By Harrison Hamm (@harrisonhamm21)
Welcome to Little Things, a weekly look at some of the nuances that occur in MLS games. Technical and tactical aspects will be looked at to better evaluate players and teams on a larger scale, and of course statistics will be put to use.
Here’s our inaugural analysis, including an example of how not to press by Minnesota United, an interesting set piece fad, and an impressive build-up by Orlando City:
Orlando Goes Back to the Basics
One tried and true formula for a wide-open soccer game came in Sunday’s Atlanta United-Orlando game. It was late in the first half on a hot day, and a team that likes to throw numbers forward (Atlanta) had forced another team that likes to put players into attack (Orlando, albeit in a different way) to go on the offensive by taking an early 2-0 lead. Space opened quickly as both teams wailed forward.
When territory is as readily available as it was in this case, teams have the opportunity to simplify their build-ups. Because every possession sequence essentially originates from a transition play, attackers no longer have tight, complex defensive shapes to break down. One movement can open up a lot more space than it would have in a normal game state.
This, in the 43rd minute of Orlando’s 2-1 loss, is a good look at a basic, unencumbered build-up:
The opportunity to advance the ball so easily up the field came from an Atlanta counter-attack that had been stunted at the top of the box. With many Atlanta players caught up field and tiredly jogging back into the play, Sacha Kljestan received the ball on the left wing from Yoshimar Yotun and dribbled into the available space, left by defensive-midfielder Jeff Larentowicz’s venture upfield.
Kljestan’s dribble drew Larentowicz in — this is the value of confidently and intelligently taking space given to you — and gave Cristian Higuita ample room for a late run. When Higuita received the ball, left wingback Greg Garza was forced to step all the way out due to the lack of available defensive help.
Most of the time, you’ve done well as an attacker if you’re able to draw a full back this far out. Overloads will always be immediately available on that flank if you can force that movement from the left-sided defender.
This is an extreme case, so when Higuita is just barely able to touch the ball past a beat Garza, winger Chris Mueller has acres of space to take a touch and put a ball in the box. We often lament teams that send in a lot of crosses, but the position Mueller finds himself in here is one of the most threatening possible for an immediate delivery into the box.
Mueller has time to settle it fairly close to goal with runners charging in, and due to the shape-shifting nature of the buildup, the defense is too disoriented to coherently mark those runners. It ends up being Higuita who has a quality opportunity for a header, which registered 0.12 xG. He didn’t do enough with it, but if you create enough of these chances, you’re going to score. But despite Orlando finding a way to break down the Atlanta defense in this isntance, they had their lowest xG output in a game this season, at home. It seems they should have tried this quick-countering more often.
Not every game will be this utterly wide-open (or played in the scorching Orlando daytime heat, for that matter). But the way Orlando cracked open Atlanta’s defense provide a simplified study of how to open space with possession.
Minnesota is, uh, not good
The Loons have four wins and seven losses in 11 games this season, with a league-worst 20.9 xG against and just 10.7 shots per game, worse than all but three teams. They seem to be getting along solely on their attacking talent, which is too good for a poorly-managed team that can’t get out of a game without making multiple catastrophic defensive mistakes.
A good indicator of whether a team is well-coached is its pressing shape, and how coherent it is. If players know where to step and trap, no matter how aggressive the overall philosophy is, and they are able to make it at least somewhat difficult to get through, then the manager is doing an effective job.
Here is an example of a Minnesota pressing sequence:
San Jose is also not a good team, so they were not exactly eloquent in taking advantage of this. But notice Ibson’s yelling and pointing during that sequence. He seemed to be confused (or just plain ticked off, depending on your interpretation) as to what Minnesota was doing.
The Earthquakes easily infiltrated the space between the Loons’ midfield and backline. It took very little to draw Ibson out and flood the resulting gap. Minnesota has to be tighter.
Vancouver is a Set Piece Machine
Two of the best attacking set piece teams in the league — Vancouver and Houston — met on Friday and played to a 2-2 draw. They combined for two set piece goals. Both were scored by Vancouver, including one at the death. That final goal, scored by center back Kendall Waston, is the one we’re going to focus on.
The ‘Caps had a free-kick from well outside the box as the clock ticked past the designated three minutes of stoppage time, down 2-1 at home. Felipe delivered the cross. As the ball was in the air, this is what it looked like:
Vancouver loaded a lot of their players on the left side of the box, a location that was easier for the right-footed Felipe to reach and harder for the goalkeeper to come out on. A few players, though, stayed on the right, including Waston. Keep in mind that the Costa Rican is arguably the best set piece threat in the league.
The game-plan was to loft the ball to the back-post and put that header back in the middle, where Vancouver could get numbers, especially with back-post runners peeling off toward the penalty spot. Houston made it easy, failing to even mark Waston, and the plan worked to perfection. Waston latched onto the header across goal and gave the Whitecaps the result.
Vancouver is so dependent on set pieces that Waston - again, he's their center back - is 3rd on the team in xG this season. Now, Carl Robinson’s men will look to score some open play goals.
Gyasi Zardes gives a lesson for strikers
Gyasi Zardes has eight goals this season, four times as many as he had last year in twice as many games. He’s tied for the Golden Boot lead with Josef Martinez, starring for Crew SC a year after a disastrous LA Galaxy season. Zardes already has the second highest xG of his career, and unlike 2014 when he may have gotten a bit lucky by scoring 16 goals on only 11.2 xG, this season he's scored 7 on 7.2 xG. His output is no fluke. If his success continues, it could prove once and for all that Gregg Berhalter is the striker whisperer.
It could also prove how much inherent talent Zardes has, and the striking instincts that have always been present. The first of his two goals in Columbus’s 3-0 win over Chicago on Saturday proves as much. Look at his movement to free himself on this play:
He makes an expert dart to the near post to drag Kevin Ellis there as the ball is about to come in, and then suddenly pulls back his run to place himself perfectly in position for a tap-in. This is Striker 101.
A Trendy New Set Piece Play
The penalty that gave NYCFC an early lead on LAFC in their 2-2 thriller came from a new set piece play that seems to be growing more popular:
The goal of the play is simple: find a way to get a player open enough at the top of the box to be able to get a quick volley off, and have the corner-taker lift the ball directly to them. The shot itself, with its crazy degree of difficulty and low-percentage odds of actually going in, is not the threat. Rather, if the shooter is able to hit the ball into the ground so it bounces into the crowd of bodies, any number of positive things could happen.
One of those positives things is a handball in the box, which is what happened here. The Light Blues tried this a couple of other times during this game, as have a number of other teams in recent weeks. It was something Andrea Pirlo used to try with NYC, to varying results. It requires a player who can get off a volley that serves the purpose of a blue-line hockey snapshot, far from an easy thing to pull off.
But Anton Tinnerholm was able to do it. It’ll be interesting to see how many teams incorporate something like this into their set piece plans.
That's all for now. Check back next week when we take a look at some more Little Things.