-play goals.
Orlando’s right center back Jose Aja and right back Scott Sutter need to communicate extremely well to stop the Hungarian when he slides in between them. Sutter could prevent that by playing a little bit deeper and centrally on the field, but that would leave acres of space on the wing for David Accam to make his runs, so they might need an extra help from Will Johnson there.
Nikolic has been the most prolific striker in MLS in 2017 and multiple teams have tried to stop him, with little success. Orlando’s back line has had ups and downs so far and if the defenders can thrive against the Golden Boot race leader that could mean the beginning of more stable times for the team’s defense.