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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  • Eric Beckman

    “It’s insane that there is no like-for-like for Sam Cronin.”
    Indeed.
    Royer found himself in an absurdly large amount of space when he received the pass before NY/NJ’s opening goal. Martin showed an ability to contribute on Wednesday versus Houston, but, he is another #8.

  • Scherbs

    I was thinking a lot about Molino and his lack of production vs what we are expecting of him, not good. This article sums up the issues very well.
    It’s been shocking how much better JD has looked at Centerback than on the side. That said, we need Calvo back in a bad way.

    • Eric Beckman

      Same thoughts on Molino here.
      I love JD and have been surprised that he has made some plays at center back, but when he was isolated on BWP the result was the second goal. A big ask, of course, and another reason that it will be great o have Calvo back.

      • Michael Seidl

        We all love Davis for who he has been for this club over the years. That being said, his time in the lineup needs to end. He is slow. Whoafully slow. It doesn’t matter if it’s BWP or an Atlas second team player, his time has passed. His touch is not up to MLS level. His passes are bad. He can still play the professional game and has achieved more than this armchair goalkeeper ever has, but his opportunities now rest in the USL and lower leagues. I like the use of Jome at fullback and hope that experiment can continue throughout the end of this season.

  • duluth_loon

    It also seems like the team is really struggling to transition from defense to offense. This was particularly pronounced against Houston where the team struggled mightily to get the ball through the midfield when faced with moderate pressing from Houston offensive players.

    The team’s lack of depth is an embarrassment, and a complete lack of ambition from ownership and management to sign higher impact players makes this team difficult to get behind. If you’re an MLS team owner in 2017 and you aren’t willing to spend money on at least a couple DP’s, you really ought to find another rich person’s hobby. Compared to the $100M MLS bid fee, and the $150M stadium cost, even $3-$5M per year spent on DP’s should not be a tough decision. Even if the first couple DP signings flame out and are considered failures, at least the fans will feel like the ownership is committed to attempting to field a competitive team. The fact they raised the cost of my season tickets by more than 13% (Sky Blue, phase 1) doesn’t make any of this feel better. 🙂

    • Bruce J McGuire

      “struggling to transition from defense to offense.” Against New York they should have been better with Martin and Ibson out there, both more offense than defense, but they were worse because Martin and Ibson seemed to have no idea how to function together. i some times ask myself, “what do they do week after week in practice?”

      • Dave Williams

        That and it feels like a few players are afraid to take risks playing forward. Ibarra seems to want to play the safe ball.

  • Bruce J McGuire

    And lets not ever talk about the abysmal offensive set pieces. Non-existent.

  • nomadic loon

    it’s time to give demidov a redemption opportunity.

  • David Sterling

    With how poor Inarra’s crosses have been, and him missing a few chances, should he sit for Nicholson? I’m just curious to the thought. Maybe we need fresh blood on the field, played in their stronger positions. Cronin, Ibson, Nicholson, Molino, Danladi, Ramirez?

    • Eric Beckman

      That could be our strongest 4-2-2-2 . Nicholson may not be ready for a full game, so Miguel would probably come on.

      • David Sterling

        That’s what I was thinking. Nicholson may be the stronger of the two. I’ve read a lot of Hearts’ supporters who have had high praise for the youngster. With two weeks of practice under his belt, it wouldn’t hurt to give it a shot.

  • Michael Seidl

    Flat out the midfield play has been poor. Poor in possession. Poor in defense. The skills needed to provide consistent threat and goals simply isn’t there. Our entire attack revolves around the counter. I cannot remember a dangerous chance that was built organically, much less a goal that didn’t come from a break or a set piece. Unfortunately, the problems in the middle of the park have been there since the beginning of the season. They were the root cause of the 6 goal matches, as they failed consistently to hold any possession and maintain any pressure. These problems simply cannot be solved mid season. When the market opens at the end of the season, the Loons need to find several upgrades; and not all have to be “expensive”. JD Banks, a name most United fans should be familiar with, provided creativity and a real attacking threat last year. He should have been brought along to the MLS but was not. His form in Jacksonville this season should not go unnnoticed and would be a great, affordable piece to this puzzle