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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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  • Blake Johnson

    Do you think Ramirez will get the nod opening night in Portland? Wasn’t sure if last night was “lets see what Abu can do with the first team” or if Heath really does rate him ahead of Ramirez at this point.

    • Jacob

      I suspect that it’s roster rotation with 3 games in a week, plus getting looks at guys in the preseason. I really look forward to seeing Ramirez in action.

    • Wes

      I mean, your guess is as good as mine! I was surprised to see Danladi start. I’d say Feb 22 against Toronto we’ll have a sense of who will start.

      • BJ

        Danladi showed he is young and inexperienced and plus rainy night. Didn’t learn much.

        • Bridget McDowell

          If he’s going to start, they need to give him some more support. I want to see Migs further up like the old days to feed the ball.

      • Dave Benhart

        I’m going to guess that we’ll know who’s going to start on March 3rd. Before then it’s all speculation.

  • Jacob

    Oh, you all think your best position is the 10? Well guess what? None of you get to play the 10 now, so there!

    –Heath, probably.

    It looked to me like the formation had potential, but I will feel better about it if we can make more things happen in the final third. We have some incisive passers in Schuller, Saeid, Molino and J-Ven–we just need the cutters to find the gaps at the right time. If so, our counterattack is going to be lethal. I feel like half of our possessions built up to a nice feed into the attacking third with the defense on their heels, but the dagger run behind the backline wouldn’t materialize and they would usually reboot rather than force it. I’m optimistic that Heath will click things into place, though. I wasn’t counting on them doing as well as they did at this point.

    Also, I didn’t know Johan was resting due to injury. Saeid had a strong game and I was wondering if he had shown well enough that Heath had to start him.

    • Really?!?!?

      Repped, even if just for the first part! 😀

      I really liked our midfield passing, and add in Venegas, Kadrii, and Ramirez more up top, and I really like it, as well as the depth at all the midfield positions, outside of maybe dmid (but with formation changes, and/or Mo or someone playing there in a pinch…that might be OK).

  • Vinyl Haircut

    Nice analysis, Wes. It was indeed a little confusing trying to observe the central midfield. Sometimes it almost looked like a 4-1-4-1. As you noted, there were moments when one winger would abandon the flanks and slash to the center (almost becoming a temporary #10). This might be an effective way to make the striker “less lonely”, if done well, and provided that the outside backs can effectively fill the space left on the flanks. All taken with a grain of salt at this point, naturally. But after all, this kind of speculation is part of the fun of preseason.

    • Bridget McDowell

      The only serious issue I saw (aside from the usual preseason bugs) was the midfield seemed to collapse during attack and failed to get the ball up to Danladi. Maybe it’s because I didn’t catch on to the inverted formation, but it looked messy. Crisp play by Davis from the back and Ibarra up front still left Danladi out on his own little island when he needed some help from the wings. Still a good game to watch. I can see potential in these new formations.

      • Vinyl Haircut

        I agree it was often messy. I attributed that mostly to unfamiliarity with each other, combined with pretty lousy conditions. Fortunately, there were also a few glimmers of crispness that give hope. It will be fun to see what Sunday brings!