All Rise for Brenden Aaronson
Philadelphia Union's Brenden Aaronson has been the breakthrough player of the 2020 MLS season. Will Savage summarises his strengths and weaknesses before looking at where he could go next.
Football is, as we all know, cyclical. Tactical trends come to the fore and, over time, fall away. Over the last decade we’ve seen old-school number tens phased out of the game in favour of energetic attacking midfielders who press and harry. ‘No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation,’ said Jürgen Klopp, emphasising the change in the footballing landscape. As always happens, this shift has seen a change in the type of young footballer that graduates from big academies to European first teams: out with Mesut Özil, in with Mason Mount. In producing Brenden Aaronson, Philadelphia Union’s youth system has joined this trend.
The young midfielder came through Philadelphia Union’s academy system before spending a couple of years at Philadelphia Union II in the USL (Philadelphia Union’s second team, who at the time had the much cooler name of Bethlehem Steel). In 2019 he made the step up to Philadelphia Union’s senior side and didn’t look out of place playing MLS football, before cementing his place as a regular starter during 2020's unusual football calendar.
AARONSON, THE PLAYER
First things first, Aaronson is technically strong. His control is good and he has a wide range of passing. He’s one of the Philadelphia’s regular set-piece takers and, as one would expect from a young attacking midfielder, he looks like a kid who grew up with a ball at his feet. This pairs well with his physical profile. He has a lean build, although given his age (he turns twenty in October) there’s time for him to fill out a little more. That's not to say his stature holds him back: His agility is a major asset and he’s adept at receiving the ball with a marker close by and spinning away into space. This, paired with a natural work rate, makes Aaronson seem as if he’s positively thrumming with energy, ideal for a pressing system.
Unlike some players who wait for the game to come to them, Aaronson’s energy is on show in all phases of play. He’s happy to find space in deep positions to receive the ball when his team is trying to play out from the back and is almost constantly moving. It’s perfectly normal to see Aaronson dropping into a deeper position and finding a hole to occupy in front of the defence, moving into a wider position before hugging the touchline to maintain the width and running beyond the forward line to break into dangerous positions in the same game. While the runs he makes are generally intelligent, they carry an element of chaos and the perpetual risk that he ends up occupying the same space as a teammate. Chaos isn't intrinsically toxic to a young player, but the very best know when to wait for play and when to go out and find it themselves. There’s nothing in Aaronson's profile that a good coach and experienced decision making shouldn’t be able to fix, and it’s always better to have a player who sees things than a player who doesn’t.
His energy doesn’t stop there either - he’s more than an eager presser. It’s not uncommon to see Aaronson helping to win the ball back on the edge of his own defensive third before leading a counter-attack, nor pressing high up to force a turnover. It’s even fairly normal to see him win a throw-in high up and then take it himself rather than waiting for a full back to make their way up the field - not something you’d expect from a nominal number ten.
His passing range is an interesting composite. He doesn’t feel like a traditional high volume chance creator just yet and is not someone to whom you’d hand the creative keys to your team - but he is a dangerous passer, and his passing can be a potent weapon if given space in the final third. Much like his off-the-ball movement, he gives the impression of consistently seeing the right run but occasionally choosing against finding it. Though he doesn’t attempt the incisive with every pass, he does have the feel of a player who is always trying to drive his team up the pitch and make something happen. It’s possible that with time, and perhaps in a league with less space than the MLS, his decision making will be tempered to a slightly more balanced game.
His natural agility and ball-carrying ability make him a nuanced opponent, too. He’s no Adama by any stretch of the imagination, but he has the ability to create a metre of space for himself in the middle of the pitch, and he’s adept at winning free-kicks in dangerous positions via an opponent swinging a leg at a ball that he has long since taken away. His technical abilities come together nicely to form a fairly well-rounded player. For a team playing in transitions against a high press, he offers an out-ball, an option who can resist the press and find an advanced teammate. To a team dominating possession against a low block, he offers another option between the lines and his unpredictability can often be the difference in such a situation. He feels like an ideal fit as a team's secondary playmaker: Not necessarily directing the game, but prividing technical security and reliable pressing in the final third.
While Aaronson is likely to provide a good return of assists, there may be question marks over his possible goal return. He gets into dangerous positions but, when approaching the penalty area, has the look of a midfielder who would rather try and play in a teammate than take a shot himself. This isn’t necessarily a flaw in his game, and again it’s better to have a youngster who can spot the pass than one who can’t, but it’s an intricacy worth noting.
AARONSON, THE FUTURE
With Aaronson continuing to draw attention, there have naturally been links with moves elsewhere. Amongst the clubs reportedly interested are Celtic, Aston Villa, LOSC Lille, as well as Borussia Mönchengladbach, Eintracht Frankfurt, TSG Hoffenheim, and RB Leipzig. With his underdeveloped frame, it's natural to worry about how he would adapt to the physicality of British football. Celtic is a good stepping-stone club, and Aston Villa would be an interesting fit, particularly if he was seen as a replacement for Jack Grealish – while LOSC have an impressive record in developing young footballers.
However, I feel as if a move to Germany would suit Aaronson best. A switch to a mid-sized Bundesliga side, such as Hoffenheim, would allow him to gradually be phased into football at a higher level than MLS. With German football generally involving higher defensive lines and more compact midfields than other leagues, it would be a challenge for him to affect games to the same extent as he has in the USA. But the Bundesliga unquestionably suits a player of his profile: Agile, press resistant, and able to thrive in transitions.
Young American footballers have struggled to make too much of a breakthrough in the modern European game, with Christian Pulisic being the sole exception. Tyler Adams’ goal to knock Atlético Madrid out of the Champions League may just herald the arrival of America's new wave, and Brenden Aaronson certainly has the potential to join the movement.
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