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LAFC 2021 Player Postmortem: Latif Blessing

A quietly steady season for midfielder.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Los Angeles FC Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Latif Blessing is entering his prime years as a professional player, and 2021 was his third season playing in the position that remade his career, central midfield.

In that time, the Ghanaian’s role in LAFC midfield has shifted at times. While all LAFC mids under Bob Bradley were expected to play a full two-way role, Blessing went from a ball-winning player in the mold of classic N’golo Kante to a ball-winning quasi-No. 10, a role that Kante also played, to inconsistent effect, with Chelsea.

The big thing to understand with Blessing is that when he plays in midfield, he is the absolute trigger that LAFC’s press depends on. When he’s not on the field, the team simply cannot press effectively, which was a fundamental part of their style of play, and so it makes sense that Blessing became such a key player over the past three years in the black-and-gold midfield.

Here are Blessing’s stats in 2021:

Latif Blessing 2021 LAFC Statistics

2021 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
2021 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
MLS 30 25 2,205 2 3 24 9 1 0

Obviously, a lot of things changed around Blessing in 2021. With the team suddenly finding goals hard to come by, the defense had to take on a stronger part of delivering wins and...yeah, that didn’t happen, unfortunately. While Blessing wasn’t a fixture in every game as he’s been in the past, he still played the most among the original starting trio of him, Eduard Atuesta (who dealt with small injuries throughout the season) and Mark-Anthony Kaye (traded to the Colorado Rapids midseason). While Jose Cifuentes emerged as a terrific attacking option in midfield and looks like a lock to start moving forward, Blessing had to provide as much stability in the middle of the field as possible, which was tough to do for a team undergoing a season-long slump.

In looking at his advanced stats on, Blessing remained an exceptional midfielder in 2021, even if he didn’t draw the plaudits he had been earning the previous two seasons. The reason for that is simple: LAFC weren’t good. Midfielders doing the dirty work aren’t going to get roses if their team is not good, especially in an increasingly crowded landscape like MLS, now with 28 teams in 2022.

But even if Blessing’s offensive production was steady, his underlying numbers, particularly in expected assists terms, were really quite good for his position group, surprisingly strong, and maybe another indication of the team-wide scoring slump in 2021 than a lack of chances in general. Meanwhile, defensively, Blessing was exceptional in the pressing categories of pressures and interceptions, and quite strong in tackles, too. Not bad for a guy who entered MLS as a tweener forward/winger.

I’m curious to see what, if anything, changes for Blessing now under Steve Cherundolo. Blessing owes about as much as anyone can to Bradley for transforming the trajectory of his career, taking a solid attacker who was probably going to have to come off the bench for a playoff team into an indispensable midfielder on any team. But under a new coach, it will be interesting to see if the midfield will expand or contract depending on the formation, if the players will be more specialized, or in the case of Blessing particularly, if he’ll get license to tear around the field, chasing down the ball when LAFC isn’t in possession and watch him strip it off the opponent, while scoring a few goals along the way. He really is a master at that, and if he can be at his best when LAFC is good, then he can finally get the leaguewide plaudits he’s deserved the past few years.

While 2021 was a down year for most LAFC players, it really wasn’t the case for Blessing. Considering his role, his minutes and his production, he stayed consistent and the team around him folded. Here’s hoping he can maintain that high level in 2022 and beyond, and the team elevates their play to make it more success ahead.

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