Entering their third year in Major League Soccer, Minnesota United splashed some cash on their third designated player to fill a role that troubled them all last season: defensive midfielder. The usually parsimonious club spent a reported $1.5 million to bring in Jan Gregus, a 27-year-old Slovakian from FC Copenhagen, to the United States Midwest. They hope it will solve an issue that they’ve had since they joined Major League Soccer from the NASL. In return for their outlay, they get a player with 21 caps for a team ranked 27th in the world by FIFA, who has also made over 20 appearances in UEFA club competitions.
He represents a different type of defensive midfielder to the type normally seen in MLS. The prototype of this position is still a physical beast always willing to put in a tackle that can best be described as agricultural, while providing only basic abilities on the ball.
Jan Gregus doesn’t fit into this mould. The other key off-season signing for the Loons is a more stereotypical MLS holding midfielder, Osvaldo Alonso from Seattle Sounders. Gregus tends to do most of his work with positioning and intelligence, rather than getting stuck in. He specialises in blocking passing lanes and interceptions, looking to seize on poor touches or sloppy passing to turn the ball over.
He will provide height to an undersized Minnesota United midfield, as none of their other regular midfielders are more than six feet tall. In the past this has meant that it was easy for oppositions to work the ball forward, as they were able to play high balls into the midfield zone to take advantage of the Loons’ Lilliputian midfielders. Coach Adrian Heath is obviously hoping that having him in that area shielding the back line will make it harder for the opposition to work the ball forward.
FC Copenhagen tend to play a high press, with the midfield block operating high up the pitch to support their forward line’s pressing actions. He was very effective in this role, as his intelligent movement allowed him to consistently position himself to close off passing lanes and make it hard for the opposing side to play out from the back.
By playing so high up the pitch, he acted as much more of a box-to-box midfielder in Denmark than we probably will see in Minnesota. Adrian Heath’s side does very little pressing, and prefers to drop into a low block when they lose the ball.
The Slovakian’s reading of the game is well developed, and this should allow him to work effectively in either a single or double pivot. In Copenhagen, Gregus’ most common partner was Greek international Zeca, who provided a much more robust physical presence. He provided the muscle while Gregus was the technician, and we could see this repeat if he plays alongside Osvaldo Alonso in a more defensive game plan.
If the Loons are looking to be more ambitious in midfield, we could see him line up alongside Rasmus Schuller or Ibson. Both would offer more on the attacking end through their passing and dribbling skills.
Jan Gregus is different from most defensive midfielders in the MLS with the ball, as well as without. A good technical player, he posted a 90% pass completion rate on his average 63 passes per game in the Danish Superliga this season. He tends to stay behind the attack, helping to recycle possession and move the ball to switch the point of attack.
Staying behind the attack also allows him to stay in position should the ball turn over. He is capable of accurate long balls out wide, averaging over five long passes per 90 minutes with 59% accuracy in Denmark. Minnesota United will take advantage of his ability to spread the ball out to the wings, as that is one of their strongest positions.
His ability to provide distribution and keep play ticking over while providing positional discipline will be something that was glaringly missing from the Loons attack last season. Adrian Heath seems to want his midfielders to provide a solid base upon which his attackers can go about operating in the final third and creating chances. They tried making do with Rasmus Schuller last season due to his passing and ability to link the defence and attack, but he too often got drawn up the pitch in the attack and left the back line vulnerable to quick counters.
Minnesota United were susceptible to quick counter-attacks last season because their number six often lacked the discipline necessary to shield slow centre-backs from pacy counters. They also struggled dealing with high balls into the midfield, losing more than half of their aerial duels. These are two areas which Jan Gregus should be able to help them with immediately.
When he plays with his national side, he typically must stay behind the attack while a talented playmaker, Napoli’s Marek Hamsik, operates in front of him with little defensive awareness. He will find a similar situation at the new Allianz Field in Minneapolis, with Darwin Quintero providing the attacking impetus without concern for his positioning and defensive work without the ball.
At 27 years old, Gregus boasts experience in the Europa League, Champions League, the Danish Superliga, and over 20 caps for the Slovakian national team. The management of Minnesota United are hoping that spending money on him will solve an issue that has plagued them since they entered the league. With his ability to read the game, and break up attacks, Jan Gregus should allow the Loons a more stable defensive platform. In turn, this should allow attackers such as Darwin Quintero to flourish, and hopefully lead them into their first MLS Playoffs.
If you love tactical analysis, then you’ll love the digital magazines from totalfootballanalysis.com – a guaranteed 100+ pages of pure tactical analysis covering topics from the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and many, many more. Buy your copy of the January issue for just ₤4.99 here, or even better sign up for a ₤50 annual membership (12 monthly issues plus the annual review) right here.