Sounders vs. Chivas Tactics: Stopping Clint Dempsey?

Obafemi Martins spent much of the game trying to get in behind Chivas's high line - Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Chivas used a high line to deny Dempsey space, but Torres was left isolated. The red card and ensuing tactical decisions give Seattle the advantage.

The main tactical concern for Chivas was how they would limit Clint Dempsey’s influence on the game. They took several precautions to ensure he did not find space between the lines to create plays. The first is in pure volume of defensive players, as they frequently had three players focused on denying him space. They specifically dropped their nominal No. 10, Carlos Alvarez, to pitch in defensively. His seven tackles attempted outlines the intent, though he was only successful on three of them.

However, Chivas’ most significant tactical adjustment for Dempsey was the use of a high line, as predicted on the Goat Parade. To deny Dempsey room to operate between the lines, the Chivas backline stepped up. The intention, as well as the risk of playing this way is illustrated in the below gif:

At the beginning of the gif, Dempsey is marked by Chivas central midfielders Agustin Pelletieri and Marco Delgado. Additionally, center back Bobby Burling steps up to mark Dempsey. The high line creates acres of space behind the defensive line, and with a better run, Dempsey would have been through on goal. As it was, he was flagged offside.

Throughout the game, Seattle looked to exploit this high line, leading to fair amount of Route 1 soccer, most notably in the form of long balls from Gonzalo Pineda. Though it looked shaky at times, Chivas defended with the high line fairly well. The positioning of Carlos Bocanegra was especially solid, and Chivas’ decent pressing forced Seattle to attempt to beat the high line from deeper positions with longer, lower percentage passes. This was successful in limiting Dempsey, as he really only found dangerous space between the lines after poor Chivas turnovers.

Barrera on the counter

Knowing that the Sounders like to use DeAndre Yedlin as an attacking fullback, Chivas looked to use Leonardo Barrera to exploit the space left by Yedlin. Barrera did not attempt to track Yedlin, who was free to attack the Chivas left back one-on-one, with Neagle frequently moving inside to act as a second forward. Instead, Barrera looked to counterattack down Seattle’s right flank. As a player who strongly prefers his left foot, he played as a pure winger, trying to utilize his speed on the outside.

Leo vs. Mauro

The Sounders had a plan for stopping their former captain, and Leo Gonzalez executed it superbly. Knowing Mauro does not possess the speed to turn and beat players easily, Leo stuck tight to Mauro, keeping his back to goal. He often followed Mauro deep into Chivas’ defending half. The strategy worked, as it limited Mauro to one open play cross (previously averaging 6 open play crosses per 90). Take a look at a chart of Mauro’s completed passes, and note how many of them are backward.

Torres Isolated

A major problem with Chivas’ attack was how isolated Erick Torres was. Barrera was positioned high up the pitch, but often was positioned too wide to support Torres. Alvarez’s defensive role limited him on offense, and Mauro was marked out of the game and often dropped deep in search of the ball. As a result, Torres was frequently isolated and left to battle with Seattle’s center backs on his own. Traore and Marshall could stick tight to him and deny entry passes into him, much like Leo’s defending on Mauro. They followed when he dropped deep, and tackled the ball off him quickly. Torres’ lack of size meant he struggled to hold the ball up long enough for support to arrive. Moreover, there were no midfield players running past him to exploit the gaps in Seattle’s backline when a center back stepped up. For the most part, Seattle’s strategy worked, but Torres was able to create one chance with some clever movement:

Torres drops off the backline, knowing Traore will follow him. As soon as Traore takes a couple steps out, Torres darts behind.

Pelletieri with space deep

When Chivas succeeded in holding possession, Augustin Pelletieri was often afforded time and space to dictate the tempo of the game from his holding position. This was a problem in the first half because Seattle was defending in a 4-4-2 setup, perhaps trying to keep Dempsey close to Obafemi for offensive purposes. Pelletieri was able to keep possession and probe for openings in the Sounders’ defense by switching play from flank to flank. Take a look at his passes in the first half:

It’s worth noting that during the build up to the Torres chance above, Pelletieri was unmarked and able to switch play to one side then the next. As a result, Eric Avila was afforded time and space to pick out Torres. Sigi acknowledged that the freedom afforded to Pelletieri was a problem at halftime, saying, "we’ve got to deal with the issue of Pelletieri seeing a lot of the ball deep in midfield." In the second half, Sigi dropped Dempsey deeper, defending in more of a 4-4-1-1. This was effective in reducing Pelletieri’s influence, as you can see below. In the first half, completed 25 passes at 83%, but only completed 14 passes at 74% in the second half.

Delgado’s red card

After Marco Delgado was sent off in the 73rd minute, Chivas moved to a 4-1-3-1 shape with a medium block, decreasing some of the defensive pressure they were putting on Seattle. The band of three defended against Seattle’s holding players and fullbacks, and they used Pelletieri as a lone holder. It is surprising that they did not drop Alvarez alongside Pelletieri, considering that much of their original game plan was formed around stopping Dempsey. Clint capitalized on this mistake in the 81st minute when he assisted Obafemi:

In the buildup to this goal, Alvarez steps up on Pineda, and note how much space Pelletieri is left to cover. Dempsey is able to find space, draw four defenders, and play Obafemi through on goal.

Chivas goes on the offensive

After the goal, Chivas threw caution to the wind and sent men forward in numbers. In the 86th minute, they sent on Luke Moore for Rosales and changed shape. The fullbacks now played as wingbacks and were heavily relied upon for width. Moore and Bofo played as strikers, with Alvarez as a No. 10 and Barrera given a free role to switch flanks. In the 86th minute, they created their best chance and displayed what their attack was previously missing when Torres was so isolated.

In this gif, Alvarez is advance of Alonso and able to quickly receive the layoff from Bofo. As usual, a gap opens up when Traore steps out of the backline, but now Moore is now in a position to make a run beyond the center forward. This reckless attacking did have a downside, though, as it created several opportunities for dangerous Seattle counterattacks, but the Sounders’ poor execution meant they failed to take advantage.

Conclusion

The decision to use a high line against Martins, Neagle, and Dempsey was risky, but Chivas executed it well. However, Chivas struggled offensively due to Torres being isolated for much of the game, so Seattle remained the more dangerous side. The red card was the final straw, and the decision not to drop a player alongside Pelletieri proved to be costly. Chivas created several dangerous moments late on when they threw numbers forward, but were unable to capitalize.

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