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Can Mounsef Bakrar Save NYCFC?
NYCFC desperately needs a striker. Is the young Algerian the right one?
In 2019, New York City Football Club was struggling. Their lack of a striker caused an identity crisis, leading to Maxi Moralez, the team’s No. 10, being forced into an uncomfortable false nine role. This tactical band-aid proved to be ineffective as the offense stagnated, and it became clear that a dedicated striker was desperately needed. The team went out and found a striker in the first division of Croatia who made an instant impact on the way to NYCFC’s first Eastern Conference title.
Time, as they say, is a flat circle.
Yesterday, NYCFC announced the signing of Mounsef Bakrar, a 22-year-old Algerian striker from NK Istra 1961. NYCFC supporters are hopeful once again that a transfer from the first division of Croatia will bring an end to the strikerless experiment, which has resulted in the team’s worst offensive performance since 2016.
Bakrar started out with his hometown club ES Setif, a legendary Algerian club. He debuted at the age of 19 and impressively scored his first professional goal in only his second game. Although he was primarily a rotation player during his time at ES Setif, averaging just 34 minutes per game, his performances caught the eye of NK Istra 1961, a club known for its development of younger players. He also damaged his ceiling doing a Tik Tok challenge.
Istra 1961 is a team like countless others in Europe that operate with limited financial resources. The team relies on flipping project players to keep the lights on as they go up against European titans in their league, Hajduk Split and Dinamo Zagreb. Instead of purchasing players, they often acquire them on loan or through free transfers, aiming to discover diamonds in the rough and sell them for profit. Bakrar joined Istra 1961 in the 2022-23 season alongside 14 other free agents, including former Atlanta United 2 winger Darwin Matheus.
Bakrar took no time to announce himself, scoring on his debut, and repeated the feat in the following game. Despite his early success, he had trouble securing a consistent spot in the starting lineup until midway through the season. On March 10th, he scored a brace against Gorica and never let up. Over the final 13 games of the season, he averaged 87 minutes per game while scoring 5 goals. Bakrar played a pivotal role in propelling Istra 1961 to a 5th-place finish, the best in the history of the team.
Bakrar’s impressive performances, particularly considering his age, naturally attracted the interest of the bigger Croatian clubs. Dinamo Zagreb reportedly made an offer for Bakrar, but Istra 1961 had no real reason to sell. The club had just transferred a defender to Zagreb for a club-record 2 million which provided more than enough to balance the books for a season. After Istra 1961 secured a replacement for Bakrar in Nigerian U20 striker Samson Lawal, NYCFC had an opening to step in with a more lucrative offer. The moment was right for NYCFC to get their striker.
The Prince That Was Promised
There’s no denying the abysmal nature of NYCFC’s experiment with a strikerless offense. The team could only manage a woeful 20.2 Expected Goals (xG) in games where they did not play a true striker, rough 1.01 xG per game. This anemic return ranked them third worst in the league according to FBRef. It’s a clear testament to the failure of the experiment that in the limited minutes that NYCFC’s only rostered striker Gabe Segal has actually played, the team has created a slightly improved 1.32 xG per 90 minutes.
Segal has shown commendable effort, but there’s no question the Wasserman heir is not the answer as a starting central forward in MLS. When he was initially signed, it was strongly suggested he was destined for the NYCFC II team for further development. Unfortunately, the untimely collapse of the Talles Mag-nine experiment brought him into the first team rotation. While he deserves credit for his hard work, it is clear that a player who could not score goals in the German third division was never going to be the solution. Bakrar, on the other hand, is entering a team that is not only desperate for a striker, but more importantly, a specific kind of player that can change the way the team plays.
What Will He Do
During the previous World Cup Qualifying Cycle, USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter caused a mild ruffle by emphasizing his team’s need for verticality. The absence of players capable of stretching the opposing team’s back line was reflected in the way defenses could structure themselves to suffocate any sort of offensive threat before it even approached the opponent’s goal. NYCFC finds themselves in a similar predicament. The team lacks true vertical threats, especially after the surprise loan of their lone speedster, Thiago Andrade, to Athletico Paranaense at the start of the season.
Bakrar brings that much needed verticality. His goal highlights clearly show his ability to control aerial balls and swiftly put them on target with minimal touches. His thrifty approach to dribbling and shooting allows him to create promising chances near the goal where he can finish comfortably with both feet and on either side of the goal - an excellent trait for a lone striker.
NYCFC has needed more from their set pieces this season, and Bakrar may provide another valuable option inside the box. In the previous two seasons, NYCFC averaged 0.27 xG per game from set pieces, but this figure has decreased by a third to 0.19 xG per game in 2023. The addition of Bakrar will make it more difficult for defenses to commit markers to Chanot, Parks, and Magno, which should help create more scoring opportunities.
The greatest benefit of adding Bakrar may not be seen on his stat sheet, but on the performances of every other player on the field. Santiago Rodriguez and Talles Magno, both talented dribblers, have experienced trouble finding the same spaces they enjoyed when playing with Taty Castellanos. Consequently, their overall effectiveness has dropped precipitously from 2022 to 2023.
The Goals Added (G+) dribbling metric shows this in stark relief. Santiago Rodriguez added 0.07 dribbling G+ per 96 minutes in 2022, 92nd percentile among MLS players since 2013. That has dropped to -0.03 G+ in 2023, only the 4th percentile. Essentially, he has gone from being one of the more productive dribblers in MLS to one of the least. Talles Magno fares no better; his production has dropped from 0.03 G+ in 2022, or 60th percentile, to -0.05, or the 2nd percentile. The primary driving force of this loss is an increase in turnovers, as well as greatly reduced room to carry the ball forward.
By introducing a vertical threat like Bakrar, the mid block press that has been effective in stifling the NYC offense becomes a significant risk for opposing defenses. With the American Trio of Keaton Parks, Richy Ledezma, and James Sands, the team possesses ample passing talent to find Bakrar on the run. This forces opposing defenses to make a difficult choice between pressing the talented dribblers in the middle or covering the space behind their defensive lines.
What He Won’t Do
If there’s any truism in world soccer, it is that the better a player is the less likely they are to be in MLS. Bakrar is far from a complete or perfect player. While at Istra 1961, he barely was on the ball at all and his primary role revolved around being a poacher that got on the end of long balls and crosses rather than being extensively involved in the build-up. Nevertheless, despite his limited involvement, he still managed to contribute an impressive three assists.
While his 0.31 xG per game according to Wyscout is not particularly strong for a striker, it’s worth noting that Istra 1961 had the lowest shots per game of all teams in the Croatian first division. They struggled to generate many scoring chances for Bakrar. With the talent on NYCFC’s roster, he should see far more chances than he did at Istra 1961, a historic bottom feeder.
MLS is known for having physically strong and fast defenders, which will present a new challenge for Bakrar. They may not be as easily beaten as the defenders Bakrar faced in Croatia, so he will need to adapt his game and find additional ways to gain an edge on his markers.
It will be expected to see some initial growing pains as Bakrar adapts to NYCFC’s possession-heavy system. The transition may require adjustments and shuffling within the attacking group, as well as the development of chemistry among the players. Building understanding and coordination will be crucial in order to effectively execute long balls over the top and capitalize on scoring opportunities.
Whither The Boys in Blue
NYCFC finds itself at a critical crossroads in their season, currently tied for the final playoff spot with several other teams, although they have played two more games than their competitors. This weekend’s matchup against bitter rivals Philadelphia Union holds significant importance, as it will be their last MLS game until August 20th, as the Leagues Cup bifurcates the regular season. It’s remarkable that NYCFC has managed to stumble their way to the doorstep of the playoffs without an entire position group. Furthermore, the team can take solace in the fact that the back half of the season presents a much more forgiving schedule compared to the challenging months they recently endured as they push toward securing a playoff spot.
Bakrar should get every chance to prove himself for the Pigeons as the season stretches toward its end. His potential debut in the Leagues Cup, which carries lower stakes, will provide him with valuable playing time to familiarize himself with the team before the final third of the regular season. If Bakrar can make a positive impact and help lift the team, it could provide the necessary momentum for a strong finish to the season. However, if he struggles and cannot lift the team, then the season may fizzle out. This signing, more than any other, is the fulcrum on which the entire season rests. ❧
Image: Rachid Mouffok, Le pont des pistons