Monday, March 25, 2013

Montreal vs. New York - 03/23/2013

This was an extremely interesting and insightful game about the tactics of these two respective sides. Both sides played almost exactly as we would have expected: Montreal defending deep and hitting on the counter and New York pressing higher and dominating possession.

Montreal Defend Deep
This shouldn't surprise anyone at this point. This season Montreal are sitting extremely deep, absorbing pressure from their opponents and hitting quickly on the counter. Most announcers and pundits are calling Montreal's formation a 4-1-4-1, but in practice it is a 4-4-1-1. There were several times where Montreal were defending with 10 behind the ball and Di Vaio left alone up top. They are organized and disciplined enough to only concede half-chances (New York's most dangerous opportunities were from Juninho set pieces played into the box).

L'Impact's line of confrontation wasn't that abnormal for MLS sides - applying initial pressure near the midfield line. However, as New York penetrated Montreal's initial line of midfield defenders, they all continued to drop deeper to eliminate the amount of time New York had on the ball in the middle. New York had plenty of shots, but the majority of them were speculative.

New York Press High
Since Montreal was conceding so much space, it makes sense for New York to press high up the field since they had so many players forward already. There were many instances where the Red Bulls had multiple players pressing Montreal around their 18-yard box. A few times they won the ball that high up the field, but were unable to create anything with the high-won possession. I don't think I've seen another team press as high up the field this season as New York did in this game.

Montreal Counters
New York's high pressure meant that there was plenty of space between the lines for Montreal midfielders to run into, receive the ball and relieve the pressure from the backline. The relative speed of transition for the two teams is what allowed Montreal to create most of their chances. Montreal has very clearly been instructed to get forward as quickly as possible when they win possession. Most often, they would play the ball wide to one of the outside midfielders who would then play it back centrally. When that ball back into the middle was played is when Di Vaio would start his curling or diagonal run in behind Holgersson and Pearce. If the initial outlet wide wasn't there, Montreal simply thumped the ball forward and attempted to win the second ball before trying to slot Di Vaio through. This is exactly how they scored the lone goal in the game with a brilliant one-touch through ball by Bernier.

Aside from quick counter attacks, Montreal really didn't have much of anything going forward. They were content to continue to defend deep, protect their one-goal lead, and take whatever opportunity they could to try to find a seam to play Di Vaio through. He had a couple other chances where he could have done better or was caught just offside, but his runs wreaked havoc on New York's back-line despite him being the only Montreal player they had to worry about all night.

Juninho Controls New York's Attack
New York had the bulk of possession in this game, as was conceded by Montreal. Most of that possession even happened in Montreal's half. Juninho was clearly the one pulling the strings. He would drop deep to collect the ball (and had no defensive responsibilities to speak of) and distribute the ball wide. Espindola and Luyindula took turns dropping between Montreal's lines to collect the ball and would, again, distribute the ball wide. When New York had the ball wide in the attacking third, Juninho made many 40-yard runs toward the top of the box, but New York simply wasn't able to play to his feet at an appropriate time for him to create a chance for someone else. His off-ball movement (or complete lack thereof at appropriate times) showed the cunning of the wily veteran that he is. I look forward to see if he is able to link up with Titi and think that could be a dangerous combination.

There were plenty of times, especially in the first half, where Juninho was clearly frustrated. He was clearly trying to direct the play, but his teammates were making decisions Juninho didn't like. That is another story-line to follow for New York this season: will Juninho start mailing it in or will he continue to put in knowledgeable performances like the one against Montreal?

Late-game Changes
Brandon Barklage rightfully picked up a second yellow and was sent off about half-way through the second half. However, Montreal was still content to sit deep and try to take a chance on the counter. Granted, Montreal did seem to create better comparative numbers in attack after New York went down to ten, but they simply could not time their runs and passes properly and squandered several opportunities they should have taken to put the game away. Both teams used several subs without any significant tactical changes and the game continued exactly the way it had during the first 70-80 minutes.

Final score: Montreal 1 - New York 0
New York dominated possession, but Montreal dictated how this game was played. This has been the trend in all of Montreal's games this season and here they sit atop the table with maximum points. The only thing New York looked poor in was tracking the runs of Di Vaio. Aside from that, they played a good game and on another day could have won this match. On the other hand, Montreal could have done better on their counters and could have bagged two or three.

Montreal has officially joined my surprisingly small list of teams who have a clear style of play. It isn't my preferred style, but at least it is a clear and definite style, which demands some respect.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Philadelphia vs. Kansas City - 03/02/2013

First kick has finally happened! We get the opportunity in a meaningful game to see just what style and formation teams hope to play this season and who earned the right to be a starter. As with all MLS off-seasons, there were plenty of personnel changes which might result in tactical changes. Both of these teams lost and/or added big pieces in the winter months and look to start the season right. The defining tactical note in this game is the level of Philadelphia's pressure. The tighter and quicker they pressed when Kansas City had the ball, the better the Union were.

Final Score: Philadelphia 1 : Kansas City 3

Early Philadelphia Pressing
The first 25 minutes of this game were completely dominated by Philadelphia. They were pressing high and their midfielders were closing down every pass made into the midfield. Kansas City were absolutely frazzled by the lack of time they had on the ball in all parts of the field and struggled to string together more than one or two passes. Philadelphia's central three were rotating fantastically to create pressure/cover situations to allow teammates to try to win the ball without fear of conceding too much space if they got beat.

Philly would win the ball early and often high up the pitch and immediately look to play the ball forward. Generally, they found success playing over the top to Le Toux, creating several dangerous chances. The first goal happened exactly the way the entire first portion of the game went - a sloppy touch in the middle third by an SKC player near two Union players with a fantastic early ball in behind the SKC defenders to Le Toux with a beautiful first touch and quick strike to open the season.

On that goal, last season's defender of the year, Matt Besler, completely loses Le Toux to give him the space needed to receive that ball. This actually happened several times and many of Philly's chances in the first half happened because of positioning mistakes by Besler. Several times he was pulled too far from the middle, allowing space for Philly's attackers to move into. He also struggled to find the line of the rest of the defensive unit early in the game and kept players onside a few times. Unfortunately for the Philly, they weren't able to capitalize again on SKC's shaky early start.

Zusi Tucks Inside
Though Zusi doesn't deserve credit for creating the first goal for Sporting, he comes very far towards the center during Convey's run down the sideline. Zusi's inside drift put him in the right position to finish a rebound back into the middle. The announcers are crediting the change in momentum of this game to this goal. However, the actual change in momentum happened about 10 minute prior when Zusi started seeking the ball.

To start the game, Graham Zusi stayed wide and SKC struggled to hold possession under Philly's pressure. About half way through the first half, Zusi starts to come inside to collect the ball instead of waiting to receive it out wide. This allowed Sporting to start to link together periods of possession and recycle the ball from side to side. Philly's early pressure was no longer as effective because of the ball-seeking movement and precise passing of Zusi. A side effect of Kansas City holding the ball better was that Philly wasn't springing their attacks as early and stopped playing as many balls over-the top for Le Toux.

Throughout the rest of the game, Zusi's desire to be involved shaped how well SKC controlled the ball, possession, and the game itself. SKC began having possession further up the pitch with combination play through the midfield and generally looked more dangerous.

Second-Half Pressure by SKC
At half-time, the teams basically switched their defensive pressure strategies. Philly started allowing SKC players more time to collect the ball and dropped their line of confrontation deeper. Kansas City started pressing harder when Philly made passes in the midfield and pushed their line of confrontation a bit higher. This was the key talking point in the off-season for SKC: would they bey able to maintain the same high-pressure system without the impressive workrate of Kamara and Espinoza. The second half of this game showed that they can still find success using the high-pressure system, though it is just a single half and not a large enough sample to definitely say they will be able to press as effectively as last season.

Philly was no-longer winning the midfield battle. SKC midfielders weren't allowing Philly the platform to send early balls to Le Toux as they immediately worked to close down the Philly player with the ball. Since the main plan from Philly was route one to Le Toux, they struggled to create offensive penetration. Philly's attacking substitutes did them no favors as the rest of their players' legs grew tired and were unable to challenge Sporting's quick ground-passing game. SKC had an even easier time of possession in the midfield and were able to successfully control the tempo of the game after their second goal.

These teams both look similar to how they did last season, despite personnel changes.  Kansas City was eventually able to cope with Philly's pressure and they hope they can just write it off as early-season jitters. Philly might feel dissatisfied with dominating the entire first period of the game yet not getting an end result, but they have some positive to take away. They were effective when pressuring and Le Toux's off-ball movement was creating space for other players to move into. At this point, I think it's likely that SKC will be vying for top of the Eastern Conference while Philly will have to battle for a playoff slot.