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Can Alejandro Pozuelo fill Giovinco’s shoes with Toronto FC?

Genk's Spanish midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo is pictured upon departure of Belgian football team KRC Genk on February 13, 2019 at Maastricht Airport, a day ahead of the Europa League round of 16 first leg football match against Slavia Prague to be played in Prague. (YORICK JANSENS / Belga / AFC)

On March 4, Toronto FC announced the signing of Alejandro Pozuelo, ending a strange and long pursuit of the player from Belgian club Genk. The transfer saga is worth its own article, but Pozuelo is really being brought in to replace Sebastian Giovinco, possibly the league’s greatest player ever. Was it worth it?

First, some background.

Giovinco departed Toronto FC in January to join Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia after a very public contract dispute with TFC management. Giovinco wanted to extend his contract that paid him $7.1 million a year — tops in Major League Soccer — after producing at the highest levels the last four years. Toronto saw a player turning 32, started to see a decline in performance and thought committing another two or three years may not be best use of the club’s resources.

So Toronto refused Giovinco’s 2020 option and offered to extend him at a salary cut that would still keep Giovinco among the top five or six paid players in the league. Giovinco balked and went to Saudi Arabia on a three-year contract that pays him at $11.5m per year. 

Declining or not, Giovinco left a huge hole in Toronto’s attack, evident by the team’s embarrassing performance and early exit in this year’s Concacaf Champions League. This led to signing Pozuelo for a reported four years and $18.2 million in salary, plus an $11.3 million transfer fee to Genk. All in all, it will cost Toronto $29.5 million to have the services of Pozuelo for his prime years of 27 to 31 years old. Pozuelo will cost $7.4 million a year, which is almost identical to Giovinco’s original contract.

Back to the question, then: Was it worth bringing in Pozuelo, or should TFC have kept Giovinco for his 2019 and 2020 seasons since it would’ve cost about the same? 

Much like when Giovinco originally signed with Toronto, Pozuelo will be in his prime, but his wages and his age make him very unlikely for another big-money sale down the road. For all intents and purposes, Toronto’s investment in Pozuelo is completely about on-field production.

Luckily, we can use the help of statistics to gauge this. 

Below is a chart that outlines both Giovinco’s and Pozuelo’s goals plus direct assists per 96 minutes from age 24 on. Data is sourced from both American Soccer Analysis and Transfermarkt.  (note: for both players’ European stats, I used league and European play. For Giovinco’s MLS stats, I used league play.)

First things first, Giovinco and Pozuelo are different types of players. Giovinco is much more of a goal scorer. Pozuelo is more of a chance creator, handing out many more assists than scoring himself. Still, both are players capable of being the primary attacking threat on a team.

Giovinco had an incredible season at age 24 at Parma with 0.87 goals + assists per 96 minutes (G+A/96) in Serie A.  This lead to Juventus purchasing half of his transfer rights it previously sold to Parma and Giovinco’s return to the Turin club. He had two more years of fairly good production (0.66 and 0.68 G+A/96) before falling out of favor in his age-27 season. 

He signed with Toronto at 28, and was unstoppable.  He posted G+A/96 of 1.16, 1.17, and 0.98 in his first three years in the league.  For perspective, a G+A/96 above 0.9 is MVP caliber.  The jump in performance was to be expected for anyone joining MLS from a top-5 league in Europe, as noted here.  But Giovinco’s performance vaulted him to a player many believe to be the best MLS ever had.

Toronto FC forward Sebastian Giovinco. (Eric Bolte/USA TODAY Sports)

Last year, at 31, Giovinco posted his worst season at 0.75 G+A/96.  This is a very good, All-Star level return of a player, but it may not be worth the highest salary in the league. The dip probably wasn’t completely fair because it didn’t count his incredible Champions League run, where he won the tournament’s best player.  Also, if you look at his underlying metrics of expected goals and assists per 96, it was a healthier 0.84. Still the decline was there.

I projected out Giovinco’s next few years in MLS if he stayed, using a blend of both expected and actual performance on the field, and came up with 0.75 G+A/96 at age 32 (reversing to the mean of expected goals), and 0.70 at age 33.  Again All-Star level numbers, but maybe a stretch for a player earning $7.1 million per year if Toronto had exercised the contract option.

Pozuelo, on the other hand, is coming off his best season as a professional with Genk, netting a 0.73 G+A/96.  You can see Pozuelo’s history isn’t nearly as good as Giovinco’s, despite playing in an inferior league in Belgium.  His performance in Europa League has been promising, so the real question in projecting out Pozuelo’s performance is if he will experience a similar bump in MLS as other players from top-5 leagues in Europe and if he will thrive when his team isn’t the best team in the league and he’s the main option.

Genk’s Alejandro Pozuelo, center, runs with the ball during a Europa League soccer match between KRC Genk and Slavia Praha in Genk, Belgium, on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

Since the Belgium league isn’t nearly as good as other top-5 leagues, let’s assume the bump will be more moderate, if at all (around a +0.05 G+A/96 bump). Also, Genk has much more talent than Toronto. Some players perform better in this state. Giovinco certainly did, as you can see with his performance at Parma versus Juventus.  But Pozuelo is a chance creator who depends on finishing, so his chemistry with Jozy Altidore will be paramount.

It’s tough to project with so many variable, but projections place Pozuelo in the 0.80 G+A/96 range.  If he hits that, TFC management can be pleased with the decision they made. But anything lower, and Toronto FC fans should fairly ask if they should’ve just extended Giovinco in the first place.

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