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Tactics and Trends: Absorbing and breaking pressure

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A strong defensive shape and improved ability playing out of the back have launched the year’s first win streak.

MLS: New York City FC at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The Seattle Sounders have won three games in a row, and despite fair criticism from Cristian Roldan that the squad is still not playing up to their standard, the excellent string of results is no accident. The team is playing with the type of purpose and tactical identity not seen since their strong run of form to close out the 2017 season.

One key area that has helped the Sounders reclaim their 2017 dominance is pass completion. In 2017, the Sounders finished 2nd in the league in pass completion at 82.5%. So far this year, they’re 13th in the league at 80.6%. In the last three matches however, the Sounders have averaged 85% pass completion, better than any other team’s 2018 average. Even taking away the minutes the Sounders played up a man against Vancouver only drops the team to 83.7% pass completion over the last three matches, which still outpaces the already very good 2017 squad.

A high pass completion rate points to a team that is dominating possession and tempo and/or a team that can consistently play their way out of pressure. For the Sounders, it’s meant more of the latter as the team averaged an ok but not amazing 49.5% possession over the last three matches. What’s more telling is their best offensive performance came with their worst match in possession (three goals and only 41.6% possession against NYCFC). That means the team is not possessing for possession’s sake, an oft-leveled criticism of the Brian Schmetzer era.

That also means the team is often sitting back and inviting pressure, both home and away. While Seattle has averaged an impressive 85% of passes completed over the last week of play, their opponents managed an even better 86% of passes completed. The key difference is that the Sounders posted good passing numbers despite fairly consistent pressing from their opponents (a tactic that had worked well against the team earlier in the year), while their opponents put up good passing numbers largely as a result of the Sounders sitting back and allowing them time on the ball in non dangerous areas. Consequently, when the Sounders got forward, they had decent match-ups in terms of numbers, but when their opponents got forward, they had to settle for crosses into a crowded Seattle box full of elite aerial defenders.

Sitting back is nothing new for the Sounders under Schmetzer, especially when a lack of attacking options forced the team to put defense first in the opening months of the season. Now, however, when the Sounders do win possession after sitting back, they’re able to play out with much more success. This tactics and trends will break down how the team’s ability to absorb pressure on defense and break pressure on offense spurred each win of their nine-point week.

Vancouver Whitecaps

Picking their moments

Though the Sounders finished the match against the Whitecaps with 54.4% possession, the squad only managed to have 44.7% of the ball in the first half. But unlike earlier in the season, that lack of possession came less from mistakes building out of the back (the Sounders gave up the ball fewer times than Vancouver in the first half according to WhoScored), and more from the Sounders’ deep defensive position.

The Sounders deep lying line of confrontation became evident in only the 2nd minute of the match, when they let the Whitecaps defenders knock the ball around for 40 seconds with only Nico Lodeiro and Will Bruin consistently pressing more than five yards beyond midfield. Behind Lodeiro and Bruin, the Sounders lined up in organized banks of four, with one of the midfielders in the higher bank occasionally stepping to prevent a Whitecap from turning and running towards goal uncontested. While the Whitecaps did eventually get behind the Sounders with a long ball that Kei Kamara knocked down to Cristian Techera, the chance ultimately ended up as a fruitless cross cut out by Nouhou in the air. That chance was one of Vancouver’s better attacking movements of the match, and it still ended in a cross to an area where three of MLS’s best defenders in the air patrolled a tight 10-yard space.

Conversely, upon Gustav Svensson tracking the loose ball and clearing danger, the Sounders immediately broke pressure courtesy of Lodeiro’s quickness to flick on the clearance and Bruin’s strong hold up play to draw a foul. From there, the Sounders went from free kick deep in their own half to corner kick in 15 seconds, as Victor Rodriguez played through the lines brilliantly to break pressure and Harry Shipp launched a flat, hard cross the caught Doneil Henry out of sorts and forced a corner. That corner led to a PK and the Sounders’ opening goal of the match. Though lacking true straight-line speed in their front four, the Sounders’ quality allowed them to launch from a defensive shell to a corner kick in nearly the same amount of time it took the Whitecaps to reach midfield only one play earlier.

Killing the game

Though the Sounders were content to drop into a deep shell once Vancouver established clear possession, they still pressed as a team when given the opportunity to win back the ball quickly after a turnover. That wrinkle allowed the Sounders to establish long runs of play in Vancouver’s half despite their largely defensive shape. The most dominant of these spells was a nearly four-minute stretch where Vancouver failed to possess the ball beyond Seattle’s midfield while the Sounders won a corner kick, had a blocked shot, and eventually scored with a Nico Lodeiro long range blast.

Paramount to the Sounders’ success during that run was team’s ability to win back possession quickly after a turnover. Cristian Roldan played a key role in the Sounders press by winning the ball back twice during the spell, once with an aerial duel to stop a Vancouver clearance and once with a challenge to win the ball off Efrain Juarez high up the pitch that led directly to Lodeiro’s goal. Svensson and Kelvin Leerdam also combined for an important tackle at midfield, while Lodeiro’s sliding challenge prevented Vancouver from getting the ball beyond half off of their only goal kick of the sequence.

In addition to winning the ball quickly after turnovers, the Sounders showed they had the quality to possess the ball in Vancouver’s half when they wanted, stringing nearly 60 passes together during the four-minute spell. The team relied on that quality to see the match out as they turned to possession to kill the game after the second goal. Anchored by the clean passing and smart tempo of Svensson and Ozzie Alonso in the second half, the team dictated rhythm for the final 70+ minutes of the match, allowing Vancouver only one shot on target. That the Sounders could play quickly through lines when pushing for a goal and then switch to a more patient possession game when protecting the lead was a great indicator of a team growing in both confidence and competence.

San Jose Earthquakes

Centerback dominance

Centerbacks rarely get their due in tactics and trends—in part because their roles don’t change much from match to match and in part because Kim Kee-Hee and Chad Marshall have been so good the last few months that it’s easy to take their dominance for granted.

Ironically, Marshall and Kim didn’t start the San Jose match together, as Marshall rested for the midweek game in order to heal up a nagging injury. Prior to the San Jose match, Marshall had spent much of 2018 proving once again that he’s one of the best defenders in MLS. The veteran defender has led the Sounders to the second best goals against record in the league despite lining up with an ever rotating cast of defenders and holding mids around him. That said, against San Jose, the fact that Kim and Roman Torres lined-up together as the starting centerbacks for the first time all year and didn’t miss a beat showed that the Sounders may have the best centerback unit in MLS.

Kim and Torres had their work cut out for them during the San Jose match as they had to track two elusive strikers, Chris Wondolowski and Danny Hoesen, and deal with a flurry of crosses from San Jose’s attack-minded wingers and full backs. When the Sounders sit back in their defensive 4-4-2 shell, their outside mids (with the possible exception of Cristian Roldan) tend to play defense passively, focusing on cutting off passing lanes to the middle of their defensive third more than winning tackles. As a result, when opposing teams push their full backs high, they often have room to advance deep down the Sounders’ wings without much immediate confrontation.

With poorer centerbacks, this could spell disaster as it means the Sounders have to defend a ton of crosses after allowing the ball to advance down the wing. Luckily, Seattle’s centerbacks (and to be fair entire backline as well as holding mids) are so good in the air that allowing opposing teams crosses (albeit contested ones thanks to good positioning from the outside mids) plays straight into the Sounders’ strength. San Jose slung 30 crosses into the box, yet only managed one shot on goal from a cross. Torres won five aerial duels and Kim won two. Nouhou and Jordan McCrary chipped in as well. In short, the San Jose game showed that teams hoping to break down the Sounders will likely need to explore a different path than crossing from wide areas.

Untrue true winger

Ever since Lagerwey has truly put his stamp on roster configuration, the Sounders have placed major emphasis on finding midfielders capable of interchanging, particularly in the attacking band of three. Last year, with Clint Dempsey’s goal-scoring prowess cementing his place as the central presence in the attacking group, the Sounders didn’t interchange so much as trade attacking down the right for a central overload with Lodeiro pinching in while Joevin Jones and/or Nouhou stretched the field down the left side. This year, without the attacking presence of Jones to release pressure from central areas, the Sounders have struggled with Dempsey in the line up, often getting clogged in central areas.

In the last few weeks, with Lodeiro, Rodriguez, Shipp, and Roldan playing in the band of three, the midfield has caused headaches for opponents as any of the four players can pop up wide or centrally. When Roldan is in the attacking band of three, the Sounders become particularly unpredictable, as he can use his speed to run central channels or down the wing depending on where he lines up. Against San Jose, Roldan started centrally and Lodeiro out wide, but eventually the two switched, allowing Roldan to help more defensively when San Jose overloaded the wings. Moreover, Roldan’s presence out wide helped the Sounders get on the break and exploit San Jose’s fullbacks for cheating high up the pitch. Both Roldan’s defensive presence and pace down the wing played key roles in the build up to Seattle’s game winning goal.

New York City FC

A taste of our own medicine

NYCFC gave the Sounders a taste of their own medicine on Sunday by replicating Seattle’s 2017 style with one outside mid filling the Lodeiro role of free roaming playmaker (Jesus Medina), and the other outside mid filling Jones’s roll of outside back converted to winger (Ronald Matarrita). Spoiler alert for those who missed Seattle’s 2017 run of dominance: the combination is very effective.

NYCFC controlled the ball in Seattle’s half for long stretches of play with Moralez’s and Medina’s movements creating problems in between the Sounders’ midfield and defensive lines. The Pigeons parlayed their good possession into 17 shots, five corners, and six free kicks in Seattle’s half. Luckily, New York were not clinical on their dead balls, and the Sounders bend-but-don’t-break defensive mentality proved effective, as they limited the road team to only three shots on target.

Once again, the Sounders deserve credit for their excellent marking in and around the box as well as their ability force play wide (minus a few exceptions with Moralez and Medina getting the ball in dangerous spots in the first half.) The Sounders proved particularly tough to break down once their centerbacks got tight to Moralez when he checked back to the ball from high positions. Of the three matches the Sounders played last week, NYCFC provided the biggest test mentally for Seattle’s back line. The defense showed they were up to the challenge.

Diverse in attack

Against NYCFC, the flexibility of the Sounders front three to interchange caused nightmares once more for an opposing back line. In this match, Lodeiro started centrally with Roldan on the wing, but as at San Jose, the two switched in order to exploit their opponent’s weak spot. This time, rather than sliding Roldan out wide to have him run the flanks, the Sounders put him back in the middle where he could make inside out runs to get behind the NYCFC back line that was pressing extremely high to break up Seattle’s build out play.

The move worked perfectly as Roldan sparked a counter by getting behind attacking fullback Anton Tinnerholm before combining with Lodeiro, drifting all the way across the field, sliding by defenders’ blind spots in the box, collecting the ball again, and smashing home the opening goal. At one point during the sequence, Lodeiro, Shipp, and Roldan all ended up in about three yard radius at the corner of the box before going their separate ways, causing major confusion amongst the NYCFC’s defenders.

In addition to scoring on the counter, the Sounders bagged two goals through either long passing sequences or sustained possession in their opponents half. Both goals featured Shipp and Lodeiro orbiting each other in tight spaces and causing marking dilemmas for New York’s back line. If the Sounders can continue to score goals equally on the counter attack and through sustained possession, they’ll no longer just be difficult to beat; they’ll be difficult to stop.

Trends

  • The Sounders have become an awesome Vulcan mind meld of Schmetzer’s and Lagerwey’s tendencies. Their defense is stout, disciplined, and fearless. Their attack is quick, fluid, and full of smart interchanging. If the scouting reports are true, Paolo Hurtado should be able to slide into Roldan’s recent role of stretching the field both centrally or out wide. That could mean Roldan sliding back to the holding midfield, which would hopefully stop opponents from possessing the ball too deep in the Sounders half. Moreover, Ruidiaz opening up the 4-4-2 option for the Sounders will make game planning very difficult for opponents.
  • All of the above makes the Sounders extremely dangerous moving forward. Hooray for winning.