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MLS 2019 Analysis: Part 1 (3 Games out of the Matchdays 1 and 2)

This (retrospective) article marks the first part of this season’s MLS tactical report as our author Chris Winkler (who you can also find on Twitter @ChrisWinkler90) plans to analyze one game of each MLS matchday. In order to make up for the slight delay of release, the writer broke down not one, but two games of Matchday 1, with New York City FC at Orlando City and Atlanta United at DC United. To sum up the article, Portland Timbers at Los Angeles FC is the game which was dissected out of the second matchday.

1.) Orlando City v New York City FC 2:2 (0:2) (Matchday 1)

In a checkered season opener in Florida, New York City FC squandered a two-goal lead after showing some initial difficulties, especially with their hybrid scheme on the defensive side of the ball, whereas Orlando City fought back into the game and would have even deserved a win in the end.

Formations

James O’Connor’s first line-up of the season formed in a 3-4-1-2 with veteran and captain Sacha Kljestan as the key player in their offense albeit their most striking player was US-American youngster Chris Mueller who shined with a combinational focus through intelligent positionings while constantly creating breakthroughs. Spaniard Domenec Torrent, coach of the guests, decided to start with a 4-3-3/ 4-1-4-1 formation in which the 18-year-old James Sands was put in charge with a lot of responsibilities filling out the important and complex role of the lone No. 6.

First half

The start of the game was characterized by a lot of long balls. Sean Johnson’s goal kicks were obstructed by Orlando with man-orientations throughout the field. In the graphic above out of the 3rd minute of the game, you could see these man-coverages very well. For Orlando this approach was, at least on paper, somewhat risky leaving them with a 3 v 3 coverage at the back. NYCFC, though, failed to take advantage of the non-existing numerical disadvantage higher up the pitch.

Interestingly Kljestan often times functioned as the right forward in their 3-4-3/ 3-4-1-2-high attack press, possibly because of his tendency to naturally linger around the right half-space in possession and than simply cutting out the positional change with Akindele.

Furthermore after a few seconds –but before the goal kick was taken- Mendez ended his coverage on Ring and dropped deeper into the middle to balance the “impure” formation which has given rise to an extraordinary space between the lines and, thus, an additional invitation for the forwards of New York. Mendez’ absence on Ring left Acosta with the task to watch two players at the same time with Tinnerholm, his nominal opponent, and the NYC-captain. In order to avoid any risks Johnson played a long ball to Mitrita and this scene ceased to cause any danger.

Two minutes later, a similar scene: Mendez leaving Ring open which led to Acosta giving signals that he, again, has to cover two players. Yet, once more, New York played a simple long ball.

In the 8th minute Sean Johnson received a back pass making it an open play. The same man-orientations occurred, the only difference was Mendez covering Ring tightly while the result remained the same: Johnson playing a long ball into the still risky 3 v 3 “safeguarding” of Orlando City. One method to play against or even take advantage of opposing spacious man-coverage will be explained in the analysis of the game LAFC v Portland where the Californians gave a good demonstration of doing exactly that.

At this time you weren’t alone when you would have expected the former assistant coach of Pep Guardiola, Domenec Torrent, to squeeze a little more “football”, respectively “soccer”, out of the guest’s team after a long preparation for the season.

At least against the ball, NYCFC showed a specific feature one rarely encounters: the switching role of the No. 6 creating a back five and generating a 5-4-1-midfield pressing, also with 5-2-2-1- staggers through higher wingers, which was planned to shift neatly in a ball- and position-orientated manner. The aim was to create a numerical superiority in the last line to than focus defenders to push up flexibly into the space between the lines to put pressure on the ball carrier. The vastness of this space between the lines was, yet, their biggest defensive problem.

In this schematic figure the problems within the structural remodeling processes become obvious. Sands dropping deeper while both No. 8s pushing up higher leaves the space between the lines abandoned. When Orlando used long balls in the direction of Akindele, like in this scheme, normally, that wasn’t a problem for the back five to defend, pre-eminently due to the fact that it’s more difficult for forwards to control those.

Much more difficult to defend were relocations, preferably to the left wing, which resulted often times in numerical superiority because of Mueller’s fast availability as a passing option for Acosta. In this scene, Orlando City showed some calm and patient circulation on the right side prior to the shift which helped preparing it. Usually, they then combined themselves nicely back in the half-space and the center exploiting the lack of intensity and defensive access of New York’s defense. Nonetheless, they mostly just created chances from outside of the box.

Either way, it were the guests from New York who scored the lead in the 13th minute. Moralez managed to hold on to the ball swerving to the left wing as his teammates pushed up, and then slightly overloaded the ball-near half-space as Mitrita got the ball, quickly passing it to Ring, who occupied Moralez’ nominal position, only to accelerate right after doing so providing a passing option and/or opening space for his teammates. The coherent occupation of space made sure that NYCFC recovered the second ball in the person of the widely inverted fullback Tinnerholm. The Swedish international passed it to Lewis and ensuingly started an underlapping run opening space for Lewis to cut inside and to find Ofori who striked from distance.

Subsequently, New York were pushed backwards by Orlando which generally had some ambitious phases in possession with Mendez being very active, most of the time in the left half-space, always trying to boost their build-up play. When the ball was on their focused left side where Mueller always provided connection into higher spaces, the ball-far winger of NYC, Mitrita, didn’t shift with the midfield chain by gambling and obviously orienting himself early for a possible counterattack. This led to asymmetrical 5-3-1-1- staggerings and some additional horizontal issues in the already not saddle fast defense. Thus, the home team was able to combine itself from the wings into the space between the lines, mostly relocating the ball in intermediate steps from the left side to the right half-space where Will Johnson and Sacha Kljestan found room to shoot just from outside of the box. The biggest chance of the first half for Orlando, though, resulted from extricating themselves from the right wing with a neat combination, followed by a good dribbling from Kljestan in the space between the lines laying it on to Mueller who just very narrowly missed the goal.

NYCFC struggled to find a benevolent rhythm having too many players higher up the pitch who weren’t available for the build-up play, resulting in big holes between defense and offense, hence, playing too vertical and without patience. Furthermore Akindele delighted with some clever backward pressing actions complicating New York’s search for control even more. By the way, backwards pressing really is an underrated tool within the context of pressing because of its high probability of success making it often times almost impossible for the ball carrier to anticipate, even for highly intelligent players who are used to constantly checking the field.

Orlando City FC on the other side focused the left half-space with Miller, who partially engaged himself offensively quite boldly, Mendez and Mueller. The latter always sought for space while making sure to receive the ball as unchallenged as possible to then use his fine dribbling skills to connect with his fellow players propelling combination play.

Also their counterpressing improved as you can see in the graphic below, out of the 36th minute. After Mueller lost the ball he tried to immediately win it back as Sands passed it to Ofori who had a less-than-ideal visual angle while getting pressured by Mueller, Kljestan and Johnson, who was the one who managed to dispossess Ofori in the end with a sprinting effort. Mendez pushed higher as well anticipating a pass to Ring. In a general sense, albeit, the counterpressing stayed inconsistent and often passive as it was not collective and intense enough. The deeper parts of the team didn’t push up consequently plus only a few players counterpressed individually while there were only at times group tactical or team tactical (attempts of) procedures visible.

Defensively, the man-orientations of Johnson and Mendez towards Ofori and Ring were relatively long-ranged but that didn’t keep them from pushing up in a ball-oriented manner to pressurize opponents from time to time. Especially Johnson had some good intuition when to enforce pressure by using nicely-timed intense acceleration (as seen at the counterpressing scene above).

Right before the end of the first half, NYCFC became more courageous using a high midfield to attacking press. It was conducted in a clear 5-4-1, including advancing ball-near half-backs who did so in a more man-oriented manner. Therefore, one can’t fully call it (a clean) “Durchsichern”, a German term established by former Red Bull Salzburg and Bayer Leverkusen coach Roger Schmidt. As far as I know there is no existing English word for it so I came up with “covering through” or as a verb “to cover through”. If you have a better term, feel free to leave it in the comments. Anyway, it means building a defensive diagonal line on the ball-near side to be able to manufacture pressure against the ball narrowing the ball-near space while covering spaces horizontally. It merges the vertical with the horizontal capturing both ways.

In the 45th minute, as Sweat overlapped Mitrita on the left side, the latter cut inside into the half-space creating a handover-problem for Smith who was initially orientated on the Romanian but now had to consider the advancing left fullback as well. He hesitated which gave Mitrita the amount of time to calmly find Ring with a classy pass creating a breakthrough and a 1 v 1 for New York’s captain who insisted on doubling the lead for his team. Prior to the pass the Finnish international made a spacious run leaving his marker Will Johnson behind revealing once again why man-orientations mostly only work in a limited amount of (time and) situations. In order to underline that, Orlando’s entire defense in this scene was pretty unorganized through their man-orientational approach.

Second half

In the second half, Orlando piled the pressure. Mueller remained very active constantly being able to receive the ball and after passing it himself searching for room and connections in his subsequent actions, all while being highly combinative. He also took care of the set-pieces of the Floridians. One of those fell untouched into the back of the net letting hopes rise again for Orlando in the 59th minute. New York’s answer came off as they struggled with an incoherent positional play having to settle for a ton of long balls, also used as simple risk avoidance in build-up, prevalently targeting the 5ft. 2” forward Maximiliano Moralez.

After 69 minutes, Orlando subistuted forward Dom Dwyer and Portuguese legend Nani for the right wingback Smith and the noticeable No. 6 Mendez increasing the risk now on a nominal level too. As a result they changed their formation from 3-4-1-2/ 3-4-3 to 4-4-2. The back four consisted of O’Neill as the right fullback, De John and Miller as centerbacks and Acosta as the left fullback. Captain Kljestan and routinier Johnson built the double-six while Mueller played as right midfielder with Nani being his counterpart on the left side. Dwyer and Akindele built the strike duo up front. Only a few minutes after the changes, as we are counting the 75th minute of the game, the first-mentioned forward assisted his second-mentioned partner for the equalizer after being staged by a through ball of holding European champion Nani. Hence, Orlando was pushing for the win. Mueller now constantly provided width on the right wing actively searching for one against one situations by using his strong physicality. The biggest chance, thus, resulted from one of many good crosses from Mueller, which reached Dwyer whose attempt was blocked by Tinnerholm’s hand. After the VAR-review the referee decided to not award Orlando a penalty. New York once again favored by fortune.

Conclusion

In the end the draw marks a rather lucky result for NYCFC who were, at least in the second half, completely dominated by the home team. On Orlando’s side the two youngsters, Ecuadorian international Sebastian Mendez with his ball-winning and general playing ability as well as, and especially, Chris Mueller with his aforementioned rare combination of traits, really impressed alongside veterans as Kljestan and Johnson.

2.) DC United v Atlanta United 2-0 (1-0) (Matchday 1)

DC United welcomed Atlanta United for their season opener at Audi Field, Washington, D.C. The highly anticipated MLS-debut for the new coach of the reigning champions, Frank de Boer, ended with a disappointing loss to an ambivalent home team which, altogether, highly deserved the perfect start into the new season.

Formations

DC United began in a 4-2-3-1 with Luciano Acosta as the No. 10 who pushed up next to captain Wayne Rooney in their nominal 4-4-2 against the ball which was the basis for manifold staggers. Atlanta on the other hand selected a 3-4-3-formation with a quite creative central midfield consisting of US-international Darlington Nagbe and Eric Remedi. As the team had to suffer the transfer of Miguel Almiron to Newcastle who might has been the most important player in their championship-winning season, last season’s MLS leading goalscorer Josef Martinez could be kept by the club. Up front he was assisted by Ezequiel Barco and Hector Villalba.

In the run-up of the season, de Boer announced that he wants to put the main focus on the possession game as last season’s success, when Gerardo “Tata” Martino was in charge, was mainly achieved through defending well, followed by hitting the opponents on the break. Not just because Almiron -the key player in attacks with this pattern- left the club, this notion seems both reasonable and fitting, given the individual quality and nature of a large part of the squad.

First half

At the beginning, they faced Washington’s 4-4-2-(higher-) midfield pressing in which the two forwards, Rooney and Acosta, stayed passive by blocking ways into the center while the two wingers Paul Arriola, an intelligent offensive allrounder with high penetrating power, and the talented Lucas Rodriguez pressurized the half-backs of Atlanta’s back three producing 4-2-2-2- and 4-2-4-like staggerings. When Atlanta played a back pass to Robinson or Gonzalez Pirez, though, which obviously served as the pressing trigger for the forwards, Rooney and Acosta helped the ball-near winger by shifting more aggressively and closing the range to the ball carrier while still paying attention to impede the involvement of the opponent’s No. 6 space into the possession game.

As Atlanta exhibited a calm circulation, their two wide-ranging No. 6s were constantly searching for space and connections. Nagbe, for example, sometimes dropped back diagonally to the left side. A negative example was viewable in the fifth minute as Remedi dropped back to pick up the ball in front of DC’s pressing block making it four players who were positioned behind the ball against the two passively pressing forwards. Atlanta, generally, had some issues to progress the ball into higher areas as the home team shifted in a ball- and position-orientated manner always remaining their horizontal and vertical compactness.

In this graphic out of the first minute of the game, you can see the compact 4-4-2-block of DC United with Rooney and Acosta up front who used their cover-shadow into the center neutralizing both No. 6s. Arriola and Rodriguez always took anticipating positions to have faster access towards Atlantas half-backs in case those received the ball creating the aforementioned 4-2-4-stagger. Those man-orientations were only situatively and not very strict, so they didn’t harm the overall defensive compactness.

Atlanta occupied the important spaces but their positional play was too static to originate danger. As the metropolitan’s defensive structure kept them from involving Nagbe and Remedi, the back three now had additional responsibilities for their build-up play. As a result, veteran Michael Parkhurst and his colleague Leandro Gonzales Pirez attracted attention with a nice diagonal pass into the right half-space to Barco by the captain plus a good long diagonal ball by the last mentioned to Barco as well who started a run behind DC United’s last line.

DC on the other hand, used a patient and spacious circulation relocating the ball often. Rooney and, especially, Acosta fell back frequently to keep the possession going. After relocations the then ball-near attacking midfielder dropped deeper while the fullback pushed higher in general. Both fullbacks positioned themselves very high up the pitch providing width while the wingers inverted towards the center or into the half-spaces to constantly produce connections or, sometimes, overloading a certain area. That also benefited them when they lost the ball as the counterpressing was on a considerable collective level.

A typical process led to the first big chance of the match as Acosta received the ball in the final third in front of Atlanta’s midfield block then lobbed the ball perfectly over the defense to the moved up right fullback Leonardo Jara allowing his fellow Argentinian to have a unchallenged chance almost inside the six-yard box. However, Guzan saved the shot.

In the 18th minute, the wide-ranging Acosta positioned himself near the left sideline as Moreno fell back diagonally next to the central defenders and Mora occupied higher areas of the pitch. As the camera angle wasn’t optimal I could only estimate the exact positions of Parkhurst, Gonzalez Pirez and Shea, but either way, the space between the lines was definitely too big. At least in the current scene they could win the ball by being locally compact and creating a ball-near numerical advantage. Generally, their 5-4-1-midfield pressing, with 5-2-3-staggerings as the wingers proceeded, displayed some (minor) coordination problems when the midfield-chain pushed up leaving a larger space between the lines as the back-five often times didn’t react to the altered pressing height.

At the middle of the first half, DC United gave up control by not being as compact within their pressing phases, compared to the early stages of the match. Additionaly, they were now easily pushed back through simple dribblings of the build-up players of Atlanta, for example Gonzales Pirez, who  already used this tool at the beginning of the game against the two passive forwards, advancing at least past the first (passive) pressing line of the hosts. The vulnerability of Washington’s defense increased. Exemplarily, at the 25th minute, also Remedi was allowed to just dribble through the lines without really getting disturbed doing so. In the 34th minute, DC tried to disrupt Atlanta’s build-up in succession of a goal kick but due to the lack of compactness and reconcilement the team of Frank de Boer managed to get past the defensive effort easily discovering a lot of space subsequently. They were now in control of the game but missed to create any compelling chances. Their most promising way to bring the ball forward were passes to one of the front three into the half-spaces and/or the enlarging space between the lines. Likewise, Nagbe stood out with some proper small-scale combination-focus and good subsequent release movements.

Also, their counterpressing was, until then, very volatile missing, in parts, a patient and collective execution.  Towards the end of the first half, it was the home team who slowly become more dangerous again having many chances to score while, at the same time, being more open in defense. The opposite was true for Atlanta who controlled the game but failed to acquire opportunities, except for a Villalba-shot from distance after a nice individual action by himself. DC United, by contrast, had Arriola shooting unchallenged after an outstanding combinational effort and pin-point lob above Atlanta’s defense from Acosta (33rd minute), Rooney missing only close just short of the penalty area after typically offering himself in the deeper left half-space and then advancing straightforwardly by a give and go pass with Mora (38th minute) as well as Moreno failing to convert a good chance after a good circulation of DC which ultimately led to Acosta playing an excellent cutting pass to Jara who used a cut-back cross to the central midfielder (39th minute). In stoppage time, following a corner from Rooney, Arriola benefited from a rebound in the box finally rewarding his team with the lead before halftime.

In the halftime interview, coach Ben Olsen declared himself satisfied with the overall performance, yet, aiming to “make [Atlanta] a little bit more uncomfortable in possession” while also “moving them around” through having more possession themselves which sounded like using (even) more shifts.

Second half

DC started the second half with patient circulation in which, particularly Acosta and Rooney, and now also at times Rodriguez, often fell back in front of the midfield line to call for the ball. Atlanta still pressed in a 5-4-1 which transferred into 5-3-2-like staggers when the ball-near winger shifted higher to pressurize the ball-possessing centerback.

Bustling Luciano Acosta, this time on the right wing, got the football after Birnbaum, who was set under pressure by the attacking Barco, played a high diagonal ball to Jara. Acosta passed it to the inverting Arriola who then had an awful lot of space in front of him. He dribbled all the way until a few yards short of the box where he sticked the ball through to Rodriguez who drew the short straw in this one against one situation with the rushing out Guzan. The reason for the space between the lines to be so massive were the simultaneous man-oriented anticipations from both, Nagbe towards Canouse and Remedi towards Moreno, before Birnbaum hit the long ball outplaying the first two pressing lines of the Georgians.

Hence the (constant) preponderance of chances for Olsen’s team, the 2-0 in the 58th minute was thoroughly deserved. The goal resulted from a short shift from the left wing into the ball-near half-space to Acosta who discovered quite a lot of space as he decided to take shot from distance which eventually ended up in the back of the net because of a capital mistake by Atlanta’s veteran goalkeeper Brad Guzan. Now, the question remains why Acosta was able to shoot as unchallenged as he was allowed to do so, being that close to the penalty area. Answer: the room between Nagbe and Remedi within the 5-2-2-1-staggering, caused by the gambling wingers who remained higher to be in a more favorable position for possible counterattacks, was way too big giving Acosta all the time he needed. Plus, the passiveness of the back five wasn’t exactly helpful to solve this issue. The defensive chain mostly lacked simple individual movements in which one player of the defensive chain pushes forward into the space between the lines to attack the ball-carrier.

Against the possession of Atlanta United, Washington dominated as well by controlling the center of the field. Their 4-2-2-2- pressing improved massively, compared to the second half of the game’s first half as they shifted very well creating compact staggers. And in this half they followed through with it until the end of the match.

In deeper areas of the midfield, also 4-2-3-1- staggerings, particularly towards the end of the game, occurred since Acosta was orienting himself into slightly deeper areas as Rooney. In the following, two interesting scenes to further elucidate DC’s defensive approach will be shortly explained. The first one is taken out of the 53th minute. Out of their high-midfield press, Rodriguez attacked the ball-holding Robinson who passed it back Parkhurst. The latter was now pressured by the pushing up Rooney. As he decided to play the ball backwards to Guzan, Rooney pressed through towards the keeper using his cover-shadow on Atlanta United’s captain. Hereafter, Atlanta was able to escape the pressure in the person of Nagbe who used a nicely executed body feint to get away from the attacking Arriola, only to complete a sophisticated pass to Villalba who failed to control the ball and start the counterattack. In the second scene, they obstructed an Atlanta goal kick in the 63th minute. Rodriguez marked Robinson, Acosta Parkhurst and Rooney Gonzales Pirez as Arriola moved into a more central stance positioning himself as a No. 8 at the height of Moreno while former 1899 Hoffenheim youth player Russel Canouse, an unflashy but game-intelligent holding midfielder, occupied the lone No. 6 spot. Interestingly, Moreno and Arriola didn’t orient themselves towards the opposing No. 6 as it is exercised by most teams, at least when tyring to hinder the other team from playing the goalkick out by a short pass. Furthermore, the fullbacks shifted to the wingbacks of Atlanta when they held the ball.

Atlanta subbed in last season’s shooting star Julian Gressel and the just recently acquired new offensive star Gonzalo Martinez for Ambrose and Villalba as they simply took over the same positions. The German, though interpreted his role much more diagonal regarding passes and movements, than his predecessor. In the second half, Brek Shea, Gressel’s counterpart, on the left side, showed some inverting diagonal routes in the final third, also being included in basic 3rd-man-run attempts on a group-tactical level, after a tottering first-half-performance while he struck with improper decision-making.

As their counterpressing was much better in the second half, the guest’s started to gain control around 20 min before the final whistle. Moreover, their deep midfield 5-4-1-pressing formation was at least still embossed by a very clean and position-oriented shifting. The wingers inside the half-spaces were focused more effectively in possession, whilst the team still suffered from problems during build-up as DC defended on a high level neglecting Atlanta to induce significant chances out of their, in principle, good rudimental structure.

When Jeff Larentowicz substituted Barco in the 77th minute, he carried over the central midfielder spot from Nagbe who undertook Barco’s position in the game’s final stages. That didn’t change much, but, on a side note, at least, Larentowicz introduced himself with a strong individual counterpressing effort against Acosta, demonstrating his sound ability to respond (to the turnover).

Conclusion

All told, two ambitious teams who tried to be active in all phases of the game, e.g. by maintaining their (mainly) ball- and position-orientated approach against the ball as well as the aspiration to dominate through possession-football clashed as DC United celebrated am utterly deserved victory. They tied up the possession game of de Boer’s team through their pressing and, besides, featured several fine processes having the ball and constituting numerous opportunities, most notably thanks to Acosta, who was the point of departure for nearly any dangerous situation, being active on the entire pitch, against a, today most of the time only individually, high-quality Atlanta side.

3.) LAFC v Portland Timbers 4-1 (2-1) (Matchday 2)

Having suffered from a last minute equalizer at Colorado Rapids’ last week, the Portland Timbers were determined to avoid a bad start at the MLS season facing the ambitious Los Angeles FC who came into this game after experiencing the exact opposite in their opening game against Kansas City by scoring the game winner in stoppage time.

LAFC secured a well-deserved victory in an all around pretty dominant manner with an interesting flexible positional play and an impressive counterpressing. The Timbers on the other side got punished for their non-collective, reactive approach, especially in defence. Offensively, only Sebastian Blanco stood out with an incredible impactful performance, having been involved in nearly every dangerous action for the guests.

Formations

LAFC- Coach Bob Bradley fielded the same team as last week in which veteran fullback Jordan Harvey played a special role, more about that later in the analysis. Eduard Atuesta was the intelligent organizer in midfield with an enormous work rate reaching from mostly balancing his fellow central midfielders’ movements in possession and against the ball to attacking space himself in the last third with vertical runs binding opponents and, thus, opening space for his teammates. Another one worth mentioning right at the beginning is, of course, star and captain Carlos Vela as the dominant figure in their offense.

Portland did it like the hosts using the same line-up as last game. 32-years-old midfield star Diego Valeri is still the leader linchpin within the 4-2-3-1-formation of Coach Giovanni Savarese. He built an, at times, intriguing synergy with fellow “game-intelligent” Argentinian Blanco. Left fullback Jorge Villafana showed some clever inverting movements into the half-space providing an option for combinations in advanced areas for his teammates. Unfortunately, those movements couldn’t be seen often due to the lack of coherent offensive actions of the Oregon-based team.

First half

Right from the beginning the Californians made clear which team has control over the game. LAFC revealed creativity using patient circulation in the first line and many variations of processes and players occupying prioritized spaces. Those spaces are determined areas within the positional play which are to be manned constantly but always in relation to the position of the ball, teammates and the opponent (optimally in this order) to provide a consistent structure for decision making which is stable in success itself.

In the first minute, LAFC used deeper fullbacks with Atuesta and Kaye in front of the defensive line creating a 4-2/ 4-3- staggering which limited the risk of conceding dangerous chances when losing the ball early in build-up play. The structure in this first scene was, thus, far from being (offensively) effective as the presence of most players spread out to be in either higher areas or lower areas without having proper connections among themselves (and) within the central- and half-spaces. Positively speaking, LA didn’t force things in this scene and waited for better compositions to form.

When the ball was on the right side, the then ball-far fullback Harvey shifted with the central defenders making it look like a nominal back-three even though it is not uncommon (Maurizio Sarri used similar fullback procedures, e.g. at Napoli). While the calm circulation continued, Kaye dropped deeper diagonally on the left side. Subsequently, Harvey progressed a bit higher in the left half-space.

The home team didn’t start out with a high-tempo build-up play, instead the focus was, obviously, to come into this game emanating stability by maintaining close connections and earning confidence by avoiding being caught on the wrong foot early in the game. So the fullbacks stayed in deeper areas, Harvey in general more so than Beitashour, and the midfield trio positioned themselves close to each other as well as to the defensive players while the wings were then double staffed because the offensive wingers Vela and Diego Rossi stayed wide to spread the opponent’s defense higher up the pitch. In the above scene (4th minute), a similar imbalanced structure (missing coherent connections between the high-presence first build-up line and the offensive players using central parts of the pitch) as in the first graphic was visible as Kaye, again, dropped deeper to initiate rotational movements. Segura decided, though, to play a nice pass to Ramirez into the left half-space. The forward laid it off to Rossi who dribbled inside whilst Harvey overlapped him on the wing. As the Uruguayan lost the ball, LA regained it quickly through an immediate, intense counterpressing. More about that a little later in the analysis.

Portland used a 4-4-2- midfield pressing in which the fullbacks were oriented towards the opposing wingers, the offensive wingers towards the opponent’s fullbacks together with the central midfielders David Guzman and Diego Chara who were man-oriented on the opposing No. 8s, Lee Nguyen and Mark-Anthony Kaye. Those central man-orientations reached from situational, ball-near man-orientations to actually being spacious man coverages. This, plus the general lack of intensity, collective processes and compactness, both vertically and horizontally, led often times to bad staggerings within the pressing of Portland. LAFC also had no problems keeping possession, even when the Timbers were eventually close to put them into danger because Atuesta was seldomly covered by anyone (Valeri orientated himself only vaguely towards him). The young Colombian dispersed the pressure comparatively easy, letting Portlands man-focussed construct fail. He generally provided steady passing options throughout the early phases of the build-up.

In the course of the game, the variety of assisting options from almost every LA-player within their structural remodelling or rotational movements, which weren’t infrequently though too unsettled and spacious, lured the visitors into pressing with higher risk. They were, thereby, leaving spaces for LAFC to attack. When the ball reached offensive players the rear part of the team frequently managed to move up forcefully.

One of those interesting build-up structures by the home team was displayed in the ninth minute of the game. Kaye offered a passing option for Segura inside the deep left half-space whilst Harvey occupied the high part of this half-space and Rossi providing width. This unorthodox nominal occupation of spaces makes it harder for opponents to anticipate, especially for opponents who use more reactive defensive approaches focussed on man-orientational or even man-marking approaches. Chara followed the backdropping Kaye which now made Portland’s defense to be denoted by a heavy uncompact imbalance, just as Rossi received the ball and tried to attack the large existing space.

The overall dynamic structure in possession also helped during transition phases from offensive to defense. When LAFC lost the ball, they mostly recovered it very fast through their quite impressive counterpressing which was executed on a collective level one only rarely gets to see in the MLS. It led to an abundance of rapidly won (back) balls at Portland’s half.

In the following of the above described build-up play from LAFC in the ninth minute, the dribbling Vela was dispossessed in the final third by Chara and the backwards pressing Valeri. The latter, then, passed the ball to Polo who, because of already being under pressure, directly laid it off to Mabiala. As the counterpressing now gained full access on the ball-carrier, the Congolese centerback somehow managed to get the ball past the pressuring LA-players with a lobbed short pass to Valeri. The routinier received the football having an unfavorable field of view as his body was, of course, directed towards the passer. Atuesta anticipated the unlikely pass early as he started a well-timed intense run to eventually dispossess Valeri only split-seconds after the Argentinian touched the ball.

After dribbling inside from the right wing Vela played the ball to Beitashour who made an overlapping run behind the Mexican and broke through behind the defensive line crossing to Rossi who failed to score due to a fantastic parade of Attinella. This was the first big chance in the game, directly followed by the lead for LAFC through a corner from Vela and a good header from Kaye in the 13th minute.

With the tail wind of the lead and their structural dominance, mostly due to their absolute counterpressing dominance, LAFC failed to add goals to the scoreboard in the sequel minutes even though Vela’s trademark from-wing-into-center-dribblings were often times enough to preoccupy most of Portlands defenders. It almost seemed like LAFC’s combinations in the final third were in slow-motion, yet they still created somewhat dangerous situations. Sometimes it also appeared that Vela kept the ball too long preventing more hazardous situations for the goal of Attinella to evolve.

During Portlands build-up play, LAFC pressed with a 4-3-3/ 4-1-4-1-formation higher in midfield: Nguyen and Kaye oriented themselves towards Guzman and Chara, but only situationally and not nearly as strict as vice versa. Furthermore the No. 8s of Los Angeles exited the man-orientations situatively -as game time went by oftener- attacking the ball carrier (one of Portland’s centerbacks) and creating 4-4-2-like staggerings while simultaneously using their cover shadow (e.g. Kaye pressurizing Mabiala in the 3rd minute). When using man-orientations exiting it, putting the ball carrier under pressure and concurrently making your nominal opposing player “disappear” in your cover shadow is a good way to make that tool much more effective than it normally is. The Timbers double staffed the wings as well with an initial staggering similar to their opponent but of course much different subsequent patterns. In the developing circulation Villafana invades spaces towards the center and provided follow-up options for combinations when the attack was run on his side.

A bit further up midfield, Portland’s fullbacks remained deeper, one No. 6 positioned himself in front of the back four whereas the other No. 6 tried to create connections with the offensive players. An example for that was the 8th minute: Chara in front of the central defenders, Guzman was positioned a bit higher in the left half-space and got pursued by Atuesta -a typical situational man coverage balanced by Kaye in the No. 6 space (kind of a role switch here). In succession, the ball carrying centerback Cascante was pressured by Nguyen (see use of cover shadow) and played, nonetheless, a nice laser pass to Valeri between the lines. Zimmerman pushed up and immediately cleared the danger. The defensive chain balanced the movement and created a neat defensive triangle. In this scene one could witness many typical aspects of this game. Particularly LA’s clean balancing of advancing players aimed to put pressure on the ball. In deeper midfield pressing (with increased 4-5-1-staggerings), the No. 8s were generally more position-orientated, merely orientating themselves on the opponent when pushing up on the ball carrier.

Until the equalizer in the 28th minute, which resulted, like the first goal of the game, from a set-piece -Valeri’s perfectly timed free-kick met with Ebobisse’s head finding the back of the net- Portland only evoked danger through counterattacks via Ebobisse or Andy Polo.

With 27:10 on the play clock, Mabiala tried to use an ambitious pass to the inverted Polo after Blanco called for the ball while falling back, to then relocate the ball from the left into the right half-space while he attracted the pressure of Kaye and Vela. Subsequently, the Mexican remained rather passive while Kaye ran back being needed for balancing reasons because Nguyen already pushed up to use his cover-shadow into the right half-space and to pressure Mabiala successfully as he was able to block the pass attempt. Portland, albeit, kept possession.

A few seconds later, at 27:30, as the Timbers played the ball back to goalkeeper Attinella, LA advanced by using strayed situational man-orientations. Kaye haunted Guzman while Nguyen did the same with Chara. Vela was passively positioned between Cascante and Villafana, whereas Ramirez covered Mabiala. As a result the unchallenged Cascante played a simple forward pass into the path of  the busy Blanco who, despite being apprehended by his marker Atuesta, accomplished a pass to Villafana in order to continue the possession. And, indeed, in the course of this attack Portland was awarded the aforementioned free-kick leading to their, at that time, rather surprising goal.

From that moment on, however, Portland showed an improved build-up play fueled by the much better movement and connection within the offense. The two names almost solely responsible for that were, of course, Blanco and Valeri. The first-mentioned small-scale combination-machine dropped constantly deeper to call for the ball trying to impel ball-progression through those very combinations. In the 32nd minute LAFC had to substitute Latif Blessing for the stricken Beitashour. In the sequel, Blessing, usually an offensive player, struggled heavily to defend Blanco on his side.

As Portland gained control of the game LAFC lost access in their pressing and tried to compensate it with even more aggressive No. 8s pushing up next to Ramirez to pressure the guest’s play in midfield. In higher attacking press LAFC even lined up in a 4-1-2-3 with man-oriented fullbacks and zonal, ball-near man-orientations of the No. 8s.

Short of the end of the first half, LAFC eventually won back the game control and displayed once again their fluidity in possession. In the 40th minute Atuesta tilted out alongside the centerbacks on the right side, Vela occupied the right half-space behind Nguyen, Harvey the half-space of the opposite side with Rossi and Blessing providing width and Kaye filling the central area. Initially, Blessing inserted into the half-space which he did naturally quite often as Vela stayed in a wide position on the wing- his general stance before dribbling inside or trying to get the ball in the half-space and/or in between the lines. In a counterattack at the last minute of the first half Vela received the ball on the right wing, dribbled inside finding the moved up Harvey who centered the ball to Ramirez- 2:1. LAFC rewarded itself for reclaiming the dominance late in the first half.

Second half

In the second half, the positional switch-overs of Bob Bradley’s team were amended with a much more active central forward Christian Ramirez who often fell back, plus clearer third-man movements which led to more breaks in behind the Timbers’ defensive chain. At the same time, Portland increased the risk against the ball out of their 4-4-2- pressing which now led increasingly to 4-2-4- staggerings but Los Angeles still managed to dodge around these efforts. Also their ball-oriented counterpressing with situational man-oriented elements dwelled to be dominant and executed with high intensity. At this point the 4-5-1/ 4-1-4-1- press in higher areas of the field got along without man-orientations, except for Atuesta situationally.

Everything seemed under control, yet, Portland could also come up with dangerous moments, especially when either Blanco was involved in counterattacks or when they played long passes down the right side to Polo. Until around the 65th minute, a game with a very vertical rhythm and chances on both side developed, as LAFC failed to calm the game down by going along with trading barbs with Portland. Vela was now permanently in central areas and included in nearly every attack. Only seconds following the substitution of Adama Diomande for Ramirez, the Norwegian finished a very nice combination and a break behind the chain from Vela, making it 3-1. The definite decision of the game was marked by the 4-1, just three minutes later, after a counter situation in which Diomande passed the ball to Vela who left no doubt scoring unescorted in front of the goalkeeper. With Chara conceding a red card in the 71st minute, Portland had no chance to rise up again. Thereafter, they defended in a 4-4-1 without man-orientations. As the match progressed, LA striked with some fine switch-overs on the left side where Harvey and Rossi had an effective synergy rotating among themselves with one of them providing width while the other was occupying the half-space. Moreover, the young Jamaican substitute Peter-Lee Vassell could call attention to himself with good orientations and clever occupations of spaces.

Conclusion

Although Blanco made for some chances in the closing stages, LAFC ended the game in a dominant manner and celebrated a richly deserved victory. Their flexible positional play, even though occasionally lacking enough presence in higher areas, and, first and foremost, their counterpressing were sweeping. Yet, there were too many phases were the game control was just needlessly given up. Nevertheless, LAFC definitely belongs –not just in tactical regards- to the entertaining teams of the MLS which, considering the recreational nature of soccer, there cannot be enough of.

Chris Winkler • 30. März 2019


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