Getting the Most out of Brenner
FC Cincinnati broke their transfer record, and damn near broke the MLS transfer record, bringing in Brazilian striker Brenner this season. With a fee of around $13 million, a lot of eggs were placed in a 21 year old basket. You would be right to assume that spending that much money on a player would then make that player the focal point of not just the attack, but the entire roster.
And it's not often when a team in MLS pays a eight figure transfer fee. In fact there's only been 8 in MLS's history. Brenner is in rarefied air when it comes to profiles of players in MLS.
Yet you'd be forgiven if you forget he is even on the team. He has notched one goal, a penalty, so far this season. He has a paltry total of 7 shots so far on the season with just two on target. For the stat-heads, his xG on the season is 1.5, but his non-penalty expected goals is a mere 0.8. For a man brought in to score goals, not only is he not scoring them, he's not even taking shots.
The thing is, this isn't Brenner's fault. At least not yet.
To have a $13 million player only take 7 shots in about 3000 minutes means something is going very wrong. Either he's being played out of position (more on this later) or the offense isn't clicking. This would be the equivalent of Joe Burrow attempting 20 passes through three games for the Bengals. Something is amiss.
When at Sao Paulo, Brenner was a fox-in-the-box. He thrived on chaos in front of goal and had a nose for smashing in close-range shots. Taking a moment of confusion and turning it into a goal is a common theme in his highlight reels. If you look at where he scored his goals in Brazil, they're almost always within the 6 yard box, not just the 18. And he was not a back-to-goal striker looking to lay the ball off, in fact he was below average in chances created in Brazil for strikers. He plays a defined position and is very, very good at it.
Which is why it's so weird FC Cincinnati does not play in a way that highlights his skill-set. Least we forget the time Brenner was forced to deputize for Acosta as the number 10 against Orlando. A position he had never really played in his last two years professionally. The misuse of such an expensive player is a weird hallmark of a Jaap Stam team sheet. And Kubo played defensive midfielder that match... ok that's another conversation.
Right now the preferred formation for FCC is the 5-3-2. In this setup the wingbacks are expected to provide all of the width. These outside backs are not inverted, meaning their dominant foot is on the side of the field they play on. This is characteristic of a setup that would have these outside backs crossing into the box. The problem with this is Brenner isn't very good in the air. Brenner's inability to win aerial duels was seen as his one big weakness as a striker in Brazil and we've seen nothing in Cincinnati to make us think that's changed.
To make matters worse, in the 5-3-2, the lack of attacking options up top prevent FCC from creating the chaos that Brenner thrives in. the 3-2 in the 5-3-2 has been Kubo and Cruz playing ball-winning midfield roles, Acosta being given the freedom to move anywhere on the field, and giving Brenner a deeper-lying strike partner in either Locadia or Barreal. This setup prevents FCC from throwing numbers forward and creating those chances in the box that Brenner feeds off of. Acosta tries to take on the defense himself and then pass it out to the wingback to either cross it for Brenner or Acosta and a wingback attempt to work the ball into the final third together usually resulting in a turnover. This is rarely working out.
The final product is just giving Brenner really poor service. So how do you fix this?
How I see it, the solution to getting the most out of Brenner is a 4-2-3-1 with inverted wingers. So when those outside backs do push up and overlap, the winger can cut inside. Adding Acosta to this mix allows FCC to overload one side of the box, giving Brenner an opportunity to score on a deflection or receive a quick pass in traffic. Acosta, Brenner, a winger, and that side's fullback provide 4 attackers on one side of the box. Kubo are both outlets and clogging up the middle ready to break up a counter. Running this double pivot with two fast and capable midfielders would enable the rest of the team to open up more.
There are plenty of drawbacks here. The backline needs to be able to cover for the outside-back who goes on overlapping runs. And the double pivot of Cruz and Kubo need to be on their game in breaking up attacks before they materialize while also linking play from the defense to the offense themselves, which has proven difficult.
The current setup of relying on crosses from fullbacks into a half-hearted attack is not only not working, but frankly wasting the talents of one of the most exciting prospects in the league. And it's only a matter of time before it is declared that Brenner is a bust and that's the reason why the team is struggling.