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No Number Ten and Other Observations From Minnesota’s Preseason

by on 10 February 2017

It was taken for granted: Adrian Heath plays with a 4-2-3-1 formation. That is gospel. During Minnesota United’s preseason, however, the Loons have been lining up differently. In the first preseason match available to the public, we got a brief glimpse of how United might set itself up in 2017.

The biggest surprise from Heath’s tactics is how he’s arranged his central midfield. Many (myself included), expected the Loons to use a three-man midfield, with a No. 10 at the point. Instead, Heath inverted that triangle to let Collen Warner sit deep as a No. 6. In front of him were two possession-oriented No. 8s, Rasmus Schüller and Mohammed Saeid, pushing forward.

One moment we can look at is a seemingly innocuous sequence for the Loons attack. You can watch the build up here. Schüller sends the ball out wide where Justin Davis can push forward and allow the team to push up as well.

You can see the space between Schüller and Saeid in the midfield and the attacking trio. To bridge this gap, Miguel Ibarra drops back and he can either lay it back to Davis, who makes an overlapping run, or he can turn and quickly put it back for Schüller, who has acres of space. Ibarra shows a bit of preseason shape with a heavy touch and maybe not being aware of Schüller.

What this moment shows, though, is two things. The first is that the transitions of the midfield tandem getting forward will be absolutely key to filling the space where a No. 10 might be. But even if Ibarra had sent the ball back to the on-rushing Schüller, there would only be two players (Kevin Molino and Abu Danladi) up in the attack (since Ibarra needs to drop off to connect the midfield to the attack).

Free-range wingers

This leads us to a couple conclusions. The first is that this lineup is set up perfectly for the wingers to roam around. We don’t know yet how Bashkim Kadrii will play, but allowing Johan Venegas, Molino, and Ibarra to drift in from the wings is playing to their strengths.

The other conclusion is that the full backs will be absolutely essential to making this work. You can see the amount of space Davis has to work with in the sequence above. In the capture above you can also see how Molino has drifted central, leaving another hole on the right wing. Jermaine Taylor showed preseason fitness in this match, but he is also not the kind of full back who will exploit this space (as Kevin Venegas would).

To get a sense of Molino and Ibarra’s roles it’s useful to see what went well in the run up to Molino’s goal in the 51st minute. You can watch the lead-up here. The play begins with John Alvbåge sending a long ball forward. The ball falls to Danladi, who lays it off for Ibarra, who is running centrally on the counter. Ibarra follows his opposite number, Molino. There’s a little bit of sloppiness and the ball ends up at Ibarra’s feet, where he is perfectly placed to send a fantastic shot on goal.

You can see rust flaking off the feet of both teams during this play, but it shows one of the ways in which Minnesota can be dangerous. The picture below is a still from just before the counter.

This is the moment when the Caps’ attack has fizzled out. Schüller collects the ball and sends it safely back to his keeper. Vancouver has only committed four players to the attack and yet Minnesota create a dangerous counter. The Loons wingers (Ibarra and Molino) are tucked in and they will both run centrally off of Danladi, who plays his target role well and lays off the ball.

Lonely forward

The biggest problem with this formation is that it leaves the forward on an island, making thankless runs to occupy center backs. Danladi (and Christian Ramirez for 20 minutes) had very few touches on the ball. Danladi didn’t have the greatest of nights, but this could be attributed as much to the tactics as to his preseason fitness.

Danladi has the pace and ability to play off defenders’ shoulders and stretch the game. This will certainly help create a lot of space for the wingers to move. However, the large gap between the midfield and attack also requires the forward to do a good amount of hold-up work. As seen above, Danladi does this in the lead up to Molino’s goal.

Ramirez has been developing his hold-up play over the last few seasons, but it is not what he excels at. Neither forward will be good at headers, Danladi for his size and Ramirez because he wins them so rarely.

Ramirez plays best when he has players around him with whom he can exchange quick passes back and forth. For a player who scores bags of goals, he is remarkably selfless and playing without a No. 10 means there is one fewer player for Ramirez to play off of.

A few caveats. First, this was one match. Second, this was one preseason match. Third, Kadrii only just joined the team and Johan Venegas was out injured and so it may be that Heath will add one of them in as a No. 10 when they’re ready. In that case, this entire article should be printed out so it can be lit on fire.

What did you see about the match that stood out? Comment below.


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