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Lessons in a cynical game state

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The Seattle Sounders' opening loss to Sporting Kansas City can be blamed on a red card and a soft goal, but the team's performance in an even game state reveals growing pains of the 4-3-3.

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

In 410 games between March of 2014 and May of 2015, MLS teams played 86 matches with a red card imbalance by the end of the game. The team playing at a disadvantage, irrespective of the timing of the red card, collected 68 points, for an average return of 0.79 points per game. Seattle's ably defended a 0-0 game after Oniel Fisher's 41st minute red, but the man deficit combined with Stefan Frei's howler of a goal conceded left little chance of success, in the end. A game state chart of the match reveals SKC's readiness to take advantage of those on-field gifts.

SeaSKC160306

Game State Chart Primer

Regular readers will be reasonably familiar with the plots above. Statistics are gathered at 5 minute intervals within a "sliding window" interval of 10 minutes of game time (e.g. the first data point reflects minutes 1-10, the second minutes 6-15 and so on). The measurements reflect change in the run of play as the game progresses, and will usually include, at minimum, shots, passes (a superior substitute for "possession," in my opinion), and clearance bias (the ratio of clearances to all defensive actions - attempted tackles, interceptions, clearances, blocks - that roughly reflects "desperation" defending vs. an intent to play out of the back).

...and what it means for Sunday's game.

On this occasion, I've added a ratio of forward to backward passes (note that the y-axis for this graph is a logarithmic scale), fouls conceded, and the percentage of Seattle's touches taken by Clint Dempsey and Andreas Ivanschitz. Fisher's 41st minute red triggered a substantial change to SKC's tactical approach, with a dramatic increase in pass volume and equally prominent reversal of pass direction. Apart from a period around minutes 15-25 of the first half, when Kansas City had the stronger attack in the run of play, the visitors pursued an aggressive policy of tactical fouling. It's a cynical style of defending made still more nihilistic by the time-wasting posture of the second half. Nevertheless, Seattle began to recover a possession advantage late in the first half prior to Fisher's sending off.

Red cards and soft goals happen, and neither Fisher nor Frei should be expected to repeat their key mistakes very often. Still, that interval at minutes 15-25 reflects the key concerns for Seattle moving forward with the 2016 season. SKC effectively overloaded attackers on the flanks to attack in behind the Seattle aggressive attacking fullbacks. In a formation that plays roughly as a 4-2-1-3, the Sounders are reliant upon the 2 DMs and the limited range of Chad Marshall to cover for Joevin Jones on the left side. This defensive vulnerability is an inevitable trade-off of positioning Dempsey and Ivanschitz as the midfielders most able to provide additional support on the left. So long as Seattle persists with the 4-3-3, a still-more-conservative posture for the defensive midfielders may be needed against strong attacking opponents, so long as the Sounders fail to disrupt possession in the middle third.

Dempsey and Ivanschitz are the creators in the present setup, and substantial drops in their touches leaves Seattle with few options to generate chances at goal. Nelson Valdez and Jordan Morris are talented players, but they must not become so disconnected from the rest of the Seattle attack. Overall, Sunday's loss doesn't preclude the success of the 4-3-3, but it should send Sigi Schmidt a clear message of its present shortcomings.

Raw data for this work was collected from OPTA via whoscored.com.