Parking the bus: what we learned from week three.

I have spent a lot of timing thinking about the appropriate tactical set-up since last week’s games again brought success to the teams that sat deep, none more spectacularly than for Med City and Dakota Fusion against Minneapolis City.

Far be it from me to suggest that Minneapolis City were rampant, far too often they were sloppy and confused in the final third, but in both games the Crows dominated possession, had far more shots and shots on goal, and more regularly had the ball in the opposition half. While no doubt somewhere in London Arsene Wenger is fervently shaking his head yes to these stats, he surely is also gearing up to throw a water bottle and struggle with his jacket zipper once he realizes that pretty stats cloud bad results: two home losses.

Minneapolis City play a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 possession style, seeking to push their fullbacks high up the field and use an attacking center midfielder and two wingers to buzz around their forward. When it works, like it did in the first half against Fusion, it is a beautiful sight and can completely overwhelm the opposition.

Yet, a look at the goals conceded so far this season points to a massive drawback to this approach especially against the teams in this league that, so far, have all elected to stay deep, compact at the back, and look to hit long balls to the channel and/or to a target forward.

There are good reasons an NPSL team would elect to play this way.

First, it works defensively. A deep, compact defense strangles the easy space. No room behind the defense constrains pace and direct balls and a phalanx of bodies in and around the 18 yard box is hard for even the world’s best teams to breakdown.

Second, it wins games. I will ever so slightly paraphrase Jose Mourinho’s Rules of Football and emphasize that if they can work against the world’s best professionals training together every day for years then they will be even more effective against Minnesota amateurs training together a few days a week for a few weeks.

  • The game is won by the team who commit fewer errors.
  • Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition.
  • Instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it’s better to encourage their mistakes.
  • Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake.
  • Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake.
  • Whoever has the ball has fear.
  • Whoever does not have it is thereby stronger.

This is particularly dangerous against a proactive, possession-focused team like Minneapolis City. When mistakes are made, players are forward, out of position and tracking backward, so a quick ball can turn into a a small sided game played at pace running toward the City goal. This approach hugely benefits the reactive team as, instead of having to work through the opposition, their thoughtless clearance has turned into an attacker or two against a defender or two and it is in this situation that things happen.

The games so far back up this theory.

Against VSLT, City went down to 10 men after a sloppy pass was intercepted and quickly hit over the top of the defense and goalkeeper Matt Elder was caught in no-man’s land and, as a result, sent off for a professional foul.

Against Duluth, City lost the ball in midfield and a quick, direct ball to the target forward was one-timed to an on-rushing winger who had sprinted past the City fullback who had stepped up to support the midfield in possession.

Against Med City, who scored with both of their shots on goal, it was again lazy passes that were intercepted and played in quickly behind the fullback. The first resulted in a curling beauty of a goal from well wide, the second an emphatic one-on-one finish after the winger got completely behind his marker.

Against Dakota, there was more variation. The first came out of the blue, a powerful volley after a corner was half-cleared, and the third was a fluke of a goal, a cross turned shot that curled in from the touchline in to the upper 90. Still, the second goal came from City losing the ball in attack and a long clearance cum pass into the channel catching the defense off guard. They only scored once this way but it was their primary means of attack and only a big stop from Elder and Ian Smith taking the yellow to break up another attack kept it at one.

I am not suggesting a full-fledged re-think of personnel or tactics as, after all, City hit the woodwork multiple times against both Med City and Dakota while forcing both teams into more than one goal line clearance, including an acrobatic bicycle kick one from Med City that I wasn’t even mad about. That said, the results are more than hinting that adjustments need to be made and so is the ghost of Jose Mourinho and that’s a ghost I wouldn’t want to mess with.

How, or potentially if, the team can adjust will define their season.

Med City.
They have a coach who can adjust. Days after getting burned after leaving space behind his defense, Corey set out to defend deep against Minneapolis City and was rewarded for the adjustment. His players are clearly responding to his coaching as they showed impressive determination and fight from the first minute to the last in both the games in the Twin Cities last week and a 92′ equalizer against VSLT was just desserts for a tireless performance.

Dakota Fusion.
Jim Robbins is the NPSL Mourinho. He won’t care after getting another result, and a big one, in Minneapolis to stay top of the table with maximum points. It was ugly throughout if you care about things like completed passes, but Fusion have pace to burn up top, incredible team spirit, and a an ability to find goals where none should be found. They will be very tough to beat.

Viejos son los Trapos.
There are rumors of upheaval in the squad and I expect some roster moves to quietly happen in the coming days, though I don’t think that changes their outlook for the season drastically because this is a team that can grind out results and should have taken all three from Med City on Saturday.

Minnesota TwinStars.
Possession isn’t translating into goals. Hugely disappointing not to get the win against visiting Sioux Falls, especially since the Thunder finished the game with 10 men, but that seems to be the reality for this team. They have excellent players, they keep the ball very well, they don’t score a lot and then it comes back to bite them. Perhaps my intro about Minneapolis City works equally well for the Dragons.

Sioux Falls Thunder.
There is fight in the Thunder! I didn’t watch the game in Minnetonka so my information is second-hand, but this looks like a team similar to many others in this division with some pacy frontmen so they are dangerous even without, or maybe especially without, the ball as they look to run onto long balls and/or wild clearances that go up the field. As I said above, it works. I think we will see some surprises from this outfit, though I think lower mid-table remains their home.

This will no doubt enrage the Duluth harpies, but beating Aris means nothing. Still, you did a professional job. Woo. Don’t @ me.

La Crosse Aris.
I should create a macro so every time I type “La Crosse Aris” it auto-types “they lost again” though, saying that, they will probably contrive to beat Minneapolis City and I will have to give up soccer forever because it is going to be all my fault. No macro until the offseason, then.


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