What has the Hyundai A-League’s opening month told us about the roles of one of our biggest off-season recruits, Mitch Nichols?In an off-season that saw the Wanderers offload 17 players and bring ten in, arguably the greatest focus of this mass-upheaval was who would take the vacant number 10 position.
The anointment of the side’s new first-choice central attacking midfielder was far from straightforward. Mitch Nichols offered the most appropriate resume but the likes of Mark Bridge and Dario Vidosic also presented suitable credentials for the role.
It was a position once cemented by Shinji Ono but since the Japanese superstar’s departure in 2014, the number ten role has been regularly scrapped and remodelled by a variety of attacking players.
The arrival of Vitor Saba brought glimpses of a conventional attacking midfielder and flashes of the dazzling genius displayed by Ono, but Yojiro Takahagi and Nick Kalmar have also plied their trade operating as Popovic’s number ten.
All in all, it’s a position that has seen several candidates arrive in Parramatta to fill the void left by Ono but in hindsight they have all plugged an important gap temporarily, painted over the cracks left by the Japanese maestro. Last season’s domestic struggles, continental distractions and squad reshuffles only made the transitional process harder for the likes of Yojiro and Kalmar.
Enter Mitch Nichols – a player who has not only cemented his claim as Popovic’s playmaker-in-chief, but has spearheaded the club’s transition from a more conservative, pragmatic team to one that is impressing the country with their newfound preference for expansive, possession football.
Nichols has enjoyed a superb opening month of the Hyundai A-League season. Stationed in the middle of an attacking quartet led by Piovaccari and flanked by Jaushua Sotirio and Romeo Castelen / Dario Vidosic, the former Roar, Victory and Glory man has made a genuine impact on the Wanderers team.
What is particularly enjoyable about Nichols is that he’s not only provided an impetus with the ball in both speedy transitions and in controlled periods of possession, but also with hard he has worked off the ball in both these phases of play to penetrate the defensive lines: something that was made evident in just the opening eleven minutes of the season.
Nichols’ willingness to run in behind the defence means he offers a different threat from the likes of Saba, Yojiro and Kalmar.
In this regard, it’s no great surprise that Nichols has covered the most ground out of any other Wanderers player this season. And despite not registering an assist yet this campaign, he’s provided the attacking spark the Red & Black faithful would have demanded from their new number ten prior to his arrival.
The table below highlights the most significant aspect of Nichol’s attacking contribution thus far: his ability to provide the killer ball. As shown, there’s been a big improvement in this area in comparison to those who accommodated the number ten role at various stages during last season.
It makes for positive reading with Nichols providing almost three chances per 90 minutes – the fourth best chance creation ratio of any player in the league - only Aaron Mooy, Michael McGlinchey and Romeo Castelen boast a higher chance creation rate.
Moreover, the story of Nichols’ contribution is reflected even more significantly in the grand scheme of the team’s attacking outlay. The Wanderers have taken the most shots (61) and created the most chances (50) in the league. They’re creating 12.5 chances per game – a huge rise on just 8.7 per game during the 2014/2015 season. The Nichols factor? It’s certainly a large part of this upsurge in chance creation.
But possibly the most impressive aspect of Nichols’ opening spate of games as a Wanderer is that he’s supplying the type of inventive distribution that isn’t glorified in glossy post-match highlights or statistics. They’re the kind of passes that we typically see on the transition, executed at pace, enabling a smooth, functional attacking incursion in which the Wanderers have beared down on the opposition penalty area with considerable gusto and style. This pass against Perth is a fine example.
With the Wanderers surging forward on the counter-attack, Nichols spots the run of Dimas, guiding a sublime pass with the outside of the right foot that resulted in a chance for the Spaniard on the edge of the box.
Quite simply, Nichols has been clinical, efficient and ruthless with the ball when he has it at his disposal, and this has been of paramount importance in the side’s evolution.