Sounders asymmetrical midfield leads to faster pace, slightly better offense and neutral defense

Jane G Photography

For most of Seattle's history they've used two attacking wingers with cover provided by a central midfielder and a defensive midfielder. Their last three MLS matches they've started one winger and a wide mid that plays more box-to-box. That shift is changing metrics in a unique way.

Lineup decisions lead to great debates at Sounder at Heart. Of the "on pitch" happenings it is probably the biggest hot button issue. The debate who should start which games is part of the engagement between fan and club. Recently Sigi Schmid made a shift in squad selection that is partially based on the injury status of available players and partially on tactics.

His choices seem to indicate that the current preferred shape is one that has an attacking winger (players like Rosales, Zakuani, Martinez, Neagle, Estrada, Lund) and a box-to-box wide mid (Evans, Caskey, Rose, Burch, Gonzalez). It is a shape that intuitively is less attacking oriented than the traditional Arrow that the Seattle Sounders have used in about two-thirds of their MLS history. The data may show that intuition is wrong.

Asymetry_medium
Pulled from Opta Chalkboards for MLS matches to start 2013. Click to enlarge.

The data is intriguing, and problematic. First there are caveats that should exist. There are changes at forward (that's why Shots was not tracked). There were also changes in the central midfield (and so Duels were ignored). Subs could be an issue, but that pattern seems to be game-state dependent and not often like-for-like.

At the most basic level the results are better when Sigi picks the B2B wide mid. There are wins (green) and no losses (reddish)! But some other data indicates that the choice is helping the team perform better. Goals For versus Goals Against is also a positive indicator after the shift. There is a passing advantage as well (this is the full field number and not directly related to victory).

But at a deeper level there are more indications as to how the team plays differently. Pace of play by both teams is up, likely due to an increase in midfield turnovers. Seattle is one of the fastest tempo teams in MLS for some time, but it is interesting that with a reduction in the amount of attacking mids their pace (chances created+chances allowed) goes up.

Overall these shifts are generally tiny. They could be due to other issues besides the introduced asymmetry in the midfield. But there is one large change, and considering how important Shots in the Box are to scoring goals (they go in at much higher rate than shots outside of the box), the change makes some sense. Now, the chart above does not look at shots. This conscious decision was because midfielders do not often prevent shots within the box. During most run-of-play situations that is on the central defenders and defensive mid. Instead the data looks at passes from inside the 18. There were other measures that could be looked at, and might be in the future.

By that measure the shift is significant. Opposing attacking players are not getting into the box to pass like they were. They are 0 for 18 on passes from inside the penalty area since the change. They were 10 for 18 prior. Seattle's percentage is stable, but they are getting fewer opportunities. That matches the intuitive analysis of the shift in shape. In light of that the increase in chances created (Opta Key Passes + Assists) is notable.

In the end the shift to an asymmetrical midfield has lead to a slight increase in the attack, but a significant increase in the defense.

It's working. It may also not be entirely tactical.

Injuries are always a factor. And not all injuries are known by media and fans before hand.

During this week's conference call with local media Sigi said that Mario Martinez needed to do two things to get into the starting XI - practice regularly and be more aggressive towards the opponent's goal.

"Mario has been slowed down a little bit with a growing injury that's kept him from going full out for a period of time where he was able to participate in like 70 percent of practice, but couldn't get through sometimes the whole practice. So we have given him a little bit of time with that. Mario needs to be where he was for us in preseason where he was very aggressive with the ball, where he was willing to go after the defense and carry the ball forward. As he bogs down and starts playing swarming back in midfield all of the time, then it's tough for us to be able to combine forward. We want him to combine, but we want him to combine about 20 yards further up the field then he was doing at times in games. He's somebody that is a very talented player who we haven't lost faith and confidence in, and we're looking forward to him being 100 percent healthy which right now he has indicated that he feels good right now. So when his opportunity comes we hope he can take full advantage of it."

Regardless of injury status, the current strategy is helping the team win, score goals, create chances and limit the opposing attacks in the box. When the injuries subside maybe the lessons from this can be taken forward into the new XI.

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