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Tactics and Trends: A possession problem

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The Sounders must be better building out of the back.

MLS: Seattle Sounders at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

This season has hit a low point. If we’re lucky, time will permit us to remember the back-to-back losses against Real Salt Lake as rock bottom—but as of yet there’s no telling where the Sounders’ floor lies.

Up to this juncture, every two- or three-match stretch had at least provided some hope that the Sounders could turn the corner soon. A home victory against Chivas in CCL eased tensions over an MLS season-opening loss to LAFC where the team had at least created enough chances to win. After that, red cards became an easy scapegoat as the team ground their way to positive results against SKC and Minnesota United in their first MLS matches where they kept 11 on the field for the full 90. Even disappointing scoreless affairs against LAFC, Columbus Crew, and Portland Timbers showed that the squad had enough defensive depth to keep matches tight.

Now the Sounders have lost two in a row to a team that had averaged 1.18 ppg before playing Seattle and had to play on short rest for the second of the two matches. Sure, injuries remain a legitimate cause for the squad’s poor form, but if the Sounders hope to stay afloat while they wait for starters to return, they’ll need to average probably twice as much as their current .78 ppg.

More importantly, the team needs to establish a consistent tactical identity. Last year, Schmetzer’s 4-2-3-1 was a staple. And though the formation provided enough flexibility to add different wrinkles to each game plan—the left mid could be occupied by a speedy Joevin Jones or a crafty Victor Rodriguez, holding mids could range from ball-winning specialist to Jordy Delem to passing savant Nico Lodeiro—the overall objectives remained similar in each match: control tempo and possession in the midfield, get the outside backs involved in the offense with crossing, and provide enough creative flair to at least win dangerous set-piece opportunities. Accordingly, the team finished top five in possession, crosses, and set-piece goals.

This year, the Sounders are all over the map in terms of team statistics. While the team remains top five in crosses attempted, they’ve dropped to 16th in possession and are in a four-way tie for 19th on set-piece goals. Last year, the team’s ability to control the ball through the midfield helped them stay in games even when the offense was sputtering. Case-in-point, the Sounders posted two key 1-0 wins at the end of May last year to stop a three-game skid. Over the course of those two games, the Sounders averaged 56.4% possession and an 85.5% passing accuracy. Over the last two matches against RSL, the team averaged 46.3% possession and a 77.5% passing accuracy.

This week’s tactics and trends will break down how the Sounders lost the midfield in their double header against RSL.

RSL, part 1

Neutralized speed

With Dempsey’s aging legs providing the best, if not only, Sounders option up front, Schmetzer put out a line-up that placed an understandable emphasis on getting midfielders in a position to overlap Deuce and get in behind RSL’s defense. Not only did Schmetzer start the same two outside mids who’d both proven lethal on the counter against Toronto, he rolled out a 4-1-4-1 formation that allowed both Roldan brothers the opportunity to play higher up the pitch and add their own dynamic punch to the attack.

Unfortunately, putting the Roldan brothers higher up the pitch meant the Sounders struggled to build out of the back with any fluidity. While Leerdam posted an impressive 10-for-10 passing mark in the first half, Jordy Delem didn’t look comfortable showing for the ball out of the back, and Nouhou struggled to find a rhythm with both Handwalla Bwana and Waylon Francis.

The lack of fluid build out play from the back limited the opportunities for the four attacking midfielders to get out on the break, essentially neutralizing any speed or skill those players could provide in the open field. When the Sounders did get in on the attack, they often found themselves in tight spaces where they once again lacked the top-level quality needed to break down an organized defense. Alex Roldan, while still solid in possession, particularly struggled in goal-scoring chances, failing twice in a row to control balls to his feet in the box, and also misplaying a good opportunity to slip Leerdam in on a through ball.

Like for almost like

Unwilling to compromise the game plan of having some pace and 1-v-1 attacking ability in the midfield to support Dempsey, Schmetzer opted to sub in defender Waylon Francis for an injured Handwalla Bwana instead of midfielder Harry Shipp. By Schmetzer’s own admission, this move was inspired by the success of the Nouhou-Jones left flank combo from last year.

But where Jones tended to stay nearly as wide as a midfielder as he did as an outside back, Francis found himself tucked in centrally more often than not during his time in the midfield. That central positioning essentially nullified any speed or one on one ability Francis may have brought to the match and instead forced him into the role of dictating tempo and possession. Caught in unfamiliar positions on the pitch, his decision-making was too slow to make an impact on the match.

Once moved back to his more familiar left back spot, Francis could play as the widest player on the pitch, relieving him from having to keep possession centrally and allowing his composure on the touchline and crossing ability to help spur the offense into creating more dangerous chances.

RSL, part 2

Back to square one

Faced with the reality that the Sounders had only amassed three points in three matches outside of the 4-2-3-1 (still slightly better than the team’s rate for the season), Schmetzer opted to revert back to the team’s most comfortable formation for the second match against RSL. That decision made sense on paper as a means to settle down the squad against Salt Lakes’s high-pressing tendencies at Rio Tinto Stadium. The move also allowed Bruin and Dempsey to play in their favored positions.

Similar to the first match against RSL, Schmetzer made sure to surround his slower attacking options with capable and willing runners. On paper, putting Leerdam, Delem, the Roldan brothers, Nouhou, and McCrary not only made up for Dempsey and Bruin’s lack of pace, but also provided enough athleticism to consistently press and disrupt RSL’s possession. In reality, that group of players struggled so badly to build out of the back that the team never had a chance to get out on the break and got dominated in possession despite registering an equal number of tackles and a higher number of interceptions than RSL in the first half.

Out of the holding mids, outside mids and outside backs, Christian Roldan was the only player to post a passing percentage higher than 80% in the first half, outpacing his teammates by a long shot with an impressive 94% success rate. The other players in the aforementioned position groups put up a very poor combined average of 68% passes completed. The team’s lack of composure in passing not only prevented any coherent build out play, but also foiled any opportunities to create chances once in the attacking third.

Bring in the specialist

Shipp is very low on Schmetzer’s holding mid depth chart. Like 6th or 7th choice low. The second year Sounder doesn’t cover a lot of ground defensively, is not an imposing tackler, and isn’t likely to win a ton of aerial challenges. In other words he’s not likely to pad the stats in Schmetzer’s favorite “duels won” category. What he can do is keep possession and contribute to build out play as well as anybody. After getting pounded in possession by RSL for three halves in a row, subbing in the composed midfielder for the hard-tackling Delem at halftime was a risk Schmetzer had to take.

The Sounders found themselves on the wrong end of that gamble for the first 15 minutes of the second half. RSL knifed through the Sounders midfield like it was hot butter in the 56th minute. One minute later, Shipp allowed Sunny to turn up field and carry the ball uncontested into the attacking third—a movement that eventually led to RSL’s opening goal, though not before Jordan McCrary made had his own defensive lapse that compounded issues for the Sounders defense.

After the goal, the Sounders settled down and Shipp found his rhythm in the passing game, posting a 90% completion rate and helping the Sounders finally turn the tide in the possession game. After Rodriguez came on the in the 73rd, the Sounders almost looked goal dangerous from the run of play as the two shifty midfielders added a level creativity to the attack that has been absent for much of 2018. Though the result ended the same, the insertion of a more creative midfielder in a holding positioned at least allowed the Sounders to generate more opportunities going forward.

Trends:

  • Alex Roldan has started seven of the last eight MLS games, including the last three losses in a row. His defensive work rate, and relatively clean passing make him an easy choice if Schmetzer needs a hard-working glue guy to complete the midfield. Since the Sounders have only scored twice in the last six MLS matches, they may need more than a glue guy going forward. Continued injuries will ensure the younger Roldan remains in the conversation as a starter for the next few matches. If his name is called, he’ll need to be cleaner in the attacking third.
  • Shipp’s appearance as a holding mid marked the first time since Lodeiro played the position that Schmetzer has put a truly attack minded player in a deep lying position for an extended stretch. Given the Sounders’ difficulties in build out play as well as generating offense from the wings, employing a deep-lying playmaker remains an option for injecting life into the Sounders attack.
  • Rumor has it the Sounders are courting Raul Ruidiaz from Liga MX’s Club Monarcas. The “Peruvian Messi” would be another diminutive player in the Sounders attack, but one with bona fide speed and finishing ability. His skillset could lend itself well to playing off the back shoulder of Dempsey or Bruin if the Sounders decide to reprise the 4-4-2 diamond they tinkered with in preseason.
  • As a fun mental exercise during this scoreless drought, if the Sounders rolled out a 4-2-3-1 with with Ruidiaz up top, Rodriguez, Lodeiro, and Eikrem as the attacking midfielders, and Shipp and Christian Roldan as holding midfielders, would it be the smallest (height and weight considered) front six in the history of the MLS? Could they be the MLS version of the Golden State Warriors when they “go small”? Could Christian Roldan be the undersized enforcer that Draymond Green is? Does Bwana deserve to start over Eikrem or Shipp in this mythical and very unbalanced team? What is the over/under on number of flicks per game, and how much does it go up if Dempsey makes an appearance? What about Bruin? I digress… Have we scored yet?