FC Dallas vs Nashville 8/12: Tactical Analysis

FC Dallas returned to play on Wednesday night for the first time since March 7th and suffered their first home loss in 13 matches. It was a match to forget for the Frisco side, but some sloppiness was to be expected and can (and probably should) be forgiven, given the circumstances. The frustrating thing for fans is that, with Luchi Gonzalez’ men working to maintain possession but not creating many meaningful chances, the match felt all too familiar.

On the back of that frustration, I want to take a deep dive into what FC Dallas was attempting to accomplish tactically last night, and where it broke down.

3-5-1-1: Different Formation, Same Philosophy

Dan Crooke over at 3rd Degree explained a lot of the minutiae of “3 at the back”, but the general idea is this: Adding an extra CB allows for greater flexibility for your Fullbacks/Wingbacks while also allowing for more bodies in the middle of the field at any given moment.

It’s not a surprise that Gonzalez set the team up this way. They were set to introduce the new formation against NYCFC the week the world shut down. It also wasn’t all that much different in philosophy from any other structural setup he’s used. They want to build from the back, have intentional possession, and systematically create scoring opportunities.

Because the buildup and possession is so intentional there’s also a lot of moving pieces, so bear with me…

Against Nashville, Coach Gonzalez positioned Santos and Acosta in front of the 3 CBs, with the 2 of them switching between defensive responsibilities. Once the team gained possession and started to build from the back, Santos would move into the space just behind Nashville’s forwards. The CBs main goal was to try to get him the ball. Whenever Nashville cut off that option, the CBs would cycle between themselves or even over to a FB/WB to try and draw the defender out of that passing lane. Most often, in the first half, this outlet was Reggie Cannon. 

In the first half, when receiving the ball from the other defensemen, he would either immediately pass back to Bressan/Hedges, or dribble a little bit to attract attention from Nashville players, and then pass back for the CBs to try and work the ball into Santos.

Once receiving the ball from the back line Santos then had a few options, but the main goal was to work the ball to Jesus Ferriera who was occupying the central space in between Nashville’s CBs and their midfield. He could either pass directly to Ferriera or hit Acosta to try and draw the defenders out of the lanes and space around Ferriera.

The next step in the progression was to push the ball out wider via Barrios or Hollingshead (who played more advanced than Cannon during this phase of the match) to pick on Nashville’s RB Brayan Beckeles before attempting to find new guy Franco Jara in the box.

Mo Possession, Mo Problems

Ultimately, the way FC Dallas wanted to attack broke down far too often and not many really good chances were generated. This is not new for them, but what is new is how it broke down.

In previous matches (most of 2019) the main issue Luchi Gonzalez faced in creating chances was simply progressing the ball through midfield. Frequently, teams were able to cut off passing lanes which meant that FC Dallas wasn’t able to move the ball up the field into the space around the opponent’s midfield. 

So far in 2020 Gonzalez has managed to figure out ways to start that progression and get the ball into the opponent’s half more often. For example, against Philadelphia they used long vertical balls to penetrate the defense. Even against Nashville on Wednesday Dallas was able to frequently get the ball well into the opponent’s defensive half.

However, that’s where the progression petered out on Wednesday. FC Dallas was really good about finding Jesus Ferreira in the space behind the Nashville midfielders, but once the defense collapsed on him he was plagued by a lack of creativity to create space and options for himself and by a simple lack of execution.

I’d be inclined to chalk it up to that “return to sharpness” that keeps getting talked about by coaches and players, except for the fact that this has been an issue with Ferriera playing in that position for awhile. This is not meant to disparage Jesus Ferriera in any way. He just hasn’t adapted to this role well. It’s just not who he is. (This is why I fully expect Andrés Ricaurte to be expected to compete for this role and not for a deeper lying one)

Acosta’s Back

Aside from his well documented tendency to take really…hopeful… shots from outside of the box, Bryan Acosta’s return to the team after missing the first 2 games of the season was problematic for another reason. It was his first match alongside Thiago Santos.

There were multiple times where miscommunication from Acosta and Santos created HUGE spaces in front of Matt Hedges and the other CBs and left them very exposed to being punished by turnovers playing the ball out of the back. In a “double-pivot” scenario, the two interchange over responsibilities depending upon game state, ball position, opponent position, etc. There were times in the match where it looked like there was confusion over who was responsible for staying home defensively and who was helping elsewhere on the pitch.

Abandoning The Middle

Shortly after halftime as the substitutions began to roll in, FC Dallas changed its plan of attack. Most people will point to the change in formation (as Ziegler yielded to Cobra), but the shift started around 20 min earlier. Rather than attempting to penetrate the defense through the middle of the pitch, the team began working the ball up the sidelines more. It seemed like every substitution brought with it a greater focus on wide play and less focus on the center of the pitch…to the point where by the time FC Dallas conceded a goal and were chasing the game, their buildup literally made a square from the centerline, down each sideline, and across the opponents 18 yard box.

Coach Gonzalez said in the postgame press conference that he thinks the team created more chances after the shift. And it’s true. They were more threatening when playing down the sidelines, and here’s why: their most creative players (Paxton Pomykal, Ryan Hollingshead…yes, Hollingshead) and longest running tandems (Reggie Cannon interplaying with Michael Barrios) were playing on the sides.


There’s an idiom in sports that is used by pundits and coaches alike. “We have to find a way to get our playmakers more involved”. It certainly appears to be applicable in Frisco at the moment. Luchi Gonzalez said after the match that “the foundations and the intentions on how we want to play are there. That last little detail is the hardest part. We have to add ingredients to reward ourselves.” Those fine margins are the intangibles that can take a good game-plan and make it a great game-plan. Its the difference between an attack falling apart just before it becomes dangerous and being a constant threat in possession. They’ll get another chance at it on Sunday as Nashville returns to Toyota Stadium.