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A Team in Transition: Turning Defense Into Attack

Is “Loonesota” catching up with the world and looking to play more in transition?

January 21, 2020 - Blaine, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United defender Michael Boxall organizing his team in preseason training
(Photo by Tim C McLaughlin)

When you think of a team that dominates transitions in world soccer, Liverpool comes to mind. One of the signature characteristics of Jürgen Klopp is his use of gegenpressing or counter pressing, which is the technique of pressing high up the field. The idea of counter pressing is simple. As soon as the team in possession loses the ball they should be trying to win it back. The further up the field and the quicker a team gets it back, the better they are at counter pressing. The whole team has narrow down options for the opposition.

This is what people think of as transitions, but transitions are more than that, they are any time a team is changing between phases of the game. A team can be transitioning while never losing or gaining the ball simply by changing their structure they are playing in. The easiest way to do this, even for coaches, is to identify their shape and how it changes in different key areas. Whether it is in possession of the ball or without the ball, the shape changes depending on where the ball is and the runs the opposition makes. As you can imagine this is all very fluid in a game which is why you need your players on the field to make the right decisions.

Enter the 2019 Loons. When the occasional person asked me why I thought the Loons were better then the previous two teams it came down to the players on the field making better decisions, especially in transition. Minnesota United killed teams in transition last year, and they will most likely try to do the same in 2020. If you want to know what I believe the Loons need to do if they want to be better check out my previous post about keeping possession.

So let’s start with the easiest transition to see on the field, when you lose possession of the ball near the opponents 18. When you look at the picture below keep this in mind from earlier, “the further up the field and the quicker a team gets it back, the better they are at counter pressing.”

Start with the 9, a striker in a single striker system needs to divide the field and discourage the opponent from switching the field of play. This allows the players around them to step up a level with confidence and try to win the ball higher up the field. MNUFC did not press very high because of this, our strikers struggled at this skill and this allows to build up at their own pace. If your striker can do this effectively it frees up your wingers. Your winger on the ball side can take away the angle out wide to a full back and begin to close down the player on the ball. Your opposite side winger can tuck in and help create a numerical superiority defensively in the center of midfield, while staying in a position that allows them to press if the ball is switched on a long diagonal.

If this is done with your front three near the opposition goal your midfield three is now free to take away the opposition midfielders. Whether it’s to deny a pass or have a trap where you allow the entry pass and press all of the options to win the ball back. If MNUFC can get this kind of production off the ball defensively from the 9 they can add another layer to their game and start to dominate teams even more so in transition. At the point we are unsure if MNUFC will be bringing in Luis Amarilla, and we don’t know the role he is being brought in for. My assumption is that role is to challenge Mason Toye for the starting minutes, and that Amarilla has a player profile that will fit into Toye’s weaknesses. His defensive positioning, when not in a deep defensive block, is one of the areas Toye should be focusing on improving this year if he wants to be the “everyday starting striker” for the Loons this year.

Where MNUFC dominates in terms of transitions is when they are able to win the ball near their own 18 and transition the entire length of the field and attack an exposed back line. When an opposing team doesn’t push numbers up the field, like the Galaxy last year, this makes this type of transition nearly impossible, but when teams do try and attack the Loons it can lead to goals like this. This goal is so “MLS” and I’m here for it, in part because watching two professional athletes collide into each other is entertaining, but from a tactical perspective most teams in MLS love these moments where they can run 100 yards down the field at an exposed back line. The modern game is becoming this and it is very entertaining to watch especially when it leads to 3 points at home against another playoff team in September.

This is only one side of the ball when it comes to transition, “how to turn defense into attack” you could call it. However, most of the time it’s about how you transition from attack to covering the space defensively. It’s very difficult to quantify, however, there are places like Opta that have statistics like ground covered or defensive distance from goal for your first defensive interactions. This data is tough to find because the teams want it that way, they use it in preparing for the opposition and this is the cutting edge the game is played at now a days. However when you watch a game look for how they cut out the options and force the opponent to play safe predictable passes. This is truly what made the 2019 Loons good. Ike was able to cover the space in behind, Boxall could step with the more physical strikers, Ozzie could protect the entry pass to the striker, and then every one else was free to do their job. MNUFC rarely got countered which allowed them to counter the opponent. This was an improvement, however the focus in Minnesota is not to just be good enough it is to compete for a title. To bring it back to the person I started talking about as the master of transitions, Jürgen Klopp.

MNUFC are not a “SuperClub”, and they don’t have to be. They need to be the team that has 11 players who compliment each other and fit in the system around the game changers. When you have this, and stay healthy, you can do incredible things. Last year was not the peak, but it was the blueprint on what this team does well and the potential for growth the team does have. With each passing year, MNUFC have become less and less reliant on possession to create chances while growing more adept at creating counter attacking opportunities. Now it is time to add counter pressing to the “transitions tool box” so that when the Loons do aim the bow and arrow well they hit the target with a trophy.