FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Gonzalo Higuain is not scoring from the run of play. Rodolfo Pizarro is not influencing games consistently. Blaise Matuidi is not playing well defensively.
These are not new trends for Inter Miami’s three Designated Players, but rather ones that have carried over since 2020 in a fairly alarming way.
Inter Miami played to a 1-1 draw with Atlanta United at Drv Pnk Stadium on Sunday afternoon, and not for the first time this season the performance put forth by the Herons left something to be desired. Particularly when it came to the team’s three DPs.
Let’s start with Matuidi, who only lasted until the 14th minute because of an early injury but still managed to be partially to blame for surrendering a goal. Josef Martinez struck in the ninth minute in part because Matuidi was once again too lose on his mark in midfield, allowing the entry ball to be played to Martinez. Ryan Shawcross also shoulders a good bit of blame here for not getting tight on Martinez and allowing the strike the time and space to shoot, but Matuidi could have helped prevent it with better defending.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) May 9, 2021
Matuidi’s ongoing defensive frailties date back to his arrival last year, but it is unclear if it is just due to a lack of concentration, effort, desire, or something else. Whatever the case, the Frenchman needs to do more when he has the ball if he is going to be such a liability without it.
In a similar vein, Gonzalo Higuain needs to step it up from the run of play. His habit of dropping deep has been mentioned in this space a bit recently, but it is his finishing from the run of play that is proving frustrating. Higuain has now played in 12 MLS matches, and has still not scored from open play.
He had a couple of looks to do so vs. Atlanta United, but failed to finish on both. Granted the second one at the hour-mark might have been deflected out of bounds by a Miles Robinson handball that could have earned Inter Miami a penalty, but the Argentine has to start putting the ball in the back of the net when he finds himself with good opportunities like the one in the 17th minute when Higuain fired too close to Brad Guzan despite being fairly open inside the 18-yard box. After all, the striker is getting paid a reported $7-8 million to do so.
As for Pizarro, his inability to consistently impact games and maddening penchant to turn himself into trouble while on the ball might just be starting to raise the question as to whether he has much of a future with Inter Miami. He had a largely ineffective showing yet again — one that was made to look worse by the team’s immediate improvement following the second-half insertion of Federico Higuain.
Pizarro did have one good turn down the right side that helped set up Gonzalo’s golden look in the first half, but that was almost all the danger the Mexican helped create. It is a bit unfortunate for him that Matuidi’s injury took Pizarro out of the left wing spot he started the match in because maybe that could have been a better fit for him than playing at the 10, but regardless he has to begin to produce. Especially since Pizarro has just one goal and one assist in his last eight games dating back to 2020.
Inter Miami is paying its three DPs a pretty penny, but the return on investment just has not been at the level needed. That needs to change, and the sooner the better.
FEDERICO HIGUAIN STRENGTHENS CASE TO START
As mentioned above, Federico came off the bench on Sunday and had another good showing. He helped turn the tide for Inter Miami once again after coming on in the 57th minute, providing quicker touches in midfield, more creative ideas, and the threat of a through ball.
The latter quality is something Inter Miami sorely misses when he is not on the field. Given that Pizarro is not a traditional No. 10 capable of regularly breaking open the defensive line with his passing, the Herons are more often than not unable to test opposing defenses with runs in behind since they have no one really capable of hitting those types of balls into spaces.
With Federico, however, that changes. You saw it very shortly after he come on vs. Atlanta United.
It seems Federico Higuain — who helped create the Lewis Morgan equalizer with an overlapping run that opened space by drawing George Bello out — has carved out a super-sub role in this early point of the season. Still, head coach Phil Neville should more seriously consider starting the 36-year-old playmaker.
Yes, Higuain may not be able to play 90 minutes consistently anymore given that he is at a latter stage in his career, but that is slightly mitigated by teams’ currently ability to use five subs. What’s more, this week might provide a perfect chance to give Higuain that opportunity given that Inter Miami will likely need to rotate players since it has two games over the next few days.
“Today he came on and gave us that calmness and composure,” said Neville. “I was going backwards and forwards whether to start him or to bring him on.”
— Inter Miami CF (@InterMiamiCF) May 9, 2021
While a major talking point in this one was the controversial no-calls — at least one of which should have resulted in a penalty kick for Inter Miami — something that cannot go unnoticed is how much the team struggled in possession. Again.
The South Florida side lost the battle for the ball yet again on Sunday and had a tough time putting the match on its terms as a result, but let’s look at the possession numbers of the opposing teams in all of Inter Miami’s four games so far.
3-2 loss vs. LA Galaxy — 66.1 percent
2-1 win at Philadelphia Union —53.1 percent
0-0 draw at Nashville SC — 59.3 percent
1-1 draw vs. Atlanta United — 61.5 percent
For a team like Inter Miami that talked during preseason about wanting to be a possession-based team, those numbers are not flattering. It is early in the campaign and the Herons are still working their way back to full fitness, but it needs more of the ball to give its most talented players more chances to be dangerous.
“With the players we have eventually we will dominate games,” said Lewis Morgan. “I think in spells we are doing that so it is just about trusting the process that the manager and the coaching staff set out for us because when we do that we do control moments in games. It is just about doing that more often really.”
Inter Miami Player Ratings
John McCarthy (6) — Not overly tested, but made every save that could be asked of him.
Victor Ulloa (6.5) — Held up well as a makeshift right back and helped set up Gonzalo’s golden look in the first half. Should have had a cleaner touch on that late controversial play, however.
Ryan Shawcross (4.5) — Solid for most of the match, but his failure to get tight on Martinez on the opener is inexcusable for someone of his experience.
Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (6) — A regular threat on attacking set pieces and solid overall defensively, though his angered shouts late could have easily earned him a sending off.
Brek Shea (5.5) — Decent with his defending without adding much to the attack before coming out in the second half.
Gregore (6.5) — Very good at breaking things up be it with tackles or fouls and finished with the best passing completion of any Heron starter.
Blaise Matuidi (2) — Only on the field for 14 minutes because of an injury, but still influenced the game with costly defending.
Lewis Morgan (6.5) — Appears to be finding his rhythm, as he was the chief attacking catalyst before scoring a good equalizer on an individual effort.
Jay Chapman (5.5) — Saved Gonzalez Pirez with a perfectly-timed slide tackle in the second half, and was serviceable despite having few touches.
Rodolfo Pizarro (3.5) — Would have been interesting to see how he did at left mid, but the Matuidi injury forced him back to the 10 spot before another disappointing display there.
Gonzalo Higuain (3.5) — The indefensible miss in the first half was his most notable play and summed up his day, though his pass to Ulloa late was magic.
Joevin Jones (5) — Did a good job of helping close down spaces down the left but not a whole lot going forward again.
Federico Higuain (6.5) — Gave the team more creative ideas and attacking verticality with his one-time passing, through balls, and good soccer IQ.
Sami Guediri (5) — Played in central midfield late for a cramping Chapman, and did not look out of place.
Edison Azcona (5) — Showed some of his good qualities in a brief cameo.
Phil Neville (5.5) – His idea of having Pizarro play on the left was ruined by the early injury to Matuidi, but the first half was subpar overall. Still, the timing of his Federico Higuain sub was good and helped turn the tide a bit.