Thoughts from Sounderland week three — Road Points

So much of the MLS regular season is about grinding out results.  It’s not about tactics or style or even necessarily form.  There are those who believe these things are intrinsic to success — particularly style, given that this is the beautiful game — but the realities of competing in MLS largely preclude that.  An MLS team needs to navigate their way through injuries, suspensions, bad luck, and poor form to keep their heads just enough above the icy waters of MLS mediocrity to garner enough points to stay in contention.  This is something that Sigi and the Sounders have done quite well for most of the last 5 years.

Such as it is that Sunday saw the unavailability of Brad Evans (injury), Clint Dempsey (suspension) and Marco Pappa (relegated to the bench because of poor form).  They had some luck go their way, as both goals came via some good fortune, but overall they established themselves as the superior team Sunday and came away with the richly deserved 3 points.

The Formation

The necessary personnel changes resulted in Sigi opting for 3 central mids, all of the holding or box-to-box type.  Neither of Andy Rose and Gonzalo Pineda are of the type to fulfill the CAM/2nd striker role of Dempsey, so the result was a formation described as a 4-3-3, with Rose and Pineda – but mostly Rose – fulfilling the role of the more advanced CM in the central triangle.  Ozzie Alonso sat in expertly, as usual, in the “5th defender” role playing essentially between the fullbacks.  For the first half Sunday, they helped Seattle fight in, and narrowly win, the possession battle.  While Montreal’s fullbacks were slightly more active in the Sounders half of the field during the first half of play, Dylan Remick and Deandre Yedlin both pushed forward into the attack to help provide width to the midfield, as is necessary with a 4-3-3.

To be fair, in a 4-3-3 midfield width can come from either the fullbacks pushing forward or the wingers falling back, but for much of the first half Lamar Neagle – starting in a left wing role not much different on paper from his left attacking mid role in a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 – was the Sounders highest attacker.  Kenny Cooper, nominally the right wing, tended to tuck inside and play a little bit as Obafemi Martin’s 2nd striker, although Oba himself continued to look more like a false 9 than an out-and-out lone striker.

The Tactics

While the post-game narratives centered around an alleged change in tactics, with talk of the Sounders sitting back and absorbing more pressure — in other words a bit more “bunker and counter” than we’ve seen — this isn’t necessarily how the first half played out.

If we think of possession as a part of proactive defending — in other words, the best form of defense is keeping the ball away from your opponents — then the Sounders once again demonstrated the efficacy of this approach in the first half.  While its true that the Montreal fullbacks were more active in the Sounder half – They complete 23 passes in the attacking half, compared to just 10 for Yedlin and Remick — the Sounder fullbacks completed 43 of 55 total first-half passes, which isn’t much less than the 48 of 63 for Brovsky and Miller of the Impact.  The Sounders midfield trio went 75 of 87, outperforming the Montreal trio of holding mids Patrice Bernier and Hernan Bernadello and CAM Felipe Martins, who were 49 of 63.  Granted,  Felipe Martins was a playing a different role as a true CAM/2nd striker in Montreal’s 4-2-3-1, but even taking him out of the equation, Montreal’s holding mids were 38 of 46, while Pineda and Alonso were 63 of 70.  On the whole, Sounders were 196 of 250 (78%) passing in the first half, against the Impact’s 190 of 244 (77.8%). None of these numbers are indicative of the Sounders conceding the possession game.

The Game state

For the first time this season, the Sounders were playing with a lead (unless you count the dying few seconds against SKC in the opener). The Pineda-to-Neagle set piece was well worked, and resulted in a great chance off the post that ultimately found its way in with a fortunate deflection off of Troy Perkins.  The Sounders would go on to come inches away from extending their lead on two other occasions, with Perkins making up for his gaffe with a superb stop of an Oba header and Neagle rattling the post again with a worm burner shot after Oba put the ball into his path in space.  With the goal coming so early you wouldn’t expect the Sounders to be willing to bunker, but you could also expect Montreal to press. However, It was never enough to really pin back the visitors.

Another pleasant development was Seattle’s crossing game, with just 7 crosses from open play in the first half, with 3 of them connecting – one of which was Neagle’s chip for Oba’s near goal in the 17th minute.  Montreal, meanwhile, were just 2 of 16 in open play crosses, many of the “out of ideas” variety we saw from the Sounders last week.

Along with the possession game comes another important p-word — pressure.  Not just pressure to win back the ball in the midfield, but pressure in the form of a patient style of attack that prizes quality of chances over quantity.  Seattle had only 4 shot attempts in the first half, and 2 were on frame, and the other two rang the post.

The 2nd half

It was in the second half we saw classic bunker and counter from the Sounders… and boy did they bunker.  Fortune smiled on them again with their 2nd goal, with the key touch in the attacking sequence being a deflection off a Montreal defender after a weak centering pass from Neagle.  It was the Sounders first meaningful foray into the attacking third in the half, coming in the 58th minute.  The deflected ball ended up being almost perfectly weighted for Cooper to run onto just before the byline, who then sent in a clever chip to stymy both Perkins and Bernier, who was in deep defending.  Even the initial pass from the midfield into Neagle came courtesy of some rather questionable defending from the right back Eric Miller.  But credit must be given to Cooper, who made the kind of hustle play that can change games.  Oba had little to do but head the ball in to a gaping net.

Montreal would launch 20 shots in the 2nd half, against just 5 for Seattle.  Three of Seattle’s were on target, including Djimi Traore’s scintillating bicycle kick attempt.  Compared to the sheer volume of Montreal’s shots, this hardly speaks to the efficacy of bunker and counter tactics, but the Sounders passed a test of their own this week and managed to keep the clean sheet.  Of Montreal’s 20 shots, 9 were blocked and 13 were from outside the penalty area.

Bunkering tactics tend to put tremendous pressure on a team’s center backs, and both Traore and Chad Marshall held up very well.  It’s tough for me to pick which of the 2 deserves man of the match — the temptation is to lean towards Traore for his goal-line clearance in the 84′ — but Marshall won 4 aerial duels (Traore had none) and had more tackles, interceptions and clearances.  So they split the award this week.

Looking ahead

While Columbus have only played 2 matches, thanks to the odd number of MLS teams which forces some awkward scheduling — seven sides have already had a bye week — they have looked like one of the better teams in the League.  Of course, I’ll be the first to say it’s pretty preposterous to try to come to any defining conclusions about any team this early in the season.  It’s worth noting one of their two wins was against DC United in week one — and unfortunately United so far have looked like a continuation of last season’s complete ineptitude.

However, if we are to learn anything from their first two matches it is that Columbus is interested in playing the possession game, leading the league with 440 short passes per game (ahead of 2nd place Seattle with 405) and also leading the League with an 83 percent pass success rate.  Does any of this really mean anything?  Probably not, but we need something to talk about between matches. At any rate, the Crew’s key man in the attack is Argentinian playmaker Frederico Huguain, who was among the better creative midfielders last season despite the fact his efforts were rather lost in the smoke of the small-scale dumpster fire that resulted in a mid-season managerial change.

On the Seattle side we know Dempsey will once again be unavailable due to suspension, but Brad Evans is likely to be back from his calf muscle contusion.  If you subscribe to the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” line of reasoning, Sigi’s obvious lineup would be to insert Evans for Rose and roll out a 4-3-3 like last weekend.  With Leo Gonzalez making a late sub appearance Sunday as essentially a defensive left wing, it’s worth wondering if he might be fit to start this Saturday.  While Remick has been a solid replacement, particularly with regards to his offensive contributions, his defense has been somewhat of a liability.  Late in Sunday’s match an egregiously lackadaisical clearance attempt gifted the ball back to Montreal, after which he was skinned by Miller who rang a shot off the post.  It’s unlikely that Gonzo, one of the better defensive left backs in the League, would be guilty of such a transgression while bunkering and clinging to a lead late in a match.

Another interesting early-season storyline is that of Marco Pappa.  Referred to by some as the “Plan B” of the Sounders attack before the season — with Dempsey as the “Plan A” — I can’t help but feel as though his absence was a case of addition by subtraction in the attack against Montreal.  While I think its foolish to write him off for the season, there also looks to be a clear case of there simply being better options for Sigi ahead of him in the roster order.  Lamar Neagle may give the ball away too much, and overall lack the creativity and pedigree of some of his teammates, but its hard to argue with the results he consistently delivers when he is put in a position to succeed.  On Sunday he certainly was, operating as a left wing/striker he once again demonstrated his ability to thrive in a partnership with Oba.

We do know one thing for sure — early goals change games.  We’ve seen it the last two weeks.  We saw it last season in the playoffs when Portland scored just 10 minutes into the first leg in Seattle and went on to control the subsequent 170 minutes. Columbus has scored 4 of their 5 goals in the first half, with the first coming in the 18th minute against DC and the 24th minute against Philly last week.  In fact, they have enjoyed 2-0 leads in each of their first two games.  We also know the most tried and true method for limiting opponents scoring chances is proactive defending — i.e. playing the possession game.