Photo Credit: Dan Mick

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How the Loons Should Play Going Forward

by on 26 September 2017

Throughout Minnesota United’s inaugural MLS season, head coach Adrian Heath has somewhat flexibly adjusted his tactics both reactively and proactively to get the best out of his squad. Alex Schieferdecker argues that a subtle shift in the Loons’ last match against FC Dallas offers, at last, a serious and repeatable improvement in the attack that reveals a way forward.

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 4-2-3-1

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?

Here’s how:

WHITE: the path of the ball. RED: the off-the-ball runs of the players.

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.

The Case For The 4-2-2-2

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!

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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  • Gitchee Gomie

    Burch looked a little exposed at times early on, and this led to some scary moments, but overall the team’s composure with this set up was exciting to watch.

    • Tim Larson

      Great analysis – really enjoyed it. I do think that ibarra is best when left to roam and interact more in the middle of the field with Ramirez. He also has the speed to get back to defend if needed.

    • MmattN

      From the broadcast and watching Heath and the coaching staff it looked like they had Ibarra come out and provide some extra support for Burch when Dallas had possession on our end of the field.

  • Stăsh

    This is very very good

  • Nate

    Back in the NASL days, Ibarra and Ramirez played best when they were closer together, allowing them to make quick passes and movements. In that light, it makes sense to me that the two of them would thrive when the whole team is playing narrower.

  • BJ

    I like it. Except I think playing Danladi gives us less options tactically in game without subbing someone. Danladi is a forward, full stop. Just about everyone else can play many positions.

    If it doesn’t work and you pull Danladi for say Ibarra or Nicholson to change the formation, you have used a sub and are probably fighting the game. With Ibarra in, either up top with Ramirez or Molino up top with Ibarra in the more mid role you can move them around with a yell from the side line.

    Either way it, against Dallas, might have been the first game Ibarra seemed to have free range to his movements. Other games he seemed to have a hard stop on where he could move to.

  • Troy Kadlec

    I like the idea of having both Danladi and Ramirez up top at the same time. Whenever we’ve had them both on the field, we score and we keep the opposing defense unbalanced. My primary beef with the 4-2-3-1 all season has been how easy it is to isolate our striker and neutralize him whether it was Danladi or Ramirez. You are gambling on big break moments to define the game and that’s a risky play at best.

    I tend to prefer a more free flowing formation and while it’s called a 4-2-2-2, it realy is a fluid formation where the midfield and forward players shift their lines based on the game situation. It really made a difference in Ibarra’s game and the entire team attacked at angles instead of obvious linear channels. I’ll be interested to see what we do for the rest of the season. If this is a one off based on the opponent, then I’ll be a bit disappointed. If this is a sustainable trend, then its going to be fun to watch.

    I’m worried that leaves some talent on our bench and begs the need for an additonal forward or two on the roster. I’m also worried that while it’s good for the attack, it could be death for the defense as our starting back 4 are not a lock down defense and vulnerable to the counter. (or a tight low cross in the box within the first 15 min of the game…) At the same time, one of the ways you can counter a weaker defense is to hammer home goals. We definitely have been better when hitting goals than trying to play the 1-0 defensive type of game.

  • Jeff Wolter

    I think it’s necessary for a team to be able to play through the middle.
    If you can’t play through the middle you make it easy on the defenders. If the other team knows you’re not good in the center they can close that off with ease and force you where you already want to go. Playing wide with possession play has one big drawback, it has a large delay in the attack built in. The defenders can get positioned correctly before the attack get close to goal. So in that sense I agree. But to be a great team the attack has to be varied. You need to play through the middle with possession but it’s just as important to be able to counter quickly using the width. It’s the most difficult type of attack to defend when it happens with speed.
    One player receives the ball out wide early and moves up the outside as quickly as possible. Once he’s inside the attacking third a defender needs to get close to slow and delay that attack. It’s now a 1v1 duel out in open space. If the attacker gets past the defender which they often can when their is enough space then it pulls the central defender out from his position. The space to work in the middle is now open. Just what every attacking forward wants, space and time near the goal.
    Going quickly up the center is always option number one but most D1 teams defending systems should not allow that very often. So that’s always limited. Somehow CR17 seems to take that play and work it well often. He knows how to get behind. His percentage of hitting the goal with shots is very good for a first yrear D1 player. So MN does kinda have a counter attack. Overall the team looks very good when healthy.

    So my only real point is that it’s great to see a new team be able to play through the middle (the most difficult way to attack). But don’t depend on just that. Just like a pitcher with only one good pitch it’s easy to see the one good pitch coming in, and for a well organized defensive unit that stays compact and in the correct shape and knows how to turn that one type of play away it’s sometimes an easy way to stay in shape while defending.
    This formation often turns into a 90 minute midfield battle with few penetrations through the middle.

    A quality team has to be able to do both. Go up the center using possession play out of the back, and also use the change up and go quickly up the outside using the width.

    Minnesota has got the hardest one of those two basic attacking methods at the moment. Playing up the center is not easy. Most teams just don’t have a passing percentage that makes it work well for them.

    Your 4222 may be the right system for the team now but you need to add that outside play for next year.
    Look at that formations ability to attack with width as they enter the attacking third. Who would be the wise players trying to draw the defense out to spread the defending area wider so you can go through the middle? The two fullbacks. I think that’s why you asked for Burch in the Colorado trade in March. Your coach could see you are weak going wide and using the width, if only to spread the attacking third apart. Scoring from crosses is a whole different story.

    I see your 4222 a bit differently.
    In my mind you use a Brazilian box defense.
    2 center backs with 2 holding mids positioned in front of them, your photo shows that clearly.
    One of the two holding mids pressures any counter attacks quickly to delay it coming out directly, whike the other holding mid drops back into the center area in front of the back line. That way the delay of the attack can happen before the attack moves through the middle third. That gives your fullbacks time to get back into the defending line and get turned around before the attack enters your defending third. The shape is changed for the attacking width so then it needs time to switch back into the correct defending shape. The delay of any attack come out is very important when attacking in this new shape.

    So the 4222:
    As an attacking shape lacks width which is one of the big attacking principles needed against quality defending teams. It takes a bit of time to move those fullbacks up into those wide attacking positions so then the attack has to give it that time which dictates a possession only type of period after attacking transition. If you attempt to get wide and cross the ball late from down deep you are now asking your fullbacks to have a very special type of physicsl ability because they never really get any time to rest. All resting should take place when your team has had the ball in attack. Nobody gets to rest while defending just like hockey. You don’t leave the ice when you are defending.

    If also is not a 4222 during the attacking phase of play. It’s more of a 2251/2233 and that also takes time to change back into a 451 shape which is most teams perfered defending shape while in their own defending third.
    The 451 (4231) has less overall movement needed by all the players involved. If your going to build in an effective counter attack. Then the sprinting involved in those counters attacks works best when the distance to re-gain your defending shape is the least it can be. The game at this level has a very important level of energy management involved if you plan to win the game at the end of the 45 minute playing periods.
    If the counter attack play is on then the two wide mids go up wide quickly. If the attack turns into possession play they can move inside and during that possession attack the fullback can move up a just a bit forward creating the largest use of space while attempting to get into the attacking third through the middle.
    The 451 is a very flexibule shape that allows a team to change from the defending shape to new attack shape and back again with the least amount of travel time involved.

  • Jeff Wolter

    Would love to know who keeps marking my posts as Spam?
    I’m from MN and have been around as a MN pro soccer fan from 2003.

    My post keep getting pulled??

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0da27ccfcad5dbcd89ace5ec9005040e883424ecd6d82bcdd3340ac2b13987ac.jpg

  • Jeff Wolter