Adrian Heath’s High Risk Approach to Defense / by Kevin Minkus

By Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus)

With Jeff Cassar’s firing last Monday and the announcement of Mike Petke as the new RSL coach, part of the conversation among MLS fans and analysts turned to which remaining coach held the hottest seat. The top candidates included Dom Kinnear, Jay Heaps, and Carl Robinson. Also in the discussion, at least somewhat seriously, was Minnesota United’s Adrian Heath, a man who has been at the helm there for four total games. Over those four games Minnesota has conceded a league worst 18 goals, for a goal difference of -12. They've allowed 38 shots from inside their 18, including nine shots from inside the six yard box. Both are the most in the league (and second most on a per game basis). That Heath’s name comes up in the conversation suggests an overall lack of preparedness that, to some, might be damning.

I don’t want to beat a dead horse here. A lot has already been written on Minnesota’s defensive flaws (including from our own Harrison Crow), and I don’t want to pile on. I’m more concerned about answering whether these struggles could've been anticipated in light of Heath’s performance managing Orlando City’s 2015 expansion campaign. Are the problems Minnesota now faces the same that plagued Orlando City that season? And, if so, does Orlando City’s experience point towards a solution?

The defense of that Orlando City side was bad, but not historically so. They conceded 56 goals, fourth worst in the league, and 12.7 shots per game, fifth worst in the league. Their xGA was about 46.4 - seventh worst. But they gave up four or more goals four times that season. This speaks to a certain high-risk, high-reward approach that Paul Tenorio elaborates on here. Tenorio suggests that Heath’s preference for an on-the-front-foot brand of soccer comes at the cost of inconsistent defensive performances. Essentially it’s a high variance strategy that, in 2015, occasionally blew up in Heath’s face.

Quite literally, Orlando had the third highest variance in expected goals allowed in the league in 2015. The Lions had four games that cracked the top 25 worst defensive performances of the year, the second most of any team behind only Real Salt Lake’s truly terrible defense. On the wrong day, they could concede a lot of high quality chances.

In allowing distribution, they could be poor, too. The following graph shows Orlando City’s pass completion percentage allowed by distance from their goal, up to 50 yards out. It splits this out by their losses and by their wins (hat tip to Dustin Ward for this type of plot):

So in their losses, the Lions gave up a higher percentage of passes almost across the board in their own third. Their defense was just loose.

On the whole, then, their metrics suggest OCSC’s defense was a bit below average. When it was bad, though, it was bad.

Is it possible, then, that Minnesota United has simply hit the wrong end of Adrian Heath’s high variance strategy, three out of their first four games?

Intuition suggests this might be the case. In those three poor games, the Loons ran into a Portland team that has so far mostly been a buzzsaw, faced a high pressing Atlanta side in Hoth-like conditions, and were forced to field a second-choice squad due to injuries and international call-ups.

Aside from the New England game, Minnesota’s total expected goals conceded in each game have all been lower than the five worst games of Heath’s 2015 Orlando season. MNUFC’s pass completion percentage conceded so far even tracks fairly closely to Orlando’s in their 2015 losses (once again cut off at 50 yards, and note the colors are flipped from the previous graph):

It’s very possible then, that what we are seeing in Minnesota is a product of the same sorts of variable processes that hurt Heath in Orlando. Heath’s approach, in the wrong scenarios (and it has probably been the wrong scenarios so far), is coming back to bite him.

The above graph calls out the real difference in Minnesota, though. That difference is the completion percentage of Minnesota’s opponents within 10 yards from goal. That’s about a 30% completion rate, and it’s absolutely killing them. The Loons have allowed 36 key passes so far. 28 of those ended within 10 yards of goal. This, I’d suggest, is where Heath’s high variance strategy breaks down. It’s this type of flaw that turns a rough day in Orlando into an absolute nightmare in Minnesota.

So what about a solution? Well, stop conceding so many passes into dangerous areas. In Orlando, Heath relied in large part on Cristian Higuita and Darwin Ceren to patrol the areas from which those types of passes typically come. Combined they recorded about 12 tackles + interceptions per game (via Whoscored) in 2015. Adrian Heath’s (and the Orlando City front office’s) real win was on identifying those players in the first place. Player identification is a tough problem for an expansion team, and in that case they got it right. In Minnesota, they've mostly swung and whiffed in the defensive midfield and center defense, and now, unfortunately depending on their cap situation, it’s not a problem Heath can immediately go out and fix, except through trades. His experience in Orlando suggests making that fix in the transfer market is something he’s capable of doing - he got it right once, after all- and that should give Minnesota fans some hope. In the meantime, though, they may be stuck continuing to get burned by his high risk, high reward approach to game planning.