Dallas’ Negative Tactics
The Dallas team we saw on Wednesday was astonishingly different from the high-octane version that racked up points at the beginning of this year. Without their star attacker Mauro Diaz and worried about Seattle’s attack with Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, Oscar Pareja decided to sit his speedy wingers and play an extremely defensive 4-3-1-2 with defensive-minded midfielders Adam Moffat and Andrew Jacobson in the shuttling roles. Pareja set out his team to stop Seattle’s attack through the middle, which has been their bread and butter this year. To do so, they defended in an extremely narrow formation, and often defended with eight or nine outfield players. This was the case from the start of the game, indicating that it was the plan all along, and not just a tactic that was implemented once Dallas took the lead early. This image, taken just 38 seconds into the game, is a good example of Dallas’ defensive formation:
Notice how deep forward Blas Perez and Danny Garcia (Dallas' CAM) are positioned to keep Dallas compact through the midfield. Pareja outlined his reactive approach post-game, when he said, "with the formation we prepare the game depending on the opposite team."
In order to limit the influence that Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey had on the game, the Dallas center backs consistently stepped out on them when they dropped off the backline to collect the ball, ensuring they could not turn, create for others, or combine with each other effectively. Theoretically this would create gaps in the backline for Seattle players to exploit, but Dallas’ compact defensive formation meant there were always other players available to fill the gap and cover for the center backs. The below gif is a good example of this:
Here, Obafemi draws out Dallas' Walker Zimmerman, combines with Osvaldo Alonso well, and gets in behind the big center back. Alonso plays a beautiful through-ball, but Hendry Thomas is in a good covering position.
This season, the Sounders offense has been so dangerous because of their fast transition from defense to attack. Dempsey, Obafemi, and company have been deadly on the counterattack, and the Sounders have been using fast, direct, ground-based build-up play to get these attackers the ball before the opposing defense can organize and close out the space through the middle. Through these tactics, Seattle is able to dictate the pace of the game and take advantage of their attacking talent. During this game, Dallas set out to stop this as well. In an attempt to stunt Seattle’s counterattack, Dallas abstained from committing men forward in the attack. Pareja instructed his two-way players to be cautious, keeping them in positions where they could close down passing lanes to Obafemi and Dempsey or get back on defense quickly when Seattle’s stars received the ball. Dallas’ fullbacks and defensive midfielders played very conservatively, and Dallas was often only attacking with three players. Andrew Jacobson in particular was a very defensive-oriented shuttler, as you can see from his passing chart, which resembles the passing chart of an un-involved fullback.
These defensive tactics helped Dallas control the pace of the game, stymieing Seattle’s fast-paced offense. However, they also stunted Dallas’ own offense. Until the 65th minute when they subbed Fabian Castillo on, Dallas hardly generated any offense, and they were limited to a few speculative long-distance efforts.
Limited Routes to Goal
Dallas’ negative tactics gave Seattle only a few less-than ideal routes to a goal. Dallas conceded space on the flanks, knowing they would be favored in any aerial battles against Oba with their 6’3’’ and 6’4’’ centerbacks. Seattle responded by pumping in 22 open-play crosses in the first half, only connecting on four, good for a 17% completion rate. With the Dallas defensive line sitting deep, Seattle often took shots from distance.
Marco Pappa and Osvaldo Alonso were Seattle’s main weapons in this route, with each having four long-range shots. Though these are fairly low-percentage shots, the real danger created in this route was through Clint Dempsey. Though he operates as an excellent playmaker in Seattle, Dempsey possesses the skills of a world-class poacher. Throughout this game he was constantly sniffing for opportunities off rebounds. He timed his runs excellently to stay onside but simultaneously be the first one to the ball. The below gif illustrates this well:
In the second half, the Sounders adjusted their approach. Instead of sending in high crosses that the Dallas centerbacks would win easily, the Sounders tried to use low crosses and cutbacks. They initiated these by trying to beat the Dallas defenders off the dribble first, and they doubled their attempted take-ons in the box in the second half. Lamar Neagle, Brad Evans, Chad Barrett, and Dempsey all contributed to this effort. In the second half, Seattle completed 6 out of 14 open-play crosses for a 43% completion rate.
However, the most influential adjustment was the play of Martins. In the first half, Martins spent much of his time in the box, looking for scoring opportunities. Martins often started out on the flanks but tried to cut into the congested middle to combine with Dempsey in their usual fashion. When he found this was not working, he intelligently adjusted his play to help the team.
In the second half, he drifted out to the flanks and looked to create opportunities from the space he found there. Throughout the game he was four for four on crosses, putting in three low crosses in the second half. Prior to this game, Oba had not completed a cross this season, attempting only 0.44 crosses per game. Sigi praised his star forward after the game, saying, "that's his unselfish play for the team. He'll run the channels, he'll post up when he needs to post up, he'll drop off and find the ball." Oba’s movement to the flank gave him space where he could influence the game, and it unselfishly pulled the Dallas backline out of shape. Because Matt Hedges and Zimmerman were closely marking Martins and Dempsey, Oba’s lateral movement often pulled a center back out to mark him, creating space in the box for runs from the Seattle wingers. The wide players made good use of this space often making near-post runs to give an option for the low ball. Oba’s intelligent adjustments were ultimately the deciding factor in giving Seattle three points.
Teams have attempted myriad methods of stopping the Martins and Dempsey show, and while Dallas’ method may have been the most effective, it was also the most negative. Dallas showed little intent to attack, hoping for a lucky break or set-piece goal. Seattle struggled with Dallas’ narrow defense, but their adjustments helped them come from behind yet again.