Sergio Ruiz 2019/20 – scout report
Sergio Ruiz entered the history books yesterday, becoming the first player to sign for Charlotte MLS.
A transfer from Racing de Santander in the Spanish Segunda División, the purchase is a shrewd signing by the newest MLS side, purchasing a top player from a club that has suffered relegation to a lower division. With Racing Santander needing to cut salaries and cut ties with their better players, Charlotte’s move gives them a talented midfielder who’s entering his prime.
This scout report offers an in-depth look at Charlotte MLS’ historic first signing, showcasing his usage at Racing Santander and hitting the four pillars of player development. Ruiz’s signing also gives an indication of the club’s direction under Zoran Krneta, the sporting director, and Thomas Schaling, scouting director. A brief tactical analysis will offer some hints into what the future holds for the Charlotte MLS and the Mint City Collective.
How was Ruiz used at Racing Santander?
As Schaling mentioned in an interview, Ruiz is experienced in two and three-man midfield. This past season at Racing Santander, the formation of choice was a 4-2-3-1 with Ruiz operating as one of the two defensive midfielders. Of the two pivot players, he was generally the more attack-oriented of the two, contributing to his side with box-to-box play. When Racing opted for another formation, it was usually a 4-4-2 or 5-4-1, leaving Ruiz to fill one of the two central midfield roles.
As his positional heat map indicates, he does a lot of his work in the half-spaces but also offers a strong presence in the central channel. Rather than starting centrally, he often uses his starting point in the half-spaces to create larger spaces in the central channel.
Very comfortable playing left-centre or right-centre, Ruiz offers Charlotte MLS a great deal of flexibility in the midfield. Though his strongest role is playing as a box-to-box midfielder, he can also function as a defensive midfielder or 8/10 hybrid in a standard 4-3-3.
Watching Ruiz play, it’s abundantly clear that he enjoys a high tempo, short passing philosophy. His two most prominent technical traits are his abilities to beat players on the dribble and keeping possession with excellent one and two touch play.
Looking first at his dribbling ability, Ruiz averages 2.91 dribbles per game with a 74.32% success rate, far above the LaLiga2 average of 54.46% from midfielders. Among midfielders with 1000 minutes of action this season, Ruiz ranks eighth in the league dribbling success percentage. Of the seven players ahead of him in percentage success, only one attempts more dribbles per game.
In a recent match against Real Zaragoza, a club featuring EPL loanee and rising star Luis Suárez, Ruiz started in the half-space, making himself available to receive a pass. As his teammate released the pass, the Zaragoza defender quickly closed the gap. Sensing the presence of the defender, Ruiz made a shoulder feint to his right, drawing the defender to his right shoulder, then allowed the ball to run by him in the left. Knowing there was open space in the central channel, Ruiz’s decision to let the ball run was a brilliant read. A quick acceleration allowed him to catch up to the ball and penetrate the open channel.
20 yards into his dribble, Ruiz ran past a second defender, then targeted a third player. With the third defender leaving the wings to deny space centrally, Ruiz outmuscled his defender, riding the contact and slipping a pass to his open teammate in the wing. This dynamic, central dribble effectively forced the defence to overcommit centrally, freeing up the wing for Racing.
Standing at 5’6”, he’s a player who rides contact well. Similar to other players of that same height, it’s really difficult for opponents to knock Ruiz off balance as the points of contact favour the diminutive Spaniard.
Dribbling is certainly a strength, but Ruiz is equally adept in the short and intermediate passing side of the game. According to Wyscout, his passes travel an average distance of 17.63 metres (approximately 19 yards), meaning he’s in the 29th percentile in pass distance. His long pass accuracy of 46% puts him in the 16% percentile of the league.
Analysing his match footage and data, it’s worth noting that some of those unsuccessful long-range passes were due to poor or late runs from teammates, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Ruiz is more suited to a high tempo, short passing attacking tactics. As you watch him play, you’ll see that he’s excellent at breaking the opponent’s lines.
In that match against Zaragoza, Ruiz took an excellent starting position, receiving the pass approximately seven yards from each of the four nearest defenders. Before the ball arrived at his feet, Ruiz checked his right shoulder, seeing both the oncoming defenders and the outstretched hand of his teammate who was positioned between the lines. As the first defender closed the gap, a deceptive shoulder feint drew his defender towards the central channel, allowing Ruiz to take his touch into the half-space.
With the first defender fooled, a second attempted to press as well. However, the clever feint and touch out wide created more space for his teammates between the lines. With the defender out of position, a line breaking pass allowed his teammate to engage the backline.
While there are many other technical attributes we could discuss, such as his surprisingly good aerial ability or his need to improve his shooting range, these two qualities are the clear standouts. Look for him to patrol the central channel, connecting the lines in Charlotte MLS’ attack.
To play effectively within a high-tempo, short passing system, spatial awareness and orientation are key skill. Ruiz’s ability to navigate and create space are among his top tactical qualities. If you recall his heat map, you remember that the hottest areas are in the left and right half-spaces. That makes perfect sense in a two-man midfield system. However, recall the bright yellow patches in the central channel. There are a couple of reasons for those heat indicators.
First, in his box-to-box role, Ruiz will commonly run through the central channel as the team advances the ball into the attacking half of the field. This is especially the case if the build-up occurs away from him on the far side of the pitch.
Second, one reoccurring theme was a half-space starting position leading to a central movement. The image below highlights this exact situation. As Racing Santander are playing out from the back, Ruiz takes a starting position relatively close to his midfield opponent. Far from the centre of that circle, Ruiz isn’t ready to receive a pass and the defender isn’t ready to send one. Rather than sitting in that space, Ruiz moves towards his left half-space, pulling the defender away from the middle of the pitch.
When the centre-backs were ready to play forward, Ruiz dropped into the space he had created, receiving the pass with plenty of time and space to play forward.
Those small details make him an effective central player. Even when space isn’t readily available, he has the football IQ to create it. As you watch him play, he’s continually scanning the pitch and trying to create more space for himself and his teammates. His knack for locating space and properly orient his body allows him to play very quickly and avoid poor turnovers. With his combination of technical skill and spatial awareness, his press-resistance was one of the features to pass the eye test with flying colours.
Below is an example of his spatial awareness and body orientation from a match against Elche. Perfectly situated in relation to the opponents, his side-on body orientation allows Ruiz to receive the ball on the half-turn.
Taking a touch forward, Ruiz caught the run of his teammate on the right-wing. That run, combined with the gap between the left-back and centre-back, prompted Ruiz to play the through pass. Unfortunately, his teammate stopped his run as Ruiz was sending the pass, so the play resulted in a turnover. However, Ruiz’s read was spot on. Had his teammate continued his run, it appears he would have beat the defender and goalkeeper to the ball, so credit Ruiz for his involvement in the play.
From a defensive standpoint, Ruiz is best utilised higher up the pitch in an aggressive high pressing team. In the matches I watched, the Spaniard showed an excellent understanding of angles and anticipation of the opposition’s actions. While he can defend reasonably well in his defensive third, his signing with Charlotte MLS tells me they intend to be the aggressors in most matches.
I’ll say more about his transitional defending in a moment, but one of the positive defensive qualities I noticed was his ability to work with another midfielder to switch roles and offer a layer of protection for the backline. In the image below, Daniel Toribio, the other holding midfielder, left the central attacker to help apply pressure on the ball-carrier. As Toribio moved towards the ball, Ruiz seamlessly swapped roles with him, moving centrally to protect the backline.
Ruiz rated above average in LaLiga2 in successful defensive actions per 90 minutes, defensive duels won and possession adjusted interceptions, but his aggressiveness does occasionally result in poor defensive positioning.
In the match against Zaragoza, Ruiz lost track of his mark as he looked for an opportunity to intercept a pass. When Zaragoza played the ball down the touchline instead of the half-space, Ruiz was several yards behind his mark. As play progressed, Ruiz was fortunate Real Zaragoza attempted a cross rather than cutting the ball back to his mark, who was still five yards in beyond Ruiz and waiting for service at the top of the box.
A similar situation occurred against Elche. Ruiz looked for the interception but lost track of the runner in the process. Unable to intercept the pass, his mark was free to run at the backline.
Overall, Ruiz is incredibly intelligent in attack and effect defensively. While his aggression can hurt him at times, that same quality offers exceptional value for sides that employ high press and counter-pressing tactics.
Physical and psychological profiles
As mentioned, Ruiz stands at 5’6” (171cm). Despite his height, he’s a very strong player, difficult to beat in tackles because of his low centre of gravity and strength. That strength shows in his body control and the quickness of his feints. Additionally, his balance and ability to ride contact are excellent, which is perfect for the competition he’ll face in the MLS.
While he’s not the fastest player on the pitch, he has the ideal athleticism for a midfielder. Watch him play and you’ll see a very energetic player who covers a lot of ground, which is key for a box-to-box midfielder.
From a psychological standpoint, Ruiz is calm and composed in possession. As mentioned earlier, he’s shown an excellent degree of press-resistance which is due to his composure and awareness. Against both Real Zaragoza and Elche, he showed a consistent ability to operate effectively in tight spaces. In the image below, he’s surrounded by three defenders, but his composure and spatial orientation allow him to split the defence and play out of pressure.
Another appealing quality is that he’s a very positive player. Even despite playing for the worst team in Spain’s Segunda Liga, his work-rate and approach never wavered.
I mentioned his counter-pressing earlier in the analysis. To some degree, a player’s willingness to aggressively pressure the opponent is a sign of their mental approach. In the image below, Zaragoza had just claimed possession when Ruiz sprinted into action, tackling the ball away from the opponent and relaunching the attack.
As the play progressed, he gave us a glimpse of his attacking aggression and intelligence. Rather than settling for the simple pass out wide, which would have led to a low percentage crossing situation or recycling the attack, Ruiz picked out his teammate in the central channel. The delivery was a thing of beauty, releasing his teammate into the open space of Zone 14.
If his style of play is any indicator of his mindset, Charlotte MLS has secured the rights to a true competitor. Even when the chips were stacked against Racing Club, Ruiz never let up. Instead, he showed exceptional leadership with his unrelenting approach.
Congratulations to Sergio Ruiz, the first signing in Charlotte MLS’s history. For fans of the club, especially the Mint City Collective supporters group, this is an exciting development for the region.
In the big picture, fans in Charlotte, a region I call home, have wondered about the style of play and types of players Krneta and Schaling planned to sign. To the fans of the club, know that this is a very positive first step.
First, it gives an indication of the philosophy behind the organization. This signing indicates that the club wants to be the aggressor on the pitch. Given that Ruiz is the club’s first signing, you have to imagine his top qualities align with the playing philosophy of Charlotte MLS. Since a high-tempo, short passing, attacking brand of football suites Ruiz, I’d imagine that’s the philosophy Krneta has instituted at the club.
Second, this signing is a coupe, one that secures the rights to a talented central midfielder who’s entering his prime. Facing relegation, Racing Santander was in no position to negotiate, giving Charlotte MLS the upper hand in negotiations. The player was leaving, it was just a matter of where.
Third, while he won’t be the star of the team, Ruiz will provide excellent value in Charlotte MLS’ midfield. His versatility and intelligence lead me to believe he’s undervalued. Playing on such a poor team, it’s understandable that he was overlooked by La Liga clubs.
In the end, this is an excellent, long-awaited signing. With the transfer window opening in phases for MLS teams, look for Charlotte MLS to continue buying. The market has seen incredible decreases in player valuations, so look for the league newest club to be buyers.