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Carlos Bacca is a soccer nerd

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The Milan striker’s portly body and brilliant mind are in constant harmony, and even among the magicians of the sport, he deserves his own ovation.

AC Milan v SS Lazio - Serie A Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Carlos Bacca scored a very good goal against Lazio. It was Milan’s first of the game and his fifth of the season. It’s a simple goal. The defender’s mistake grants Juraj Kucka an opportunity to take advantage of a compromised defense, and he does so by playing a through-ball for Bacca.

Bacca had, almost in anticipation of the mistake, peeled away from the last defender. He takes one touch to push him into the box, before scoring with a reverse finish to the keeper’s left.

It’s profound in its simplicity. He doesn’t waste any movements or try to complicate the game. There’s no need to take more than one touch, and there’s no need to try a fancy finish. Just be efficient. And if there’s one word that can describe Bacca, it’s efficient. He’s only been at Milan for a full year, with this being the start of his second. In that time he’s taken 45 shots on target, and scored 23 goals.

Bacca isn’t blessed with incredible technique. He’s not fast, noticeably strong, a great dribbler, or even a great passer. But he’s a deadly finisher. This is because he does the simple things well. He reads the game, makes the right runs, and when he’s in a good position to finish, he doesn’t fluff his chances. Even his celebrations are minimalist. He’s the Diogenes of strikers.

The above goal is great, but it’s nothing compared to the one he scored against Sampdoria the game before.

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One of my favorite things about soccer is that it’s difficult to measure. Not impossible, just difficult. It presents a great and fun challenge. We have the standard measurements of goals, assists, tackles, and so on, and we’ve gotten much better at measuring deeper analytics, like quality of chances and goals, types of passes, and how team formations and tactics help shape the outcome of a game.

Yet, so much of what happens on the soccer field — Messi wriggling away from 4-5 defenders who have set a theoretically perfect trap, for example — is hard enough to quantify that in our excitement, many conclude that it can only be magic. It takes us back to our tribalist days. Just ask Ray Hudson.

These instances don’t have to be as big and as obvious as Messi’s dribbling skills. Most of them very subtle things, which means that we often group them into very broad and ambiguous terms.

Bacca is the type of striker that we would say has “good movement” — the same as Robin van Persie. You can calculate a lot of this by showing where players pick up the ball and where they do most of their work. But good movement doesn’t just mean where players find pockets of space, but exactly what they do with that space. The action within it.

* * *

Bacca absolutely embarrasses his defender without touching the ball. He uses his initial run to take the defender towards the ball, to Suso. And as soon as the defender is sprinting backwards — his body facing the goal but his attention on Suso, and the ball because he has to concentrate on them, too — Bacca fades behind him.

Suso is a conspirator here, as well. He delayed his pass long enough, so Bacca had the time to publicly shame another grown man with his run. A big element of this is that Suso is so comfortable and dangerous on the ball that his defender is afraid to close him down. He then plays a great, simple ball to Bacca that forces the defender to keep his attention on it, which meant that this poor defender has to follow it, forcing him to try to turn his hips and practically backpedal to stop the chance. He almost loses his balance in doing so.

The ideal thing would have been for Bacca to take a touch with his left foot and finish in the bottom of the the near post. His momentum was already taking him that way and his left foot is good enough to score that goal. Instead, he takes it with the outside of his right, which still takes him to the left. But once there he doesn’t just slot it in, he flicks it with another reverse finish.

The fun part is that neither the control nor the finish is a mistake, or showboating. His intent was always to finish at that far post, and controlling the ball with his right foot gives him the best chance to do so. His run and the pass from Suso not only confuses the defender, it forces the keeper to sprint to cover that near post.

If Bacca tries to finish there, the keeper has a good chance of diving and saving it. If he goes far-post, against the keeper’s momentum, it forces the shot-stopper off-balance in the same way his run did to the defender. The keeper even dives to that near-post in expectancy.

It’s an awesome finish, but the greatness of it is in its practicality.

Now, there’s nothing new or special about any of this. Most strikers know to finish against the keeper’s momentum and just as many are taught how to use their movement to lose defenders. The same is true for wingers and Suso. Creative players are taught to draw defenders in and cause anxiety with their ability by going at them as often as possible.

But that’s just knowledge. The application of it is what’s rare. What Bacca and great strikers like him have is a high level of fluid intelligence. He has all the knowledge of what to do, but even more important, he has the analytical brain to process the appropriate situation for each action and the courage to go through with it, even while under intense pressure. Courage might be the most important aspect of all of it. There are loads more talented players than Bacca in the world, but you won’t find many as smart as him.

Intelligence is what’s hard to measure. It manifests itself in reactions — small and sometimes unnoticeable ones — to constantly changing situations. Not all of them are as vivid as Bacca turning the ground into a slip-and-slide for that poor young man. Some are as minuscule as the striker’s body shape while taking a shot, how quickly he can turn his hips, or how fast he can take a touch and shoot before the defenders react.

Or even, for movement, staying in the defender’s blind spot or offside long enough for him to forget about your presence, before coming back onside or in front of him to make the run for a pass that takes him completely off-guard. The Thierry Henry. These subtle movements are context to the blunt measurables that we have now, but they’re sometimes more important in explaining a game or what makes a player special than our standard practices.

* * *

I was hesitant at first to love Bacca. Not because of talent or pedigree, but for purely aesthetic reasons. He looks like a Lucha mask, and I can’t just accept someone like that into my heart immediately. But watching Bacca is like watching a great scientist at work — it’s problem-solving at incredible speeds. What he does seems obvious after the fact, but knowing how a magic trick is done doesn’t mean that one can be a magician.

Not too many strikers in world soccer, let alone human beings, can score 23 goals in 45 on-target shots. Even if they have as much knowledge as Bacca, they lack the ability to apply it at the right times, and use it as well as he does. His portly body and brilliant mind are in constant harmony, and even among the magicians of the sport, he deserves his own ovation.