Albeit caveats, there are plenty of things to celebrate with the Loons’ three game winning streak (and four wins out of five). Yes, those wins all came at home, and they were flat against Houston away. Yes, Minnesota played some teams that fielded a sub-par lineup (LAFC missed three starting defenders, Toronto was short Jozy Altidore, Real Salt Lake lacked spark until an impact sub in Joao Plata). Perhaps some of those teams just aren’t that fantastic (in the five games preceding their games against Minnesota United, those five teams combined for an 8-9-8 record). But it’s undeniable that Minnesota is playing well in recent days after switching to a new formation.
There are certain eye test things you can tell about how Minnesota is clicking in the 3-5-2. Francisco Calvo appears more confident with two extra players in the center back line. Darwin Quintero’s been pushed into a more effective forward role. Christian Ramirez is scoring. Miguel Ibarra is all over the place. The trio of Ibson, Rasmus Schuller, and Collen Warner seem to be working with greater cogency, with Warner in particular more content to stay in a reserved role. Bobby Shuttleworth is still making good to great saves.
However, I like looking at data, and because Minnesota has hit the six-game mark of the 3-5-2 as opposed to the variations on a four-man back line setup, it feels to be the right time to look at what the team’s stats look like after the shift. To do this, I scrubbed through the game stats on WhoScored for all of Minnesota’s MLS games in 2018, adding in expected goal info from American Soccer Analysis. I then pulled the team’s averages in 37 different metrics, both in how MNUFC performed and how their opponents fared.
The following graphs show the three primary formational scenarios this year: The four-man backline pre-Darwin Quintero (a 2-0-3 record for those five games), the four-man with Darwin Quintero (3-1-6), and the 3-5-2 (4-0-2). The numbers in each bar represent the per-game average in each formation as a percentage of the season average; thus, a number above 100% means the statistic has increased and a number below 100% means it’s decreased.
I’ve broken them into four categories: Minnesota defensive actions, opponent offensive actions, Minnesota offensive actions, and opponent defensive actions. One note about the numbers for the 3-5-2: during the Dallas game, Minnesota reverted to a 4-2-3-1 when Wyatt Omsberg was taken off in the 65th minute, so to account for that shift, I took the stats from the first 65 minutes and extrapolated them out to the full 95 minutes the team played. It didn’t really change the overall numbers, but it’s worth noting.
A couple things stand out in figure one. Whereas the Loons started the year attempting a number of off-ball interventions (blocks, interceptions, and clearances), the 3-5-2 appears to have resulted in a shift to on-ball interventions, with the tackles going up. The MNUFC back line has been much better in terms of their measures of aerial prowess, seeing a jump in their clearances and their percentage of winning aerial duels. Adding Brent Kallman to the line has been critical in this area, having won 2.375 aerials per game in his last eight starts. The Loons have also cut down on fouls, and are slightly ahead in seeing their opponents lose the ball (either through their own misplay or through a successful tackle). With those being said, reducing the amount of blocks and interceptions shows Minnesota choosing against pressuring passing lanes in favor of players.
The result of the defensive changes is somewhat evident. Minnesota is allowing fewer opponent shots on target, fewer key passes, and ultimately both fewer goals and expected goals. This comes despite giving the opposition marginally more possession and shots on target, with more dribbles and a higher rate of successful ones. In a 3-5-2, this makes some sense. Minnesota plays a very low block on the press, so when the team centers even more of its defensive weight in the box it will allow the opposition greater time on the ball and less encumbered passing. However, possession and passing movement is scarcely meaningful when it doesn’t result in an end chance. When combined with the clearance rate, it certainly passes that the Loons are happy to give up possession in less meaningful areas.
This might not shock observers, but Minnesota is scoring a lot more goals with the 3-5-2 than ever before. It’s not as if these goals are totally luck; while not at the same level as their actual goals scored, the Loons are increasing their rate of expected goals, and the number of key passes is up significantly between the introduction of Quintero into the lineup and the shift. While the shots are up as well, the accuracy of those shots rocketing ahead could be behind much of the benefit. Another aspect that has changed in recent days: Christian Ramirez has gotten more productive touches in the final third over the last couple games, following his nine against New England with four against LAFC (not including the dummy on Miguel Ibarra’s goal). With a second forward in Quintero dribbling much more in the midfield and drawing greater scrutiny from defenses, Ramirez should be able to keep getting forward with less concern for his connecting play.
It’s interesting to note that the counting stats aside from scoring are actually shrinking during this time; MNUFC are completing fewer overall passes and having less possession per game and less touches than the pre-Darwin era, while the passing success is roughly flat. This doesn’t quite shock me, as Minnesota has looked to counter a bit more; the introduction of Romario Ibarra should actually drive the number of dribbles in relation to touches and passes.
As for how teams are playing against Minnesota, it’s intriguing to note that, for the most part, teams are finding themselves forced to compete 1v1 at a higher rate versus playing the pass. Blocks, clearances, and interceptions have all gone way down, perhaps because fewer opportunities have come up in the last six games. On the flipside, teams are trying to get a greater amount of tackles in, and ball control (via overall dispossessions) has been a concern since the introduction of Darwin Quintero. Regardless, the amount of chances created and converted in the 3-5-2 and the reduced efficiency of opposing defenses combine to suggest that the offense is working much better. One caveat: the opposition clearances numbers for the pre-Darwin era included an astounding 60 interceptions recorded by Atlanta in the famous 1-0 defeat where the Loons just lobbed cross after cross into the box after they went down to 10 men, and their blocks number was also outsizedly high.
What these stats point to is a change in not just how the Loons approach their formational identity, but also their formational style. Adrian Heath started the year preaching offensive production via control of the ball, passing, and movement; on the other end, the goal was to intervene in passing as much as possible and clear out the opponent’s mistakes. In response, teams learned that MNUFC—both before and after the introduction of Darwin Quintero—would get frustrated easily by having crosses taken away with aerial prowess and decent organization, and would get beaten by being both aggressive and error-prone the further back they get pressed. Quintero’s addition initially shifted focus from these problems by giving an avenue for offensive movement, but between the shift away from an attacking midfielder with complementary defensive work in Miguel Ibarra and the broader malaise that Francisco Calvo experienced before the World Cup, the Loons actually became a worse defensive team without much offensive spark.
Minnesota has since gotten the best offensive production of the season in this recent stretch by getting a higher amount of productive work out of less time on the ball, fewer passes, and fewer touches, opting instead for dribbles and opportunities for accurate shots. They’re allowing fewer opportunities for teams to take the ball in traffic, forcing the opponent to attempt tackles on the ball. Defensively, they’re playing more compact, improving their aerial ability as a last line of defense while giving up greater possession and touches in inopportune places. If anything, they’re turning away from their early season willingness to challenge for off-ball interventions, reducing the work rate a bit and focusing on reducing chance creation in a formation that alleviates the strain points that come from disorganization.
What’s unclear at this point, though, is how they move forward with a run of games away from home. After playing five of six games at home, Minnesota plays six of the next seven on the road. The team hasn’t been effective at all away from TCF Bank Stadium, with their only three points on the season coming in week two against Orlando. Some solace can be gained from having played to a 2-1-2 record against their upcoming road opponents, but that should be minimized a bit by the lack of a clean sheet since beating Montreal at home in May and the lack of a road clean sheet since the NASL days (October 2016 against Puerto Rico FC). The hope has to be that confidence sets in from their work against LAFC to at least drive the offense, with a Vancouver side that runs hot and cold hopefully turning the defensive work easier.
Another possible wrinkle: how much longer can this team ride with an unchanged lineup? Christian Ramirez may have played himself into starting over incoming designated player Angelo Rodriguez for now—much to our editor’s shock—but Rodriguez’s entry will require the Loons to open both an international and, from my calculations, a senior roster spot. This could mean that Alexi Gomez, who has started the last three games but came out with a knock after an indifferent first half hour against LAFC for Eric Miller, could be up for a loan recall or transfer. Shipping him out would either create space for offensive work with each flank featuring an Ibarra, or Miller could play as a defensive anchor against a talented winger.
It’s also worth considering that Ibson only played 206 minutes in the five games in all competitions in June, after missing two games in May for rest; since then he’s played all but 16 minutes available. Should another rest period be needed, the talismanic Brazilian might need to be spelled by his countryman Maximiano to provide stouter defense, or a potential new signing as the central playmaker.