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Principles of Play: Bend don’t break

As the Loons prepare for Phase 2 of return to play, we take a deeper look into how the team played tactically in the first phase. In our final part we talk about the Loons biggest strength as a team.

September 9, 2020 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair (97) looks on as the play continues in the other half during the match against FC Dallas at Allianz Field.
(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

The Loons press but are not a pressing team. The Loons sit back but are not a bunker and counter team. Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let me explain.

The Loons do not try and re-establish possession by constantly pressing the opposition à la Matías Almeyda. The Loons do however press in key moments when they think they can regain possession. They don’t necessarily consistently counter-press, but they do look to apply pressure to win the ball of an arrant pass in certain key areas where it triggers. This generally occurs when the opposition center back plays the ball wide to an outside back, and looks to find a central based midfielder. They collapse the angle to the back line to try and pinch that player into a bad touch or a bad pass. So yes MNUFC presses in key moments, but do not mistake that for them being a pressing team.

Calling the Loons a bunker and counter team would be more accurate, but not entirely accurate. They do keep a deeper defensive line, but they do try and prevent the opposition from entering their 18, and try to keep the opposition stuck in the midfield. This is in part so they have more space to counter attack into, but also because it is easier to win the ball when there is less space to defend. None of this is complicated, or anything new for the Loons. Some would think this resistance to changing a style of play as a negative, because opposition can account for exactly what you like to do. However the very obvious positive to this is the consistency season to season for the Loons in terms of the way they tactically approach the game.

If you were just to look at expected goals, MNUFC would not be as good as you’d think they are from watching them. They have the 5th most xG Against them in the entire league at 18.14 xGA. When looking at this in isolation, you’d assume that they are giving up big goal scoring opportunities. That assumption would be correct, however xGA doesn’t account for shot stopping in a goal keeper, and blocking shots.

MNUFC are scoring more then they are supposed to, and giving up less then they are supposed to. GD-xGD is a good metric for evaluating if a team is over performing the expected. For me this metric means they are efficient on both ends of the field, which is a trademark of a great team. The question then becomes if this is sustainable for the rest of the season.

The Loons defend in a basic, yet dependable shape. This is due to the flexibility they want to allow the teams play-makers up the field. Molino has an impact in the attacking phases, and due to this you want some flexibility so he is allowed to orchestrate an opportunity to counter attack. When you account for a player like this, you need to provide balance for the defensive shape, in this case it leads to an imbalance look when comparing the two wingers positioning. What makes this fascinating is how Heath accounts for the opponents attacking patterns of play, in terms of where he wants his wingers to drop until. The other facet of that is whether he chooses to have a play-maker at the 10, or a box to box midfielder, or a destroyer. He regularly has changed the style of player in that role based on how he thinks MNUFC can get the greatest advantage from a tactical perspective in that position on the field.

At the end of the day the Loons deploy a bend but do not break style of defending. They are much more comfortable keeping the game in front of them and dropping to just outside of their own 18, then going and pressing the opponent all over the field. They love keeping a deeper 6 sitting in front of the back-line and only pressuring the ball in moments to let the other supporting midfielders get back into shape when they have been beaten. As a team they pinch narrow and try to crowd out opposing chances by attempting to redirect or influence shot choices by their positioning. This leads to some of the xGA numbers being higher then you would expect for a strong defensive team, but is why they outperform those metrics. Part of those higher numbers could also be due to missing Ike for most of the season, as well as Ozzie being in and out of the line up due to injury. It doesn’t matter why the numbers may be higher then, expected because they are out performing their metrics.

Defending is more then metrics, which is why people work in that space have so much trouble quantifying defenders or defending. It comes down to players making decisions in individual moments that impact the team. Whether that is blocking a shot, or realizing where the danger is, because you have experienced the situation or pure instinct. This is what makes defending an art-form.

Players like Ozzie Alonso change a team, he covers up holes that others don’t even know are there and teaches the players around him to recognize them. This leads the players around and behind them to look better, but it also shows them what to look for when they are not there. There’s a reason Boxall has looked better over the past year beyond playing with better players, he is learning where to look and what to look for after playing with Ozzie/Ike. If there were numbers to quantify this, I would show you them, but as far as I have access to they don’t exist. That can be a good thing, because to simplify the impact of veteran leaders to numbers is probably selling short their impact.

I hope over the past few days you come away with one thing. Even though the results or the underlying metrics may not show how good the Loons are, stay optimistic. For the first time in their history in MLS they are showing an adaptability when things don’t go their way. If I told you in the beginning of the restart that the Loons would be in 3rd place without Ike, Tyler Miller, and Ozzie having injury problems we would all take that. Let alone considering the amount of other injuries sustained. The Loons need to get healthy, but it needs to be at the right time. If they do get healthy, they can make a run at MLS Cup, and that is all you can realistically ask for at this moment.