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Tactics and Trends: Roldan and Delem smother opponents’ attack

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Cristian Roldan and Jordy Delem marched into three straight opposing stadiums and stole all the balls.

MLS: Seattle Sounders at Colorado Rapids Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Sounders have gone undefeated in three matches for the first time this year. More impressively, every match in the team’s unbeaten streak has come on the road, with two of the results coming against a team in playoff position in the east, one of whom (our geographic opposite in the league) is a leading contender for the Supporter’s Shield.

In terms of trends over that time, a few line-up choices have stood out. Most notable, at least in terms of omissions, has been the absence of Clint Dempsey, who as usual did not start the midweek match of a three match week when the team played Colorado, but then bucked the trend of starting on the weekends when he was left out of the 11 at New England as well. The Seattle Sounders striker then had to miss the trip to ATL due to a sore groin.

Offensively, the team’s numbers didn’t change much without the veteran goal-scorer in the starting line-up as the squad averaged an ok-but-not-great goal per match. Defensively, however, over the same stretch, the Sounders were lights out, allowing less than a goal per match to opponents who had collectively averaged 1.96 goals per match at home for the season.

The collective pressing ability of Victor Rodrgiuez, Nico Lodeiro, and Harry Shipp/Magnus Wolff Eikrem certainly helped the defense as the four players averaged 1.55 interceptions a match over the three games. For perspective, Dempsey has yet to record an interception all season.

However, Dempsey’s absence was not the only significant change that may have helped the Sounders defensively. The three road matches marked the first times Jordy Delem and Cristian Roldan went the full 90 together as the holding mids in a 4-2-3-1 all year. The duo were dynamic in breaking up opposition attacks as Roldan averaged 3.5 tackles per match while Delem averaged 3.66 interceptions per match, both rates that would be club bests for holding mids if extended throughout the season.

The performances of Roldan and Delem played a major role in holding Colorado, New England, and Atlanta to fewer shots on target than their respective home averages for the season. This tactics and trends will break down how the two limited their opponents in each match.

Colorado Rapids

Freezing the rapid counter

The Colorado Rapids don’t particularly like the ball. They rank dead last in the league for possession at 43.5% per game, more than two percent off from the next worst team (Vancouver Whitecaps), and nearly four percent off the team after that (Portland Timbers).

That means that when Colorado do have the ball, they like to attack quickly, and play long often (though not with much success as they’re 2nd in the league for inaccurate long balls per match and 16th for accurate long balls per match). With Colorado hurling the ball long 63 times, 2nd balls and aerial duels became a key factor in the match, and Delem and Roldan excelled in both areas. Delem particularly excelled in challenging first balls out of the air, while Roldan’s quickness and tenacity allowed him to clean up 2nd balls and start the attack.

Beyond pairing nicely to snuff out Colorado’s long balls, the duo’s positioning and responsibilities complemented each other perfectly throughout the match. With Colorado’s 3-4-2-1 formation forcing Delem to sit back and assist the center backs in tracking Colorado’s narrow leaning front three, Roldan was allowed to drift higher and help the Sounders’ front four press Colorado out of the back. Delem’s work rate and ability to cover massive ground helped contain the likes of Dominique Badji and Sam Nicholson, while Roldan’s freedom to press high directly lead to the Sounders’ second goal. Moreover, Roldan’s greater positional freedom allowed him to start the attack on offense and also push forward when he wanted. When Roldan is free to roam forward in the attack as an 8, his passing, dribbling, pace, and shooting add another potent dimension to the Sounders’ attack.

New England Revolution

A chaotic Revolution

If the Rapids game featured a lot of aerial duels due to Colorado’s old school style of play, then the New England game featured a ton of duels on the ground thanks to both teams adopting a modern pressing style for the match. From virtually the first whistle to the last, both teams put relentless pressure on their opponent’s backlines, making for a ton of errant passes into the midfield. Not only did those errant balls lead to a combined 46 turnovers from both teams, they also created the conditions for 70 attempted tackles. The amount of turnovers and tackles from the New England match approached the totals in both categories from the Colorado and Atlanta games combined.

Once again, Roldan and Delem reprised their roles as number 8 and 6 respectively for the Sounders and made sure the team lost no ground in the ongoing midfield scrums. Roldan enjoyed his freedom to seek and destroy where he sought fit in the midfield tacklepalooza, racking up 6 successful tackles for the match, double any other Sounder’s total.

Meanwhile, Delem patrolled balls through the air, accounting for all three of Seattle’s aerial duels won in the midfield, while also staying in Fagundez’s pocket and keeping New England’s dynamic attacker from getting off a single shot for the match. Though neither Delem nor Roldan were particularly great in possession (both hovered around a 70 percent pass completion rate for the match), they’re ability to cover ground and win balls at an elite pace kept New England from finding any rhythm at home.

Atlanta United

Grounding Almiron

The key difference between the Atlanta match and the Colorado and New England matches was where the Sounders drew their line of confrontation. Against Colorado and New England, the Sounders pressed high early and often, allowing Roldan and Delem to clean up the scraps behind the front four. Against Atlanta, the Sounders often allowed play to reach midfield before pressing to win the ball in any meaningful way. The deeper starting position defensively meant that Roldan and Delem spent less time chasing down loose balls from the opposition and more time meticulously tracking the movements of Atlanta’s many talented attackers.

Here, I will toss the analysis over to Realio, who provided great insight to use in this article on the Roldan and Delem pairing in this match:

“This was the most tactically impressive utilization of players I think I have seen all year and it revolved around choking the creation ability of Atlanta in the first half (mostly Miguel Almiron) by man marking through zone 14 and forcing his runs wide while also spending much more time recognizing midfield runs. In this setup, any time Almiron ventured in front of the center backs on the same side of the field as the ball, a defensive mid (usually Delem) would immediately mark him through the zone, often committing to the role to the sidelines. The opposite defensive midfielder would shade central goal side, playing a matchup zone with the outside mids pinching in to support defensively on Barco.

The short version of this meant any time Almiron got near goal he usually had Delem in his pocket, denying his creation ability. Almiron is a great player, but he is no Nico Lodeiro work rate wise, and he simply was outplayed for most of the match, choked of any space to work. It was a fantastic piece of tactical utilization that was quite nuanced and really impressive as the communication needed to pass off players constantly through the middle of the field is hugely complicated.”

For context on just how effective Seattle’s system was in stopping Almiron from getting on the ball, the Paraguayan international only amassed 40 touches all match, his lowest number of touches per 90 all season. (Stat collected by Jacob Landsberg.) With Delem effectively marking Almiron into the submission and Roldan patrolling anybody else who crossed the middle in Seattle’s third, Atlanta were forced to go full Seattle v. Columbus and pump an unseemly number of crosses to the box, playing into the strength of Seattle’s back four.

Moving forward

The Sounders are simultaneously deep and not deep in the holding midfield. Currently, between Roldan, Svensson, Alonso, and Delem, they have four players with significant MLS experience, but how many of them will be back next year is largely a mystery. What’s for sure is that Delem has proven he’s a capable MLS player as a 6. With a very low salary cap hit, that should give the Sounders FO a lot of flexibility moving into the off-season.

For the current season, Delem will still need to improve his play in possession if he wants to become a part of the Sounders first choice 11. Though his passing numbers were decent through the three matches, he only attempted about half as many total passes as Roldan, meaning the team often bypassed him in build out play. Sacrificing ability on the ball for exceptional man marking and aerial skill may well be a worthy trade when scratching out points on the east coast, but at home, where the Sounders have struggled to break opponents down, the team may need the additional passing ability of Alonso or Svensson to put opposing teams on the back foot.