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Tactical Observations from afar

Our resident coach goes into some of the tactical trends from the recent two game road trip

July 24, 2021 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United midfielder Robin Lod (17) scores the game wining during the match aganst Portland Timbers at Allianz Field. (Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

*Disclosure: When I reference team formations they are not meant to be all encompassing. Formations or more referenced as shapes by coaches, are fluid and change depending on the phase and moment of the game. Ultimately, this sport is about attacking and defending space so I refer you to this resource.

What you see is a positional grid to guide a players positioning in moments throughout the games. Teams train scenarios of what actions and positions players should be in during different phases of the game. Phases are meant to describe something going on in the game. Are we building up our attack from our backline? Through which player? Are we transitioning into a defensive shape? How? This is what training looks to answer.

Generally a team looks to attack all five vertical channels of the field (refer to Pep’s grid), but at different heights to create shape to play in. A perfect Minnesota United example of this is when Reynoso plays out wide on the left and plays in the halfspace. A halfspace is the vertical channel between the wing and the middle. This space is extremely dangerous in soccer on two conditions; if a player makes an overlap in the wide space, and there are options disorganizing the central players of the opposition.

Now for the name you will be hearing a lot more about over the coming years Nagelsmann, aka “Baby Mourinho”. The reason I included his grid is there is a growing shift from Pep’s grid to Nagelsmann’s due to the increased specificity in helping guide the players positioning with seven vertical challenges. Do I as the coach want you to be on the touchline wide or tucked more central to help defend a counter attack? Where exactly do I need you in the halfspace? While also taking into account dangerous areas in and around the 18 yard box.

Now for the Loons, I’m going to be focusing on some of their attacking patterns in how they disorganize the opponent with the ball.

Overloads on the Left

Emmanuel Reynoso loves the left half space, and he should stay attacking this space. No matter what position the Starting XI graphic shows him in, know Reynoso will be here.

Attacking width frees the halfspace, so if your winger is attacking that space you need someone else to fill it. A modern idea is to have the outside back do this, and provide cover for them from the midfield. Chase Gasper does a good job of filling the left wide space in attack, which “frees” Reynoso to play in the “half space” and tuck in during possession or cut in to shoot off the dribble.

When the player does commit forward it leaves an obvious space to be countered into, this is where the flexibility of your midfield is key. The Loon’s will use a variety of players to cover this space depending on what the opposition does. If the winger follows Chase then no worries, however if the float back up a midfielder must protect.

Dotson is one of the players Heath leans on when they know the opposition will do this because it provides options. Hassani can cover that wide space vacated by Gasper, but can also play in that position as well enabling the left back to take breaks and the run to come from the midfield. However if they chose to be in a set shape, and Chase is not as high vertically Heath can have Dotson press the oppositions 6 when they are building out. Heath did exactly this when DJ Taylor started against Vancouver Whitecaps for the first half and they played DJ more conservatively. Dotson was pressing the oppositions 6 to either win the ball or allow time for Reynoso to be in defensive shape to protect an attack in behind.

The important concept to remember is that every action as an opposite reaction so when planning these patterns you need to also prepare to protect it.

The Right HalfSpace

Ethan Finlay started both games on the right wing. Finlay plays a more traditional winger occupying the right wide space, reducing the constant responsibility for Métanire to provide that width. Allowing the freedom to get forward when Finlay does tuck in during possession. Finlay generally tucks in when the game is on the other side, however commits to filling the role of the “wide 9” when Lod really commits to combining with Reynoso in the left halfspace. If you’re wondering about Fragapane, he mostly fits into this role as well.

Essentially Ethan likes to stay wide during build up and attack into the halfspace, or combine with the player in that space when possessing the ball. When the ball is on the other side Finlay fills the half space, but is acting as a striker with the goal of getting in behind the center backs.

So who fills that halfspace? Robin Lod.

Lod will act as a “traditional 9” on balls played through the air, but primarily the responsibility is to disorganize the opponents backline through movement and combination play. Where the actions work out is that Lod loves to drop into this half space and combine. so essentially think of this shape as two forwards in opposite half spaces looking to combine, Reynoso on the left and Lod on the right. What you then need is someone to stretch and occupy the backline (wingers/outside backs). The midfield three are there to circulate possession to the other side when needed.

Philosophical Dilemma

Playing a traditional 9 is a dilemma in modern soccer. Having a release valve is certainly appreciated in moments, and having a poaching style goal scorer in and around the box certainly does not hurt. However, in the modern game a more fluid triangle of attackers is proving to be the new way to disorganize. Ideally you’d like that flowing shape to be able to operate under the traditional 9. This debate has raged on over recent years about what teams need, and simply put the answer is options. Having options help, and when I wrote early this year about Ábila and the Loons history of dichotomy from the striker. While Hunou may be a much more well rounded option then Ábila, the dilemma still exists. What do we best need to unbalance the opposition in the final phase, and in what spaces do we want these players in? Making this decision is not easy, because if you just focus on when you have the ball you will lose many games.

This is literally the simplest diagram someone could show you about soccer, where is a traditional striker going to be? The box, duh. However the complexity is having a balanced shape to get you there. Let’s take a front three of Hunou, Reynoso, and Lod. A traditional 9 and two players in the halfspaces with outside backs overloading in the wide areas. Very simple, and that lies the problem, teams train how to stop these simple patterns. This is why shapes tend to be asymmetrical. The outside back is a bit more aggressive on one side and the winger stays wide on the other. The 9 drops into the half space occasionally, whatever these wrinkles are they allow you to be unpredictable. This unpredictability can be shown when a sub is made and the wide playing winger is on the other side. Now that opposing full back has a completely different attacking concept and patterns being thrown at them.

Flexibility

A major area of growth for the Loon’s this season over last season is the teams tactical flexibility that they now have for player selection. This adds an additional advantage for the coaching staff when selecting a game plan based on how the Loons want to disorganize the opposition.

During the LAFC game in the 20’ when Chase Gasper had to be subbed off early due to injury, Heath had an opportunity to alternate the teams shape if his staff chose to do so. The discussions begin, do we maybe slide Dotson out to left back and change our shape with a more traditional winger on that side. Doing this changes the Loons shape in many phases of the game most notably in how they prevent the opposition from building up through the 6. The staff decided on a like for like replacement, however for the first time the Loons have flexibility.

We saw some of that flexibility against Vancouver when at halftime Hayes was subbed off for Hunou, which allowed the team to shift where they attacked certain spaces from. The overloads from central midfield would know occur on the right side with outside backs sometimes joining there. This “1-4-2-3-1” shape is much more aggressive from the Loon’s but can be outdone by a team who can dictate the game through the midfield. Therefor it is not the answer every game, even though most fans would prefer the attacking style every game.