The Angle

Back to Basics

by on 24 July 2017

This past week, Minnesota United turned in two toothless performances at home. This time, the beneficiary of the Loons’ struggles were the Houston Dynamo and the New York Red Bulls. Only thanks to some shameful finishing from the former did the Loons earn a point from these two matches. Minnesota’s scoreless streak now runs to 351 minutes.

This is the second true crisis the team has faced this year, and let’s start by being clear that it is much less acute than the last one. The club is not conceding six goals a game, nor does it look likely that they will. Despite the depth issues the team faced this week, the defense is actually in decent shape. Francisco Calvo and Jermaine Taylor will return after their Gold Cup runs in which both played key roles for their country. Michael Boxall looked able in his debut, and Justin Davis has been surprisingly decent when deputized as a center back. Even if Brent Kallman is injured and even if Joe Greenspan is out for the season with his third concussion (which, if he needs to be shut down for the year, then so be it, I’m legitimately worried for the guy), the Loons have acceptable defensive depth.

But the issues in the attack and the midfield will not be solved by international returnees. Nor do we have reason to believe that a savior is coming through the transfer market. Minnesota must solve this problem (mostly) with the tools that they already have at their disposal. That’s not far-fetched, after all, this was a free-scoring team just a few months ago. But I believe that the team has strayed from what brought them success tactically, and they will need to return to basics to fix it.

Diagnosis

Minnesota’s attack is not working on all levels. The team is not creating enough chances, and when they do, they are not finishing. Against Houston, Kevin Molino had a shot/cross cleared out from the line by AJ Delagarza. Against New York, Miguel Ibarra missed a header from six yards out, and Molino inexplicably missed a gaping net with a wide open shot. Neither Christian Ramirez nor Abu Danladi have had a good look at goal, though the latter has missed a few half chances in comedic fashion. These are the chances of note for the Loons, and it has to be said that between them, New York and Houston had at least three times as many good opportunities, if not more.

The Loons have lots of problems. The team’s set piece delivery has been shocking all season, a responsibility that usually rests on Ibson’s shoulders. The team’s crossing has not been much better. Miguel Ibarra and Ismaila Jome in particular blew a number of promising attacks with over-hit crosses.

But at the center of these struggles has been Kevin Molino. The Trinidadian has been given the keys to the car by Adrian Heath, and questions must be asked primarily of them when the car won’t start. Molino is an excellent player, but he has struggled massively when asked to play a central attacking role in a 4-2-3-1. He has simply not seemed well suited to the #10 position. His first touch is not often sharp, his attempted through-balls rarely seem to beat his own defender, and if he beats one man on the dribble, he usually has put the ball too far out where another defender can come over and clear it. When compared with the work of players like New York’s Sacha Kljestan, Molino doesn’t measure up.

Here’s how the Loons’ attack has fared, depending on Molino’s position (lineups from MLSSoccer.com, I’ve omitted the first four games of the season):

Central: 7 goals in 9 games, five times shut out

Wide: 11 goals in 7 games, twice shut out

Moreover, if I can make a further distinction, Molino has occasionally played centrally while Abu Danladi has been listed on the right. The four games in which this has occurred account for six of the seven goals scored with Molino in a central position. In five games when Molino has played centrally with someone else listed wide, the Loons have scored just once (the goal against NYCFC, which was a goalkeeping error).

These are small samples, and an extremely simple analysis. The way lineups are listed does not always tell the whole tale. These numbers don’t prove anything. But combined with the eye test, it is suggestive in my view.

Prescription

The Loons have looked their best this season while playing in a 4-2-2-2 (or a 4-4-2). The first two is a  stable defensive midfielder (Sam Cronin) and a frenetic ball circulating and chasing midfielder (Ibson). The second two are wide midfielders, best played by Molino and Ibarra, who have space to attack into whether down the wings or in midfield. The third set of two are Christian Ramirez and another forward (Johan Venegas or Abu Danladi), who stretch the defense and crash the box.

I suggest Minnesota goes back to this.

For his faults as a central creator, Molino is strong on the wing. His style of dribbling works best when there is unoccupied space to play the ball into. He finds that when out wide against one to two players, not central against three to four. His passing through the lines is often poor, but his crossing is the best on the team. Playing wide will allow him (and Ibarra) to cut inside when convenient, but only when it’s open.

Playing with a second forward should also help Ramirez, who is in his longest goal drought of the year. Other teams know he is a player to be feared, and they have started to mark him tightly. As a lone striker, this is easily done. But a player like Danladi, who always seems a threat, even if his decision-making is bad, can force teams to play more honestly. Brandon Allen is also now available. With two strikers, the Loons can also open up space at the top of the box for an in-cutting Molino or Ibarra (or an onrushing Ibson or Calvo) to take a shot from distance, something the Loons do not have in their arsenal at present.

The sacrifice is losing possession in the middle of the field, but that’s a small price to pay for a much more lethal attack by playing key players in their best places.

Meanwhile, in the transfer market, the team absolutely has to sign a #10, even if it’s not the DP of their dreams. Nazmi Albadawi and Dylan Mares would be perfect candidates. The team also needs a #6. It’s insane that there is no like-for-like for Sam Cronin. You cannot build a midfield purely of #8s. The 4-2-2-2 may be Minnesota’s best look, and the best way to return to comfort and start scoring again, but the team does need to have other tools in their toolbox. Adding Sam Nicholson, a true winger, is a good addition. But more specialized skills in the midfield are required.

The Loons really, honestly, positively can turn things around, even if the playoffs are a distant dream thanks to recent home form. But once again, that requires Adrian Heath to swallow his pride and return to a more basic, simple, and proven-to-be effective tactical approach.


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