As you might expect for an expansion team, Minnesota United FC has struggled a lot this year in finding a tactical identity. Not only did the club add many new players, but it also added a new coach, who only took the reigns at the end of last November. Contrast that with its expansion partner, Atlanta United, which has a very clear tactical identity, in no small part because it hired Tata Martino by mid-September. Add to that the fact that Martino is a dogmatic manager with a clearly-preferred style of play, while Adrian Heath seems to fall more into the pragmatic camp.
All of this has led to a season of tactical flux for the Loons. The team started their MLS campaign playing a 4-3-3, with a midfield of Collen Warner, Mohammed Saeid, and Rasmus Schüller, with Johan Venegas playing as the lone forward — and as a false No. 9. That approach was quickly jettisoned as the bad results stacked up.
Next, Heath went back to basics, playing a 4-4-2 with Christian Ramirez and Venegas up top, Kevin Molino and someone else on the wings, and a midfield of Sam Cronin and Ibson. That plan lasted as long as the summer, during which injuries and international absences pushed Heath into a 4-2-3-1, with Molino operating as the No. 10 with a rotating cast of characters on either side of him. The team has also experimented at times with a 5-3-2, including in the second half of its game against New England, and against Columbus at home, when injuries forced the team to play with four natural full backs surrounding Joe Greenspan.
If you read my writing, follow me on Twitter, or listen to enough of the FiftyFive.One podcast, you already know my disdain for the 4-2-3-1, and in particular, Molino’s being used as the No. 10 in it. I’ve heaped plenty of shade on Heath this year, but I want to give him credit for constantly evolving tactically, often times with limited tools at his disposal. I think it’s been a learning year for everyone. But the one longstanding exception to that has been his unwillingness to pull the ineffective Molino from his central role in the Loons’ attack. Ever since the preseason match against the Portland Timbers, I have been calling for the team to play a 4-2-2-2, which I strongly believe to be the Loons’ best formation.
On Saturday night against FC Dallas, Heath and his team made a critical adjustment to the 4-2-3-1 that was highly effective. I think it succeeded in part for the exact reasons that I want to see a 4-2-2-2, and I think it bolstered the case for a 4-2-2-2. But regardless of the formation, it showed the Loons a way forward, and a simple mantra they should apply to close out the season strong: play narrow!
The narrow approach employed against Dallas’ greatest success was obviously Minnesota’s second goal. Miguel Ibarra’s strike came at the end of a nine-pass sequence involving seven of the 10 Minnesota outfield players. Ultimately, the goal was made by a moment of brilliance from Ramirez, and a well-taken shot from Ibarra, but the entire play showed how the team’s tactics changed to fit its players’ strengths.
Here’s a wide view, with all 10 outfield players in frame:
This frame occured several passes into the sequence of play. Before this frame, Francisco Calvo retrieved a loose ball and passed to Collin Martin, who laid it off for Ibson. Ibson passed to a dropping Molino, who immediately played it back to Martin. Martin one-timed the ball out to Marc Burch, who had no options, and who played it back to Calvo. That’s the situation as you see it here. The Loons will score after just three more passes. Can you visualize it?
Calvo passed the ball to Ibson, who dribbled forward. Ibarra moved towards Ibson and checked to him, but did not receive the ball. Ramirez then checked to Ibson, while Ibarra took Ramirez’s place, and made a run on goal. Ibson passed to Ramirez, and Ramirez chipped the ball over the defense to meet Ibarra’s run. Simple stuff.
But one thing that’s not so simple, and ought to stand out immediately in this frame, is how unusual the Loons’ attacking positions were. In particular, Ethan Finlay, Ibarra, and Molino were standing incredibly close to each other. The only width in the entire Minnesota attack was being provided by its full backs. The Loons had three players standing on the invisible line that separates the final third from the middle third — in other words, three players on the edges of Zone 14 and 11 — and all basically within the middle third of the field.
The way the Loons were positioned in the half spaces is caused Dallas all kinds of problems, and gave the Loons a number of options:
This is the narrowest I’ve ever seen the Loons play up front, and they did it all game. You can see how many choices it gave them, and how it is occupied the Dallas defense. The Hoops were playing a 4-4-2 in this match, and the Loons exploited the lack of bodies that their opponents had in midfield. Dallas had to defend three Minnesota attacking midfielders with two central midfielders. As a result, one of the wide midfielders had moved centrally, to mark Finlay, leaving Jérôme Thiesson wide open for a cross-field switch if the Loons wanted it. But the discomfort for Dallas is still plain to see, as Molino, Ibarra, and Finlay were all sitting within the space between two Dallas midfielders. Either a Dallas defender needed to step forward, which would have left space in behind, or they were going to have to tolerate the situation, and quickly close on the Minnesota player who received a pass.
In this situation, Dallas conceded because Maxi Urruti (at the edge of the center circle) didn’t close Ibson down quickly enough, and the Brazilian simply slipped past him and drove at the midfield bank of four, who stepped to challenge Ibson, which left even more space in behind. Minnesota offered Ibson two looks. The first, from Ibarra, he declined to take. Ibarra immediately cycled back to fill the space occupied by Ramirez, who dropped to offer the next look. The understanding between these two players to swap spots, the intelligence of Ibson to recognize the breakthrough, and the delicate pass from Ramirez all happened before Maynor Figueroa — an experienced international defender and former Premier League player — could recognize the danger. Re-watch the replay and just follow Figueroa. He barely moved.
This is not the right tactical recipe for every team, but I strongly believe that this is how the 2017 Loons should be playing every game. The team does not have a dominant aerial forward like Kei Kamara off which to bounce crosses. The team does not have a tricky playmaker like Ignacio Piatti or Diego Valeri. What the team does have is an array of talented but not game-breaking wingers. They are “tweeners” in the sense that they are good at a lot of things and can play across the front, but are neither true wingers or true No. 10s. They will not score by dribbling through teams, or with unbelievably clever weighted through-passing, or with blistering runs and pinpoint crosses. But they will score through intelligent movement, switching positions and creating space for one another.
With this narrow 4-2-3-1, that intelligent movement becomes possible, because all of these players are connected and none but the full backs are on islands. This goal is a classic example of how the Loons can score when they play this way. The forward becomes the attacking midfielder and the attacking midfielder makes a forward run. Simple switcharoos like that will baffle many more defenders than just poor Figueroa.
If United play with this philosophy for the rest of the season in the 4-2-3-1, I’ll be quite happy and you’ll hear a lot less griping from me about Molino’s position, because it’ll be more fluid, and that’s how he should be playing — consider that Molino was actually the left attacking midfielder in the frame above screenshot.
But there is a formation that improves upon all of the lessons that come out of that narrow 4-2-3-1, which is all about exploiting the half spaces the Loons exploited last night. It’s a formation that is perfect for teams who have (1) no No. 10, (2) a preternaturally gifted central midfielder, and (3) two forwards who offer very different looks. Folks — let me say it once more — the Loons should play a 4-2-2-2.
There is a top team that plays this formation in the world of soccer, and you can watch it every weekend on FOX. RB Leipzig took the Bundesliga by storm last year. RasenBallsport has a genius half-space exploiter in Emil Forsberg, and a sensational midfielder in Naby Keita. Up top this season, it has usually been pairing a speed-demon striker in Timo Werner with a skilled PSG youth product named Jean-Kévin Augustin — although it previously played with another fast striker, albeit one who doesn’t score a ton and is a bit of a false forward in Yussuf Poulsen. It also plays a great pressing style, (which you can read about here) but which the Loons don’t need to adopt immediately, because the system also works fine falling back to defend in two banks of four.
But in the attack, it’s the best way forward for Minnesota. Make it happen!
Look for #MNUFC to pair Christian Ramirez and Abu Danladi together up top. Coach Adrian Heath teased it tonight. They have 20 combined goals
— Andy Greder (@andygreder) September 24, 2017
Adrian Heath has a tough choice to make if he wants to play with both Danladi and Ramirez. All three of his attacking midfielders — Ibarra, Molino, and Finlay — got on the scoresheet on Saturday, yet one would need to sit. Still, he should make the switch anyway. If it doesn’t work out against a Houston team that plays a 4-3-3, Heath can always switch back to this narrow 4-2-3-1 to take back the midfield. But It’s likely going to work, because every time the Loons have played like this or similar to it, they’ve excelled.
This is my attempt, once again, to show how I am dying to see Minnesota play. Ramirez and Danladi exchanging positions at the spearhead of the attack, with the deeper of the pair dropping back to connect with the midfield. Molino and especially Finlay making runs into forward positions, or switching positions with each other. Ibson given the freedom to either pass or dribble the ball forward. The width provided by Thiesson and Burch, and more or less only these guys, unless a specific bit of combination play is on. You can run this formation with Ibarra and even Sam Nicholson, who will be thrilled with the space he gets to shoot from on the left side of the box. If the movement is good enough, the Loons will score on anybody.
The best games Minnesota has played this year have come in this formation. With the team nearly at full health, and a really important lesson learned about how its 4-2-3-1 works best when kept narrow, it’s at last time to return to what works.
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