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Loon Dive: Minnesota United stalls Sporting Kansas City with 4-4-2 and luck

The Loons’ 4-4-2 defensive block, Dotson replacing Alonso and more

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Sporting Kansas City Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

It’s one of the most frustrating constants of sports, and it was on full display in Minnesota United’s come-from-behind victory over Sporting Kansas City on Sunday night:

It’s better to be lucky than good.

The Loons came away from the MLS is Back Tournament opener with a 2-1 win, though it’s difficult to make the case that they were deserved winners.

Minnesota held only 38% possession over the course of the match, and spent the first hour or so of the game not doing very much at all when they were on the ball.

In our usual Loon Dive fashion, we’ll take a deep look at what happened during the game and what it tells us about Minnesota United going forward.

The Philosophy

Entering the MLS is Back Tournament, we really didn’t know what to expect from Minnesota United. A direct, counter-attacking style had been quite effective in those two March games, but that was four months ago. Fitness, plus key absences, would challenge that same scheme too.

Three typical starters missed Sunday’s game due to injury: centerback Ike Opara (expected), defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso (feared) and striker Luis Amarilla (surprising). I’ll make the case that those three are among the most important to Minnesota’s success back in March.

Manager Adrian Heath was able to plan his tactics around the absences of Opara and Alonso, which is why we saw a different set-up for the Loons. Heath didn’t change things too drastically — he essentially tried direct replacements for Opara and Alonso in Jose Aja and Hassani Dotson — but did try to compensate for the gaps in defense.

The solution was a tiny formation change and philosophical shift. See if you can pick up on the different formation from United’s defensive block early in the game:

That freeze frame came from an extended spell of possession for Sporting Kansas City, which was a very common occurrence in the first half. SKC spent a lot of time passing the ball between their centerbacks: 10% of the team’s passes were just between Matt Besler and Roberto Puncec, and those two were SKC’s top passers.

Minnesota deployed in a very-compressed 4-4-2 defensive block, which you can see clearly above. A quick aside on formations: what we see in pregame lineup graphics is an overly simplified version of what we see on the field, which often varies as teams trade possession of the ball, and sometimes quantifying a formation is pointless.

Here, though, you see United playing a tight block. The distance between the back line and forwards looks to be about 20 yards, and there’s not much width, either.

It’s designed to make penetration extremely difficult for Sporting, and that’s what it largely did. Check out the defensive block at its most effective (and soccer at its most boring):

It’s not quite a bunker, but it’s certainly a willingness to give Kansas City the ball and time with it. The strategy is all about “trying to not get strung out and trying to keep nice and compact, horizontally and vertically,” Heath told reporters over Zoom after the game.

Because Minnesota spent so much time in defensive mode, we can see the different shape in the Loons’ average positioning data from WhoScored.

That’s a really clear 4-4-2, and very different from what we saw back in March.

Look at how United was positioned in their 5-2 win over the San Jose Earthquakes:

It’s so, so different.

There were some ways that Kansas City broke down the 4-4-2 block, though. As Heath put it: “They stretch the field so much on you and they find the little spaces and the little pockets in between the lines as good as anybody.”

When breakthroughs did happen, it was usually the result of quick passes and overlapping runs from Kansas City that pulled United’s defenders from their spots in the defensive block, opening up space.

But to be clear, Minnesota’s defense did its job. The 4-4-2 worked. Star striker Alan Pulido had a quiet night aside from a few flashy moments of skill. We’ll break down SKC’s goal later in the article, but it wasn’t really the fault of the defensive scheme.

Look at every pass Sporting completed in the first half:

First, that’s a lot in their own half, like we talked about above. Second, they weren’t getting much in the box, or in central attacking areas. That’s successful defense for Minnesota.

The absence of Opara wasn’t really felt. Aja filled in well, at least in the sense that I’m not writing about any errors from him, and it didn’t feel like Minnesota was missing much at centerback. Passing the Pulido test is reassuring going forward.

The Loons missed Alonso more, though. Normally, he would sit much farther behind Jan Gregus. Dotson replaced Alonso in the lineup, but couldn’t really replicate his role.

There were moments where he played well in the No. 6 role:

(The aerial cam can be hard to follow, but Dotson’s the player in white who begins in the middle of the right side of the screen.) Here, Dotson drops into a centerback role to cover for Michael Boxall, who steps up to apply pressure. When Boxall returns to his position, Dotson shifts to man-mark the SKC player Boxall was on, clearing the ball when it’s passed there.

It’s a really great defensive play from Dotson. There were some shakier moments, though.

To be fair, what happens on this play isn’t entirely Dotson’s fault. (He’s the central midfielder more toward the right side of the screen here.)

Kansas City switches fields with a long diagonal, which was something they turned to at times to bypass the 4-4-2 block. Dotson’s watching what’s happening on that side of the field, ignoring the SKC players behind him and drifting toward the ball. When a cross comes in to the far post, left back Chase Gasper is left alone with two Sporting players in his area.

A couple disclaimers: There’s a chance Dotson was told to drift like this, in which case he did his job. There’s also a more significant chance that left winger Robin Lod should do more in the marking department here to help out Gasper.

Gregus also played deeper than he did in March (see positioning charts above), which was to be expected without Alonso. Instead of operating with a central midfield tandem (a No. 6 and a No. 8), United used two fairly similar roles in between those two.

Now, for our first reader question of the column:

First, I’ll be taking something of a mailbag approach with parts of this column after every game, so ask questions on Twitter! Second, Spencer points out something very obvious: There was very little counter-attack happening for the Loons.

There are a couple reasons why United couldn’t seem to relieve pressure. Part of it was that Minnesota wasn’t really applying pressure. By leaving Sporting to mostly pick out passes from the back, the opposition maintained its shape consistently. Part of the success the Loons had against San Jose and (especially) the Portland Timbers came from opponents deploying over-aggressive fullbacks.

SKC didn’t take that bait, and so there was rarely a numbers advantage when Minnesota took possession. The rigidity of the 4-4-2 block also kept players in their position (more on that later).

And in the scenarios when United gained possession, they couldn’t string much together. It looks like Sporting had something of a counter-press or gegenpress going (when a team applies pressure for the few seconds immediately after losing possession in the hopes of regaining the ball quickly), but also not really.

It was more of strong counter-marking, where SKC players would immediately move into man-marking when the Loons took the ball.

There are two obvious targets for Minnesota to go to with the ball after getting possession here (both moving toward the center circle), and SKC quickly marks up on both. It’s an effective strategy for rendering counters useless.

The key to beating this, as Heath put it, is putting “one or two passes together.”

And when Minnesota had promising moments in the first half, that’s what was happening.

This clip doesn’t actually come from a counter, but Sporting’s press kicks in, so it serves the same purpose. One-touch passing and off-ball movement give the Loons a nice look. Putting a few of those together in a sequence of build-up is key.

Now, for a breakdown of the lone goal Minnesota conceded:

The blame for the goal rests, deservedly, with goalkeeper Tyler Miller, who had an otherwise fine game. He lets one in at his near post, which is a cardinal sin of ‘keeping.

Miller let it in because of an odd movement he made slightly before the shot, leaving him out of position to cover the near post. He quickly shuffles away from the post before committing, which looks weird.

I think it was the result of SKC’s breakaway set-up here. When Miller makes that move, look at what’s happening:

Sporting winger Khiry Shelton (with the ball) has a good option to cross the ball across the box here. That looks to be what Miller was expecting, which explains his movement. Is it good goalkeeping? Maybe not, but it must have been Miller’s thought process in the moment.

Also of note on this play: Aja has some wheels, being able to recover to get in front of where a cross from Shelton would’ve gone. Gasper, on the other hand, loooks a bit slow here.

The Shift

Something changed for Minnesota United midway through the second half.

Mason Toye, who had a quiet night while starting at striker (not really his fault), went down with an injury and was replaced by Aaron Schoenfeld. Raheem Edwards came in for Robin Lod on the left wing, albeit a little bit later in the game.

And, of course, SKC goalkeeper Tim Melia picked up a red card for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity.

I couldn’t find one overarching reason for why Minnesota suddenly looked like a fully-competent team during this span. There were a couple things that looked different, though.

That rigid 4-4-2 block went away, and the Loons started breaking lines to apply pressure and man-mark:

This looks like a completely different defensive team from those first half clips. I won’t say that this is a better defensive style for the Loons — remember, what they did in the early portions worked — but this switch was certainly effective, too.

And really, it looks like Minnesota just loosened up in the latter stages of the game. Maybe that was the substitutes, maybe it was being down by a goal with time running out, maybe that was the plan from Heath all along. In a tournament that’s seeing some dull first halves but exciting endings (and comebacks) with fatigued players, playing a solid block for an hour and then opening things up against a team tired from trying to break through a defense might not be a bad strategy at all.

And look at how much passing there was:

The left chalkboard is from the first 60 minutes, the right one from the final 30 (plus stoppage time). The later version of the Loons was much more direct with their passing. There are more efforts sent out to the wings, and less passing among the back line. Romain Metanire and Ethan Finlay, speedy players who are also good crossers, finally got the right side of the attack going.

As vague as this analysis is, Minnesota just looks like a free-playing, comfortable team in the later stages of the game.

Take one possession for an example:

It starts with a long ball from Miller (notice Gregus dropping as the No. 6), then aggressive play on the left wing to re-gain possession. This is the way a lot of people would like Minnesota’s attack to look.

Other Notes

Kevin Molino was on another level. He scored the game-winner, but was also all over the field:

While Molino’s technically the No. 10 (who often plays like a striker, which is something for a future article), he really goes where he pleases. That’s just fine, because he’s making plays all over.

Matt Doyle of MLSSoccer.com had a great video breakdown of what Molino brings to the Loons:

Molino also took Gregus’ title of making the most passes over the course of the game, so he’s playing a very significant role in what’s happening.

To answer another Twitter question, though, I didn’t see a ton of Lod and Molino (or Molino and Finlay) swapping places outside of Molino just playing everywhere. Molino and Lod switching on the left side is certainly a good strategy, though, given Lod’s skill at cutting in on his right foot.

Ben’s a great friend of mine who offers fantastic basketball analysis, but seems to not understand what makes for a good soccer analytic. (Also, it’s farther, not further there, Ben.)

We’ll take the opportunity to discuss the player who routinely kicks the ball the farthest: Miller.

American Soccer Analysis tells us that Miller generally makes some of the longest passes of all MLS goalkeepers, though it seems he kept his distribution short fairly often against SKC:

And those shorter passes out to the right are a fantastic idea. Getting the ball to Metanire to start a push forward has made for a nice strategy.

I’ll offer some unsupported opinions in response to Bart’s questions. Edwards brought some energy to the game and is more of a traditional winger, which makes him a better fit for Minnesota’s left wing than Lod, to me.

Lod likes to cut in, which means an overlapping fullback is nice to have on that flank. Overlap isn’t really part of Gasper’s style. And Lod had another quiet night, with some questionable defensive positioning at times.

Amarilla is fantastic in the Loons’ direct offensive scheme, making great runs off the ball, so his absence was felt. Schoenfeld certainly looked like an impact sub, but getting Amarilla back will be massive for Minnesota.

And Tomas Chacon is as much a mythical entity as he is a real player at this point...