It was a tale of two halves for Minnesota United last weekend.
In the first half, the Loons failed to build a cohesive attack. Shots went off frame, passing sequences were thwarted, and the backline was pushed into frequent action. As a result, Minnesota conceded twice and looked to be in the midst of another bloodbath.
However, Minnesota fought back to leave BBVA Compass Stadium with one point. In a league with such a massive home-field advantage, any road point is a good one. That said, there was a drastic change in performance after halftime. Let’s look back at the tape to see what shifted.
For the second straight week, Adrian Heath rolled out two defensive midfielders. Rather than letting one roam box-to-box, Heath has preferred Collen Warner as Sam Cronin’s midfield deputy. In their second shared assignment, the pair looked much stingier in defense.
As the Dynamo start the counter-attack, Cronin and Warner immediately shift back on defense. Warner sees Marc Burch isolated on the left side. He’s able to get in front of Alberth Elis and slow the Honduran down, giving Burch time to make a smart tackle and clearance.
Compare this to the second half, where Cronin is on an island in a counter-attack situation.
This should bring back memories of the opening pair of games this year. Warner loses the ball in attack and the break is on. Cronin does his best to neutralize Eric Alexander in the midfield, but the pacy Houston attack is able to find plenty of pockets of space. Brent Kallman is able to get his head on the ensuing cross. Still, this reversion to a single-6 setup begins to show why the double-6 pivot works.
I think I’ve mentioned this on the FiftyFive.One Podcast, but this is reminiscent of the leadup to Minnesota United’s 2016 NASL campaign. Former head coach Carl Craig planned to deploy a double-pivot of Greg Jordan and Jeb Brovsky. The idea was that having two defensive midfielders would allow full backs Justin Davis and Kevin Venegas to bomb forward in attack while keeping four players back on defense. Unfortunately, Jordan suffered a major knee injury in week one and Minnesota didn’t have a surefire backup to play the same role.
If Davis/Burch and Jérôme Thiesson are going to be frequent attackers (which has been the case through seven matches), having two No. 6s is prudent. Dating back to his Orlando tenure, Heath sides have been caught unaware on the counter-attack frequently, as we saw in the first few defeats of the year. Perhaps a Cronin-Warner partnership can help prevent that moving forward.
As I called for in last week’s Rewind That, Rasmus Schüller returned to the Minnesota starting lineup. There was only one issue: the Finnish international was playing the hybrid center-mid/left wing role that Mohammed Saeid had attempted against Atlanta. The result, frankly, was equally uninspiring.
Schüller is a natural central midfielder. While he’s capable in defense, he’s most comfortable distributing the ball across the middle and attacking thirds. Instead, his orders to cover the left wing led to some sloppy moments in the first half.
Here, Minnesota has the ball in the attacking third and are looking for an equalizer. As Johan Venegas collects the ball, Schüller heads to the left wing. This creates a logjam, as Venegas is already drifting left. As Venegas circulates the ball back to Cronin, neither Schüller nor Venegas drift central to open up the pitch. Eventually, the ball goes to Venegas and it’s quickly turned over.
Later, Schüller is drifting from his natural central role on a counter-attack. Kevin Molino passes the ball to the left wing, expecting to have a player ready on that side. Instead, Schüller is unable to get to it and the ball goes over the endline.
To his credit, he looked in his element as the match progressed. I think Schüller is best equipped to be something of a enganche role, where his main charge is to connect the defense to the offense. Unfortunately, a hip flexor flare-up ended his day before half-time…
…leading to the inclusion of Miguel Ibarra. This changed the tactics for the Loons, with Ibarra taking the left wing and Venegas heading to the midfield more often. Once the second-half whistle blew, you could see the return to natural positioning helped ground Minnesota.
Here, Venegas gets the ball on the left wing and Ibarra moves central. His overlap is perfectly timed and Ibarra gets in on goal. His initial cross is blocked, but he recovers and sends in a lofted ball. If it were six inches higher, he would’ve found Christian Ramirez for the equalizer.
Later, we began to rediscover the quick transition play of the one-time NASL Golden Ball winner.
Ibarra and Venegas gang up on a pair of Dynamo attackers. As soon as Ibarra sees an errant Houston pass, he bombs down the pitch to try and spring the counter. Venegas recognizes this and sends the ball over the Houston backline. Eventually Ibarra is able to create enough pressure to warrant a rash clearance, creating a Minnesota corner kick.
At his best, Ibarra can roam to fit his teammates’ positioning, filling lanes and moving where the game dictates. As seen in the first clip, it appears that he’s beginning to gel with Venegas-Ramirez-Molino, who are as close to must-starts as this Loons side has.
The sheer amount of pace, field recognition, and creativity between these four is impressive. As Ibarra continues to find his footing in MLS, this quartet could keep most backlines in the league on their heels. I would expect Ibarra to start against Colorado this weekend. Once he gets his chance, it’s up to him to capitalize and become a regular starter himself.
It’s been a running theme through the first seven matches. The opposition is finding it possible to capitalize (and score) off of free kicks, corners, and throw-ins. Against Houston, the latter was the prevailing bugaboo early on.
While Bobby Shuttleworth has another save of the week-caliber stop, there’s no reason for an uncontested shot off of a throw-in. Minnesota’s defense fails to position properly and Mauro Manotas is allowed a point-blank header.
The opening goal was similarly baffling, though this time Erick Torres was needed to be the middle man. Still, there needs to be a bigger focus on defense and ensuring that these restarts don’t pull the plug on Minnesota’s chances in matches.
This goes back to why I think the Loons are best served with Cronin and Warner starting together. While road points in Houston and Colorado are impressive, Minnesota still conceded twice or more in each match. Simply put: Minnesota has yet to allow just one goal, much less keep a clean sheet. Until those boxes are checked, it’s premature to remove one of the two defensive mids from the lineup.
This week’s Tweet of the Week goes to Alex Schieferdecker.
Silver lining: #MNUFC leads MLS the critical "Goalkeepers Kneed In The Face" ranking.
— Alex Schieferdecker (@alexschief) April 16, 2017
For the second time this young season, Minnesota was forced to make a goalkeeper substitution. This forced loanee and opening day starter John Alvbåge into action without a warmup, and he was stellar in spot duty. In 45 minutes, he had two saves and two punches. What was his secret?
— Jeff Rueter (@jeffrueter) April 17, 2017
Regardless, this was Minnesota’s first time keeping an opponent scoreless for one half. If this is going to be spread across an entire game, Alvbåge will need to replicate his strong showing in Houston.
Finally, here’s the lineup I would roll out against the Rapids this week. See you in the comments.
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