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Will Chris Mavinga continue to progress? A statistical comparison of Toronto FC’s improving centre-back

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The Frenchman has had an excellent couple of months, but does history suggest he can keep getting better?

Tagwa Moyo / Waking the Red

Chris Mavinga’s season probably didn’t begin the way he envisioned. His first few games were shaky, and the shadow of his considerable salary (the fifth-highest on Toronto FC’s books) was looming large in fans’ minds. However, starting with the 3-2 win against Minnesota United, he turned his game around. Since then, few MLS defenders have matched his level of quality.

Over his last seven league games (including the one against Minnesota), Mavinga has averaged a 7.24 WhoScored rating. That would’ve put him in the top five centre-backs in all of MLS last season and does not include his outstanding Canadian Championship performances, which also served to illustrate his improved play.

Mavinga hasn’t played a full season, and so it’s too early to claim that he is one of the best centre-backs in MLS. But can he maintain his current level of play throughout the second half of the season? Or should we adjust our expectations and anticipate a drop-off?

Although Mavinga’s success is surprising when you consider how his season began, it didn’t come completely out of nowhere. Mavinga was once a highly rated youth prospect, and played for clubs much larger than Toronto. Still, it might be expecting too much for him to continue to play at an All-Star level for the remainder of the season.

That being said, predicting how Mavinga will play throughout the second half is at best a guessing game. I thought I’d give my best estimate based on the past performance of players who moved from Ligue 1 to MLS during their careers. Unfortunately, there aren’t many players who have made that transition. Looking at the past five years, I only managed to find six players (four centre-backs and two central midfielders) who played enough games either side of their move to MLS to provide a meaningful comparison.

Ligue 1 players in MLS

Player Position Ligue 1 apps WhoScored rating MLS apps WhoScored rating
Player Position Ligue 1 apps WhoScored rating MLS apps WhoScored rating
Bakary Soumare CB 20 6.50 25 6.98
Ronald Zubar CB 15 6.85 17 6.86
Ahmed Kantari CB 31 6.90 13 6.62
Djimi Traore CB 11 6.45 30 7.13
Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi CM 15 6.57 24 6.79
Vincent Nogueira CM 15 6.37 29 6.74
Average N/A 17.83 6.61 23.00 6.85

Table shows players’ last season in Ligue 1 and first season in MLS.

The players I found were Bakary Soumaré, Ronald Zubar, Ahmed Kantari, Djimi Traore, Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi and Vincent Nogueira. The average WhoScored rating of those six players allowed me create a basic predictive model for Mavinga’s performance during the second half of the season.

Taking the difference between these players’ first season in MLS and their last year in Ligue 1 illustrates the difference in league quality and how successfully they transitioned to MLS. The average difference for these six players was a 0.25-point improvement on their WhoScsored rating. Since Mavinga averaged a 6.62 WhoScored rating over four seasons in Ligue 1, the model anticipates a 6.87 WhoScored rating for him in MLS. For reference, that would put him in line with Eriq Zavaleta’s 2016 season in terms of performance, which would constitute a solid debut campaign.

However, I believe that Mavinga can outperform the basic model for a few reasons. Firstly, he is playing in his preferred position with Toronto at centre-back. In Ligue 1, he was often shifted to left-back and only started 13 games at centre-back during those four years. Playing more at his favoured position should bring out the best in him and will likely push his WhoScored rating higher than the model predicts.

Secondly, Toronto is one of the best teams in the league. It is no secret that playing on a good team can mask the weaknesses of players. Since Mavinga plays for Toronto, I would expect him to perform better than if he played for a below-average team (read: the Montreal Impact). Although playing with better players is no guarantee of a higher level of performance, in general I’d argue that it has a positive effect and has seemed to benefit Mavinga during his current stretch of excellent play.

Tagwa Moyo / Waking the Red

Thirdly, Mavinga is younger - and in some cases much younger - than many of the players in the predictive model. At just 26 years of age, he is undoubtedly still in his prime. Some other Ligue 1 imports, including failed Toronto signing Ahmed Kantari, were four years older than Mavinga when they arrived in MLS. That age difference is another positive factor in pushing Mavinga’s expected performance above what the model predicts.

Finally, most of the players who moved from Ligue 1 to MLS experienced a significant improvement in their WhoScored rating. In fact, each player in the model except for Kantari did so. As more players make the transition from Ligue 1 to MLS, I predict that Kantari will become even more of an outlier. Although I decided to include him in the model, it is worth noting that if he was excluded then the average WhoScored rating increase would be 0.35 points, which would push Mavinga’s expected performance to 6.97. That’s a sizeable difference and demonstrates that Kantari’s performance stands out as a possible exception amongst the other former Ligue 1 players.

However, putting all of these variables into a performance estimate is where the guesswork comes into play. Determining how much these factors will influence his play would require more detailed analysis and goes beyond the scope of this article. But by taking the WhoScored rating from the predictive model and adjusting it upwards for the reasons above, I predict that Mavinga will record between a 6.95 to 7.05 rating during the second half of this season. I won’t be upset, though - and not nearly as surprised as I was by his first-half performance - if he continues to exceed expectations.