What do you think of when you hear the name “Forward Madison”? Wait! Sorry — let me clarify: What do you think of when you hear “Forward Madison”, but you’re not allowed to say “Kits”? Last season, you’d probably say Aaron Molloy. The Irish holding midfielder just completed a well-deserved move to Memphis 901 FC, and honestly the championship — or higher— is where the guy belongs. I initially wanted to write about Aaron back in early December but removed him from the queue when he re-signed with Madison. Now, I get to write about one of the best players to come out of USL League One last season. Let’s take a quick look at just how ready Aaron Molloy is for his new digs in Memphis.
Molloy was an essential cog in the Forward Madison machine. Just how essential was he to this Madison side? Here are a couple of stats to start us off: Molloy led the league (All positions) in accurate passes per 90 with 61. Only Ricky Ruiz and Damia Viader were able to create more chances than Molloy in 2021 with his 57. He won almost 58.5% of his ground duels per 90, and he scored 3 open play goals (1 penalty), all of them outside the box, and assisted 3 more. This man was well and truly all over the field this season, with basically the entire field being covered by his heat map. There are so many things to like about the former Forward Madison man and I want to cover some of my favorites below.
Essentially, Molloy could be called a “deep-lying playmaker”, tasked primarily with controlling possession, spraying passes to those in more advantageous positions, and getting the ball forward. In possession, he was instructed to drift to the “ball-side” of the field to help keep possession going and pick out switches of play or pass incisive balls between the lines. Defensive work for a player like him is important but often considered secondary. While Molloy was pretty good defensively, he was primarily concerned with what to do with the ball once it was won. Even so, he was averaging 2.7 tackles per 90 at a success rate of 70% and 1.32 interceptions per 90. The one downside is that he was dribbled past somewhat often (1.57 times per 90) — some of the reasoning for that may have been that he was already thinking about what he was going to do when he or a nearby teammate won the ball. Molloy also has surprisingly good recovery speed for a holding midfielder and swept up well in front of the defense when needed. He also has a decent understanding of space, always scanning the field to get information about his surroundings. He recognizes danger well both in and out of possession, giving him a leg up when receiving the ball or defending (we’ll see more about this later).
To understand Molloy’s role better in possession, you need to understand how Madison set their team up (see above). Madison essentially played some version of 3-1-6/3-1-4-2/3-1-3-3 in possession for a good portion of the year*, making Molloy a sort of anchor for the team in the middle of the field. As a deep-lying playmaker, taking up these positions allowed him to spray passes to the plethora of choices he had in front of him, whether out wide or between the lines of the opponent’s defense. While he wasn’t close to goal very often, having so many options in front of him played to his strengths and helped the team create dangerous chances. That being said, he didn’t turn down a chance to run at the defense as another method of chance creation. His marauding runs forward put a lot of pressure on back pedaling defenses in transition.
Despite often being the furthest player back besides the defense, he created so many chances for this Forward Madison side because of his slick and precise passing, with 54 key passes and 57 total chances created on the season. He managed 86% passing accuracy on the season and completed the second most long balls of any midfielder in League One. He also ranked 6th in distance per pass when compared to other midfielders in the league. While many of his long passes could be described as “switches of play”, he was not a “safe passer” by any means. While keeping possession via short passes was a huge part of his game for Madison, he was quite capable of breaking down opponents with incisive passing. Here are a few pass maps and videos, highlighting his ability. (whichever direction the red “incomplete passes” are going is the offensive direction of play)
Aaron has great concentration and anticipation which aid his shooting and passing ability significantly. While he was never going to score 10 goals from the positions he took this season, he added dynamism to an attack that needed all the help it could get at times. His three goals outside the box were all things of beauty, usually scored by arriving very late outside the box to pop one in from range.
One last quality I want to highlight is his ability to sense danger and take in information about his surroundings. When you watch Aaron play, you can see that his eyes are always up and his head is always moving, scanning the area around him for danger, potential passes, or lanes to run into nearby. This made him so good at evading danger from pressing opponents when receiving the ball. So often, he was able to escape danger simply because he knew what was around him. His scanning combined with great vision, technical quality, and strength made him a force to be reckoned with in the midfield.
Aaron Molloy was always a player destined for a return to the Championship. From the moment he arrived in League One, you could tell that he was different gravy and spent a whole season proving it. Now, Aaron is going back up and is ready to prove that the Championship (or more) is exactly where he belongs.
*even when their base formation was 4-3-3, someone would often drop into a third defender spot initially before pushing up slightly as the ball moved further up the field.