Some fans may have questions about whether or not Matias Laba is worthy of a Designated Player slot, but what should be beyond question is the fact that the Argentine defensive midfielder has been a very solid player since joining Toronto FC. He now has 16 MLS games under his belt (roughly half a season for most players) and there are enough statistics available to take a closer look at just what Laba has brought to the squad.
At just 21-years-old Laba is younger than basically every other starting DM around MLS which is a big plus for him. The negative is that he is one of a select few defensive players in the league to be commanding a DP salary even though in the case of Laba it comes with the reduced cap hit of a young DP.
When looking at the stats there are a number of catergories in which Laba compares quite favourably with the players who are widely considered to be among the top defensive midfielders in the league. For the most part, he holds his own against the likes of Kyle Beckerman, Osvaldo Alonso, Patrice Bernier, or Marcelo Sarvas.
On the defensive side of the ball Laba leads the league in tackles per game having made an average of 4.9 this season. Second place on that list Alonso who is all the way down at 4 per game. This is a tough stat to judge by though as clubs that don't hold on to the ball well are likely going to see their defenders make more tackles; which is the case for Toronto as both Richard Eckersley and Ryan Richter also find themselves in the top 20 for this category.
When it comes to interceptions Laba is slightly further down the list as his 3.1 interceptions per game has him tied for 35th place in the league, while Dejan Jakovic, Glauber, and Chris Schuler all have more than 5 per game. Orio Rosell is the top midfielder in the category with a 4.3 average. Along with Rosell, Jun Marques Davidson (3.6) and Alsono (3.4) are the only midfielders putting up a better number than Laba.
When you combine interceptions and tackles per game this is how the top 10 midfielders look:
Matias Laba 8.0
Oriel Rosell 7.4
Osvaldo Alonso 7.4
Hendry Thomas 6.2
Marcelo Sarvas 6.2
Diego Chara 5.8
Jun Marques Davidson 5.1
Kyle Beckerman 5.0
Patrice Bernier 4.8
As you can see, Laba is clearly top of the heap when it comes to breaking up opposition attacks and even though some of that comes down to TFC being under so much pressure in many games, that alone is not enough to dismiss his impressive numbers. Consider that Jeremy Hall has played in a similar role this season on the same club and only managed a combined average of 3.8 tackles and interceptions per game this season.
It is also impressive that Laba does all that ball winning without committing a lot of fouls. His 1.2 fouls per game is well back of the worst offenders in the league as many of the top midfielders in the league average closer to 2 fouls in each appearance.
There is one defensive category where Laba stands out for the wrong reasons. Who Scored keeps track of the number of times a player is dribbled past in a game and Laba is top of that list, being beaten by his man twice a game. He is up top along with Sarvas while other top midfielders are down around the 1 per game mark. It is a hard stat to quantify though but when you consider that Laba wins the ball 8 times a game it is no surprise that he gets beaten on occasion since he is clearly heavily involved in play.
So it is clear that Laba is as good as anyone in MLS at winning the ball back for his team and is strong on the defensive side of the game. That is only half of what he needs to do for TFC though as the club also counts on him to turn the ball around and start attacks, providing a link between the defenders and the attack.
Laba's passing completion percentage this season is a tidy 82.1%. That's right up there with the top players in his position as Alonso leads the league at 88.4%, Chara is at 87.4%, Nathan Sturgis at 85.2, Beckerman 82.7, and Bernier at 81.5% while Laba is tied for 46th place in the entire league.
His tidy percentage combines well with the fact that Laba is among the league leaders in passes completed as he is averaging 46.8 passes per game. That mark is the 20th best around the league and though it trails Beckerman (69.8), Alonso (55.2), Bernier (54), Rosell (53.6), Chara (53.3), and Sturgis (52.5) he is right in the mix with the leagues top passers and most involved players.
The final stat where Laba pops up near the top of the rankings is the number of fouls that he draws. The Argentine is 15th in the league drawing 1.9 fouls per game so far this season. Everyone above him on that list is a far more attacking minded player and Alonso is the second highest ranked DM on that list and he only draws 1.5 fouls per game.
The stats paint a very good picture of what Laba has been able to do very early in his MLS playing career. He has come in and put up numbers that compare well with every top defensive midfielder around the league on both sides of the ball.
Laba has proven that he can win the ball as well as anyone in the league but the most impressive part is that after he wins it he has proven more than capable of keeping it for his team. He has held his own with the best of the league when it comes to passing the ball and maintaing possession which is impressive considering how often TFC has seemed to struggle to string together a few passes in a row this season.
The stats show that Laba has been nothing short of TFC's best player this season and if any defensive player is worth handing a DP contract to he deserves to be on that list. He has been a game changer for TFC even if it is not directly on the scoresheet, he does have a game winning goal though, as his solid play has been a major part in the club's improved defensive performances.
There are some out there who would dismiss all these stats though and suggest that all DPs in the league should be like Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry, or any number of other attacking players who make the big money to score goals. Toronto may well add a player like that in the coming months but when the club finally does manage to improve their attacking options they will still need someone to win the ball and get it to those attackers and that will be Laba.
It may be early in his MLS career but Laba is already turning heads around Toronto and hopefully soon the rest of the league will take notice of just how talented the 21-year-old midfielder really is.