One of the cathartic aspects of being a supporter of a team on the receiving end of an ass-kicking such as the Sounders suffered Sunday night is that it provides us an excellent opportunity to do what we do best: blame-gaming. Whatever element you believe is holding the Sounders back from greatness was to blame for a pretty lousy showing: referees, individual players, the manager. If you have a beef with anyone or anything, Sunday night was your chance to become an armchair analyst and point out what you just know has been wrong with this team all along.
Indeed, Sunday night was what I call the "enema game." If you are like me and believe that all sports - but particularly soccer - balances on this knife edge of fortune, karma, and narrow margins of success, then last night was when you flush a bunch of that shit out of your system and try to just move on. Realistically, that's what it was. That it came against LA, on the heels of that rather frustrating 3-0 playoff loss last November doesn't help, but conveniently lost in the shuffle is not only a 4-0 win over the defending Supporters Shield champs just two weeks ago, but a 4-0 thrashing on a hot August night over these very Galaxy just last summer. Sure, there may be evidence for a trend, but in all reality its too soon to say. We could just as easily say that the Sounders two worst first-half performances came in the two matches which featured Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins starting at forward, and make a very compelling case against playing two high strikers - a tactic which is increasingly rare in the contemporary game.
But speaking more towards this knife edge of fortune, karma, and narrow margins, consider that, Sunday night, LA's 2nd goal seemed to come off of a pretty clear handball, and their 3rd off of what what was just a flat out wrong penalty call. Let's think about that 4-0 drubbing of San Jose: a goal off the fingertips of the 'keeper, 2 off of the woodwork, and a 4th in garbage time after some Keystone Kops defending by the Earthquakes. Let's talk about a game against Dallas that was very much in the balance and saw a key Dallas attacker get sent off for what may or may not have been a legitimate red card offense at a very critical juncture in a match where we had already lost a 2 goal lead. Going back, think about the non-handball penalty call against Leo Gonzalez in the dying moments of a tense 2-2 draw at Philly, and the handball penalty non-call just three days later vs. Sporting Kansas City. If Fortune is the short term descriptor of luck, then Karma is the long term, and the best way to earn Karma is by playing good soccer. And at the risk of going all Al Pacino on y'all, those inches that decide a game are all around us, and as a team you fight for those inches.
If you'e looking for evidence that points to a trend, one need only consider the absence of one Osvaldo Alonso Sunday night.
At this point, its become pretty mundane to declare that Alonso is the Sounders most important player. It has been suggested that Alonso is the reason that Sigi Schmid's 4-4-2 system works. It has been demonstrated both here at Sounder at Heart and over at MLS's Central Winger blog that Alonso is the best, or at least amongst the three best, in duels, recoveries, interceptions, and tackles won. Top that off with a top-10 passing ability and you have THE best defensive midfielder in the League.
As we have seen, possession does not necessarily translate to goals, and in fact there seems to be a mild correlation between "losing" the possession battle but winning the match in MLS. This helps lead to a conclusion that possession is best thought of as proactive defending. Proactive defending implies that a team is actively looking to limit chances, not sitting back in a reactive shell and inviting pressure (aka "bunkering") The Sounders, throughout their MLS history, have been an above-average, or even league-leading, defense in terms of the one metric that matters the most: goals allowed. This despite the fact that they have proven themselves to be quite bad at bunkering - leading to the common armchair analysis that the Sounders often seem to be lacking on defense. Whether you are aware of it or not, if you have followed the Sounders since 2009 you have seen an excellent demonstration of the efficacy of proactive defending.
I have written previously that our understanding of the shape that a defense takes has been held back by the nomenclature used to describe formations. The more one studies heat maps and passing charts and the like the more one realizes that the contemporary CDM is in fact a 5th defender, the middle man of the top layer of defense along with the fullbacks, sitting in front of the 2 reactive center backs. The "double pivot" of the 4-2-3-1 is somewhat of a myth, as one of the 2 holding midfielders is almost always a deeper lying "5th defender" type, the other more of a "box-to-box" type. While these distinctions probably verge on hair-splitting, its worth exploring with regards to the what role a player plays, as compared to his listed position.
So to summarize, Osvaldo Alonso is the key player in the Sounders defensive scheme, which should come as a surprise to absolutely no one. But it goes beyond that.
Beyond winning possession, what both the numbers and the eyeball test indicate about Alonso is that he is the ultimate disrupter. Let's think of the distinction between pure possession and actual attacking as something we'll call "Flow". Flow is the ability of a team to work the ball into meaningful attacking positions. Working the ball into meaningful attacking positions is the first step towards creating chances. The more chances you create, the greater your odds of scoring goals. The greater your odds of scoring goals, the greater your odds of winning the game. The rest is left up to Fortune, Karma, and Narrow Margins.
And this is probably the real truth to the importance of the 5th defender: disrupting flow. we can come up with tools to measure possession and winning possession, and we can analyze heat maps and passing charts and the like to define "Flow", but what about disrupting flow? You not only have to analyze the first-person stats - the tackles, interceptions, recoveries, and duels - but also the second person stats: the interceptions or recoveries you helped create by pressuring the ball, the tackle or duel you helped create by slowing down the attack. One would have to spend an entire match just watching one player, a nearly impossible task, exacerbated by the fact that just focusing on one player takes away context; and context is pretty vital to measuring efficacy of any one player.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Sunday night, for those first 45 minutes, the Galaxy utterly controlled the flow of the game. It was as one-sided as most of us have seen in an MLS match, let alone a Sounder match. And the one player, in the entire League, who has proven himself to be the best at disrupting flow was noticeably absent.
Yes, its fair to say that the Sounders have problems if so much of their success revolves around one player, but if the Galaxy attack were to suffer without Robbie Keane, or the NYRB attack to be stifled without Thierry Henry, or the San Jose attack to be weakened without Chris Wondolowski, none of us would bat an eye. we would probably expect it. The loss of any of those players would legitimately reduce their team's chances of winning; and I think all of us, as soccer fans, intuitively understand that.
That's how good, and important, Osvaldo Alonso is.