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Tactical and Analytical Review of MNUFC’s 2019 Season

Exploring MNUFC’s 2019 season, through the prism of tactics and analytics.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Minnesota United FC Ben Ludeman-USA TODAY Sports

The calendar has flipped to 2020, which means players and staff are reporting to training camp, new players are being signed, and kits are being revealed, all in anticipation of the first match of the 2020 MLS season. Minnesota United will kick off the season at Providence Park on March 1st with Adrian Heath in charge, who recently signed a new contract with the club. His contract includes two guaranteed seasons for 2020 and 2021 with a club option in 2022, which was largely due to the team’s performance in 2019. In this piece, we’ll analyze the tactical identity of MNUFC’s 2019 season, mine through the supporting data and analytics, and glance ahead to the 2020 season.

MNUFC entered 2019 by making 5 key off-season additions: Vito Mannone (GK), Romain Metanire (RB), Ike Opara (CB), Jan Gregus (CM), and Ozzie Alonso (CM). All 5 signings contributed over 2,400 minutes in MLS play, each playing a crucial role in Heath’s various tactical systems.

Heath is known for defaulting to the 4-2-3-1, but also leveraged the 4-3-3 on several occasions with the emergence of Hassani Dotson, a rare find at the 31st pick in the 2019 MLS Superdraft. Below is a breakdown of the formations used by Heath over 35 games in MLS play.

2019 Formations

Formation Times Used PPG GD
Formation Times Used PPG GD
4-2-3-1 23 1.7 14
4-3-3 9 0.89 -6
5-3-2 2 1.5 -1
3-4-3 1 3 1

Heath showed tactical flexibility on a few occasions, using a 5-3-2 against two of MLS’ highest spending teams in Atlanta/LAFC and a 3-4-3 against high-pressing NY Red Bulls. All 3 games were on the road, having earned 6 out of a possible 9 points.

However, most often (66% of MLS games), and perhaps most successfully, Heath employed his 4-2-3-1 (or a 4-4-2 if you count Darwin as a second striker). Below are the eleven players with the most starts for MNUFC in 2019, shown in the 4-2-3-1 set-up.

2019 MNUFC in a 4-2-2-1

This 2019 version of MNUFC averaged 46.3% possession throughout the season, ranking 22nd out of 24 teams. This approach maintained defensive structure, absorbed pressure, and punished teams in space on the break. Ethan Finlay’s goal to cap off a 3-1 win at home vs. RSL is a great example of this, amid an important late season playoff push.

Watch Finlay’s goal vs. Real Salt Lake here.

Romain Metanire not only played a big part in the clip above, but was a vital figure in MNUFC’s general tactical approach. Per WhoScored, 42% of MNUFC’s attack into the defense’s half originated on the right side of the field, which was tied for 1st in MLS with the Montreal Impact.

Attacking Sides
https://www.whoscored.com/Teams/9293/Statistics/USA-Minnesota-United

This shows MNUFC favored attacking the right side over the left side by 12%, which was the most unbalanced attack in all of MLS. The next closest team was the Seattle Sounders, who favored attacking the left side over the right side by 7%.

The evidence is further supported when viewing MNUFC’s touch distribution map (for both home and away), with red representing more touches than average and blue representing fewer touches than average. This again supports the idea that MNUFC intentionally and tactically pursued the right side of the field in attack.

MNUFC Touch Distribution Map (Home and Away)
https://twitter.com/etmckinley/status/1188846739114979329

Now what did MNUFC do with the ball when they reached the opponents half of the field? American Soccer Analysis’ xGChain numbers (total team-adjusted xGoals earned by the team on possession in which the player participated) shows that Gregus and Quintero (1st and 2nd in MNUFC with 25.39 and 24.16 xGChain, respectively), were primarily responsible for the creative responsibilities of breaking down the defense. MNUFC’s wing play yielded the 6th highest percentage of shots inside the 18-yard box throughout MLS (64%), per WhoScored, which was embodied by one of MNUFC’s top moments of the year.

When MNUFC was unable to break down the defense, they seldomly took their chances from deep, ranking 20th (5th to last) in shots outside the box (34%), but instead relied heavily on crossing. MNUFC ranked 4th in MLS in crosses, with 639 crosses in total (about 19 per game), per fbref.com.

These tendencies can be visualized in the figure below, which uses k-means clustering of pass types that quantifies the style of teams in MLS. This figure reveals over-represented data points, which describes the passing sequences MNUFC used more than other teams. This shows MNUFC’s tendency for Alonso and Gregus to collect the ball from CBs, advance the ball into the opponent’s half through the right side of the field, engaging in combination wing play, culminating with an above average number of crosses.

MNUFC Over-Represented Pass Clusters
https://twitter.com/etmckinley/status/1155965267446386689

In terms of MNUFC’s ability to finish the chances they created from these opportunities; they found the back of the net a total of 52 times in 2019. Per fbref.com, MNUFC was expected to score 53.4 goals over the course of the season, for a G-xG of -1.4, meaning they nearly scored the same amount of goals they were expected to.

However, viewing it from an individual perspective, Angelo Rodriguez finished 2019 ranked 654th in MLS (2nd to last) with a G-xG of -4.2, meaning he should have scored approximately 4 more goals than he did given the chances that were presented to him. Comparable to his attacking partner, Darwin Quintero finished 638th in MLS (9th to last) with a G-xG of -2.8. Having your starting #10 and #9 leave a combined 7 goals on the table isn’t ideal, and chances like the one shown below will make fans wonder what could’ve been in their first ever MLS playoff game.

Watch Angelo’s missed chance vs. LA Galaxy here.

These inefficiencies in attack ended up being largely offset by younger, relatively more inexperienced players. Hassani Dotson ranked 11th in MLS with a G-xG of +3.4, expected to score 0.6 goals in 2019 and 4 of them managed to find the back of the net (#BangersOnly). Mason Toye also contributed with a +1.9 G-xG, which was good for 40th in MLS.

MNUFC finished 2019 by scoring 11 goals in their final 11 games (playoffs included), which was partially due to a tough stretch of games, but isn’t nearly the offensive output required for a playoff team in the final stretch of the season. Having already moved on from Rodriguez and Quintero, the team will be hoping for Toye to continue his form into 2020 and beyond while bolstering the front-line with Paraguayan striker Luis Amarilla. Having last season’s summer signings Robin Lod and Thomas Chacon available for the entirety of 2020 should also provide a boost in attack, perhaps delivering some needed balance on the left side of the field.

In defense, MNUFC made history in 2017 by conceding a then-league record 70 goals. This leaky defense did not improve in 2018 when they beat their own record by conceding 71 goals, only to be outdone by Orlando’s record of 74 in the same year. In 2019, they looked to solve this problem by making 5 key acquisitions, all in defense or midfield: Vito Mannone (GK), Romain Metanire (RB), Ike Opara (CB), Jan Gregus (CM), and Ozzie Alonso (CM).

This prioritization of defense clearly paid off, reducing their 70.5 average of goals allowed in 2017-2018 to 43 in 2019. MNUFC, which is not known to be a pressing team, typically stayed compact and defensively organized, forcing opponents to break them down. This can be conceptualized when viewing the touch distribution against map for MNUFC in 2019.

MNUFC Touch Distribution Map Against
https://twitter.com/etmckinley/status/1145730218407157760

This shows MNUFC’s willingness to allow opponents to possess in midfield while they keep their defensive structure and protect the 18-yard box. What is surprising, perhaps, considering Metanire’s instruction to get forward in the attack, is that opponents opted to attack MNUFC’s left side of the field more frequently, rather than trying to exploit the space left by Metanire.

This could be due to various reasons: Metanire’s tireless work rate and recovery ability, having the 2019 MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara paired next to him at RCB, or opponents desire to attack the side covered either by Francisco Calvo, Wilfried Moimbe, or rookie Chase Gasper.

What’s maybe less surprising was that MNUFC ranked 1st in MLS in defensive interceptions, per fbref.com, with 443 in total on the season (about 13 per game). An interception is a good metric to quantify a team or players defensive understanding, as it’s a direct function of their positioning and anticipation. Elite defenders often have higher rates of interceptions compared to tackles, as a tackle implies the player is out of position and is making a last resort attempt to recover the ball. With that said, MNUFC ranked 3rd in MLS in tackling percentage (62.7%), proving to recover well even when the defense gets stretched out of position.

However structured and defensively organized your team is, the consequence of allowing opponents to consistently possess in your half is that you will be susceptible to chance creation. MNUFC allowed 169 shots against in the 2019 regular season, the 5th most allowed in the league. When you concede more shots than the average team, you’re required to be confident in your GK. Thankfully for MNUFC, they had Vito Mannone, the 2019 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year:

· 74% save percentage (4th in MLS)

· 11 clean sheets (3rd in MLS)

· -3.9 G-xG (6th in MLS)

MNUFC acquired Mannone on a one-year loan and both the club and fans were hoping MNUFC he would return in 2020. MNUFC’s technical director, Mark Watson, said the club made an offer to Mannone to become the highest paid GK in MLS, but the multiple offers were declined. Taylor Twellman reported Mannone was seeking DP-level money, which if true, the team was right to walk away from.

Fans were then happy to hear his replacement would be Tyler Miller, acquired through a trade with LAFC. Miller, a fringe-USMNT player, does not require an international slot and would presumably make much less than the salary offered to Mannone, freeing up finances for other areas of the field. Fortunately for MNUFC fans, Miller’s production was not far off from the numbers Mannone put up in 2019:

· 70% save percentage (5th in MLS)

· 9 clean sheets (6th in MLS)

· -2.5 G-xG (7th in MLS)

One potential improvement might be Miller’s passing ability. Miller ranked 2nd in MLS with a 79.9% passing completion percentage, whereas Vito ranked 23rd (5th to last) with a 63.4% passing completion percentage. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Miller is a significantly better passer than Mannone, only that LAFC was much more likely to tactically play out of the back and attempt higher percentage passes than MNUFC.

This idea is reinforced when looking at average pass completion distance, where Miller ranked 1st with the shortest pass completion distance at 28.2 yards and Vito ranked the 17th shortest at 33.9 yards. This difference can be visualized when selecting 100 random passes from both GKs.

100 Random Passes from Miller and Mannone
https://twitter.com/etmckinley/status/1222255727432962048

Will MNUFC utilize Miller’s ability to play out of the back and become a more possession based team? Or will they ask him to play it long as they did with Mannone and continue their defend and counter attacking ways? As with all the other questions and unknowns heading into 2020, we will soon find out.

When the 2020 season gets underway, check back here for quarterly reviews of formation selection, tendencies in attack and defense, along with supporting data and analysis. The impact of new and relatively new signings will also be covered, hopefully helping the Loons build upon the successful campaign that was the 2019 season.

With that said, see you all in March!

C’mon You Loons!