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Stuttering Sounders offense conceals deeper concerns

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Defensive imbalance can’t be resolved by health.

MLS: Toronto FC at Seattle Sounders FC
Struggling to get in the game...
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

With apologies to Antoine Lavoisier ... soccer defense is neither created nor destroyed — it can only be converted between threats to the midfield defensive line, the backline, and the goal line. Every possession of an opposing team ends with a turnover, and the most dangerous turnovers happen to be shots at the defended goal. Teams that force turnovers away from their own goal limit these chances as much as is possible. A tactically healthy team will see defensive actions accumulate most rapidly on the backline, but also be fairly distributed through the full 11 players who take the field. Below, the black line and blue data points show the approximate share of team defensive actions in descending order within the 11 starters for MLS teams, excluding Seattle (see also footnote 1 below).

Note that the player in position 1 could take any of several on-field positions — he is simply the team member with the highest defensive share (player defensive actions per 90 minutes divided by team defensive actions per 90 minutes). The line marks the league mean, while the error bars extend 2 standard deviations from the mean. It’s interesting to note that the decline is fairly smooth, on average. For Seattle, I’ve compared two lineups, one featuring Harry Shipp and the other featuring Will Bruin.

When Brian Schmetzer pushed Bruin into a starting role on the road against Los Angeles, the team essentially converted to a three-forward setup (Bruin, Jordan Morris, Clint Dempsey), with “forward” defined as a player primarily involved in offensive-half touches and diminished defensive contribution, to enhance its offensive performance around the opponent’s box. On the offensive side, placing a third forward nominally on the wing is a familiar approach: Sigi Schmid utilized Lamar Neagle in this manner to add an extra offensive threat in his 4-4-2. However, while Neagle took on a role in passing typical of a forward and was relied upon to make runs into the box, his defensive contributions were typical of a wide midfielder in MLS. Thus far in 2017, none of Dempsey, Bruin, or Morris offer significant defensive contributions. The plot above should persuade you that such an imbalanced defense is atypical of the league. Comparing the lineup with Bruin (gray line with crosses, “Seattle 2”) to the league average, the Seattle Sounders put a significantly lighter load on positions seven through nine. It’s common for a team to have a low defensive load on the keeper and at least one attacker, but Seattle’s next three attackers (two forwards, plus Nicolas Lodeiro) take on abnormally low defensive duties. With Shipp typically accounting for nearly 10% of team defense when he takes the field, (“Seattle 1,”) Lodeiro’s participation is well within the bounds of position eight, and only position nine is exceptionally low. Where the defensive share of the attackers decreases, greater load is placed on team defense (as we see in positions three and four).

Now, compare the “Seattle 2” to the league mean.

Compared to an average MLS team, the attacking positions account for a deficit of about 11% of team defensive actions. That’s about six or seven tackles, interceptions, or clearances distributed around the defensive line and defensive midfielders for each game — and given that only a portion of opposing possessions end in a defensive action, this should be considered an underestimate of the number of times an attack reaches the centerbacks or a isolated fullback. With the team lacking elite defensive fullbacks and needing a significant contribution of those fullbacks to offensive width, this is a poor tactical setup against strong counter-attacks.

After a disappointing home loss to Toronto and a desperate draw against New England, it’s easy to see issues with the Seattle Sounders’ offensive consistency. The team’s overall production of 14 goals in nine games is mediocre, and xG analyses suggest the team has been somewhat unlucky — but half of that production has come fighting back from early deficits. It remains to be seen whether the Sounders can consistently gain an advantage in an even game state — a feat the team has only accomplished twice this year, against New York and Los Angeles. Some of these problems might be attributable to health, with Morris hobbled by a nagging ankle injury and the right back position constantly rotating between players who provide little on the offensive end. There’s reason to hope that production at both positions will improve with time and better health: Morris is a better player than shown in 2017 thus far; the team has been unlucky to see both Brad Evans and Oniel Fisher unavailable for so long a period of time. As we learned last year, a poor and unlucky stretch to the regular season doesn’t preclude overall success. That the offensive triumph on the road against Los Angeles came with a tactical adjustment that may not be sustainable against stronger midfields is a much greater long-term concern.

1) This is not as easy as it may seem. Most teams have lineup turnover that makes the ideal starting XI unclear at this point. For the most part, this has been calculated by taking the top 11 players by minutes on each team. Seattle (for comparison purposes) and Houston (because of lineup shifting) have been excluded from the league mean.

This analysis was performed on stats collected from OPTA by way of whoscored.com

Edit: as there have been some questions concerning the distribution of league values for each lineup position, here’s a rough comparison of Seattle’s “with Shipp” lineup to the range of values in box and whisker format.