Whatever success Nashville SC finds in 2019, Bolu Akinyode will be at the center. Literally.
The 6'2" holding midfielder is an imposing figure in the center of the pitch, but ironically the work he does and his role in the team is often under appreciated by those who watch. He's not a flashy player. He doesn't beat defenders on the dribble. He doesn't score much (but when he does, it's something special). But his role in this Nashville SC side is crucial for their success.
The role of a holding midfielder is simultaneously simple and incredibly difficult. Traditionally referred to as a number 6, this player typically takes up a position just in front of his defense. It's his job to read the game and break up his opponent's attack before it becomes dangerous, acting as a shield in front of the back line, and sometimes even dropping in between his defenders to act as a third center back. He's tasked with helping start attacking moves from deep, and quickly moving the ball when in possession. He has to have a good positional awareness and ability to quickly find players in space. He needs a good range of passing. He has to recycle possession and constantly be an outlet for players who are under pressure. He's often forced to find seams to pass through with all eleven opponents in front of him, closing him down, with very few options behind him.
Akinyode does this job really, really well. In 2018, he completed 90.2% of his passes. That's impressive by itself, but even more impressive is the fact that he only passed backwards 17% of the time. 83% of his passes were directed forwards or towards the wing. While a typical critique of holding midfielders is that they avoid pressure by dropping the ball back to their centerbacks, this isn't the case with Akinyode.
Akinyode was a huge defensive presence for Nashville, completed a team-high 99 tackles (3.09 per game) and 43 interceptions (1.34 per game). He also lead the Boys in Gold with 210 duels won (Matt LaGrassa was closest with 144).
Akinyode appeared in 32 of Nashville's 35 league matches, starting 32 and only being taken off twice (one of those substitutions came in the 110th minute in Nashville's playoff match in Cincinnati). Only four field players logged more minutes than the midfielder.
Perhaps what is most impressive, though, was his performance against teams who finished in playoff position. In 15 matches, Akinyode completed 95.6% of his passes, including a perfect 100% in Nashville's 2-0 win against Louisville City in May.
Building off of his 2018 season and carrying it into 2019 will be crucial to Nashville's push for a USL title in their final year before moving to Major League Soccer. With the strong signings Nashville has made so far, he should have much more clear passing options ahead of him. Hopefully he'll begin to take the occasional risk in possession, trying to split defense or play a ball through a channel to one of his forwards. If he can continue developing into more of a deep-lying playmaker, he has the potential to make the transition to MLS with Nashville and continue to be an important piece to their side in 2020. Only 24 years old, he'll reach his prime at the perfect time to make an impact.