FC Dallas faced off against Houston Dynamo on Saturday night in the 2nd leg of the Texas Derby, and for FC Dallas it was a night and day difference from the 1st. Gone was the tepid, lethargic, and pressure absorbing team that traveled to Houston. In its place was a team that had a plan of attack…and a new powder keg of offensive firepower that helped ignite everyone around him.
You write up tactics and every team’s going to have a lot of potential for execution of tactics but at the end of the day at some point the tactics are not the factor. It’s about winning more duels, about making more plays, and we did that tonight and we need to use that as a reference in the next opportunity.
After the match, Coach Gonzalez was quick to deflect any praise to his players, but those players wouldn’t be in the positions to win duels and make (amazingly awesome volley goal) plays without a plan.
Let’s talk about that plan.
Getting Playmakers Involved
When you bring players like Andres Ricaurte and Franco Jara into your club, you have to find ways to get them involved.
In previous matches, FC Dallas has relied on attacking the opponent’s fullbacks and crossing the ball in from deep in the opponent’s defense in an attempt to get the ball to Jara or Jesus Ferriera. Too often, however, that just led to turnovers and frustrated attacking players.
So how then can FC Dallas get the ball to the new guys? Well, against Houston the game plan started with the transition and proceeded to take advantage of some key weaknesses in the way Houston plays.
The first key weakness the FC Dallas offensive game plan attempted to exploit is that Houston’s midfield tends to play very narrow. This allows for moments where there is a lot of space on the sidelines between Houston’s forward and back lines. Luchi really tried to take advantage of that space in transition. As soon as they regained possession, FC Dallas would one-two the ball past the Houston forward line and then quickly play the ball to whichever sideline had the most space available.
Then the race would be on as the winger-fullback pairs would work the ball up the sidelines as fast as they could. At this point, the tactics split between the left side and right side, so I’ll start with the left (because I think it’s more interesting).
In previous matches, the FC Dallas attack would work the ball as close to the endline as possible before making a play towards thegoal. Against Houston, however, Hollingshead and the left winger would barely probe the defense. Instead, as soon as they met resistance by the Houston back line, they cut inside to find Jara or Ricaurte.
Santos moves the ball to the wing. It’s moved up the left wing until they hit resistance from the back line, then the ball is worked to the center to Jara and Ricaurte. pic.twitter.com/zISXl3kG3z
So much space on the wings in transition. Hollingshead and Mosquera move the ball up the left wing until they run into the opposition defensive line. They then work the ball back to the middle once they’ve gained the attacking 1/3rd. pic.twitter.com/3SkZ5jWfq6
As an added bonus (and the second key weakness that Luchi Gonzalez’ game plan looked to be trying to exploit), Houston’s RB has a tendency to overcommit going forward. This leaves their back line exposed and vulnerable to being stretched thin and overrun.
The Houston RB gets caught upfield, the team recognizes it and Barrios gets into the vacated space and drives it down the side until he hits the back line, and then looks to move the ball centrally. This space was there for the taking all match. pic.twitter.com/EwFcP610Sx
When the attack went down the right, the speed of Barrios and Reynolds made things a bit more straightforward. The game plan: exploit that same space that’s available on the left, then use speed to attack the Houston defense.
The attention here is on the “no goal” from Mosquera, but the real beauty is how Reynolds slips into space and takes it from midfield all the way to the Houston defensive line. He then combines with Barrios to get behind the line and has a cross that’s nearly converted. pic.twitter.com/gA0v1Eq8sb
Both ways proved to be very effective in getting the ball into the hands of the players that have been brought in to be difference makers.
Let’s Talk About D, Baby
The FC Dallas defense has overall been very good in 2020. It was shaky in the absence of Matt Hedges and there are certainly things to work on, but it’s evident that Coach Gonzalez means what he has said about creating a base on solid defense and building off of it.
That having been said, let’s take a quick look at a couple of things.
Firstly, the space left in front of the defense by Santos and his partners continues to be a problem. I’ve documented it in almost every edition of this article, so I won’t waste bytes doing it again. Just know that it has not gone away.
Secondly, the partnership between Matt Hedges and Bryan Reynolds on the right side of the defense is still growing. Better communication between the two would have prevented or lessened opportunities from Houston. Frequently players snuck in between the two on the back side of where the ball was. This means the Houston players were behind Hedges and in front of Reynolds. I want to see Reynolds be more proactive and communicative in letting Hedges know that the player is there.
Lastly, and this is something I touched on last week, the players have a tendency to “turn off” on occasion and stop checking their surroundings.
Matt Hedges gets pulled out of position allowing a player to slip between Santos and Reynolds. The latter doesn’t react quickly enough and the former lets Manotas run freely behind him and into the box. Game of half-steps. pic.twitter.com/3y9wcPPJ2P
At the very beginning of this clip, you can see a Houston player run out of frame to the left. That’s Reynold’s marker. When they both come back into frame, there’s way too much space between them. But then Santos gets caught ball watching and loses Manotas, who gets into the box to receive a pass from Reynolds’ man.
Again, I don’t want to be unfair to a defensive unit that has been overall very stingy, but if these things aren’t improved, it’s entirely possible that future opponents will be able to turn these issues into goals.
Keeping It Up
Now we’ve gotten a taste of how effective FC Dallas can be. Knowing how Luchi likes to try to adapt his tactics to opponents and situations, I doubt the days of the 5-3-2 and the defensive posturing are completely behind us, but it’s good to know that this side of the team exists. Let’s see what version of the team turns out against Colorado on Wednesday and how Luchi puts the players in position to let their individual skills show.
A depleted FC Dallas travelled North to Minnesota on Wednesday night to face the Loons. There were a lot of reasons to be concerned with the team’s sloppy and stale first half performance, however, there were also a lot of reasons to be optimistic with the second half. Let’s dive in!
*Note: No gifs in this one due to time constraints
At this point I’d like to throw out a reminder that these articles are not endorsements of the tactics, just attempts to understand what we saw and what the rationale might be.
With that having been said, let’s talk about the formation and tactics FC Dallas tried to use to start the Minnesota match.
Coach Gonzalez opted to start out using 3 center backs: Bressan on the right, Ziegler on the left, and Hollingshead?! in the center. Many people talked about this formation as a 3-at-the-back because FC Dallas has used it in the past, but in actuality this was 5-at-the-back with the outside backs acting as defensive fullbacks rather than wingbacks. After the match both Gonzalez and Hollingshead described wanting to sit back defensively, absorb pressure, and selectively counterpunch. We all saw how it went, and this begs 2 questions:
Why 5 at the back instead of something they’re more familiar with like a 4-3-3?
Why put Hollingshead in the middle of the 3 CBs?
Why A Back 5?
2 reasons. The first and most obvious reason is numbers. The more players behind the ball, the less options and space the opponent has to work with. As Joseph Lowery told us in our tactics episode, the best way to control a part of the field is to overload it with more players than the opponent.
The second reason is width. Minnesota tends to get a lot of its chances by first running into the side channels of their attacking 1/3rd. Let’s look at Minnesota’s past two matches.
Here’s Minnesota’s successful passes and all crosses against Real Salt Lake.
You can see that a majority of their passes in RSLs half were either on the left or the right, especially as they progressed towards the end-line.
The same was the case in the Houston match. Because teams tend to cross more when they’re chasing a goal, I’ve only included the successful passes and all crosses in this chart when the game-state was even (the first 28’)
It’s very obvious here that Minnesota was pushing the ball wide as they entered the Houston zone.
Coach Gonzalez might have been attempting to thwart this by allowing the back line to take up more space horizontally, figuring that shifting over to meet a player on the wing with 5 defenders would create less of a worry that they’d be vulnerable to a cross on the back side than if they only had 4.
Why Hollingshead was the center CB
After the match, Ryan mentioned that the game plan was for him to help break lines vertically in the center of the pitch when the team pushed forward. He also mentioned that the team did a very poor job of pushing forward, which negated the benefit of having him in that spot. You could see glimpses of what they were trying to do though, especially as he got forward to start the play that led to Ricardo Pepi’s goal.
This was, perhaps, a personnel decision that Luchi Gonzalez wants a do-over on.
Minnesota United’s first two goals prove that tactics amount to nothing without execution. You can overload the defense, but it won’t help if you keep gifting possession to the other team in dangerous areas. Within the first 15 minutes, Hollingshead turnovered the ball over in front of goal, leading to Mason Toye’s opener and Bressan had a similar turnover that nearly led to another Minnesota goal.
In addition to passing issues, FC Dallas also suffered marking issues. Occupying the “right” spot on the field is important, but ultimately useless if you don’t mark the people in the spot you’re in. This was the case for Kevin Molina’s goal (Minnesota’s 2nd). The Loons played the ball over to the left of FC Dallas’ box (just like Luchi had the team set up to prevent), but then the entirety of FC Dallas’ defense just watched the ball. Bressan never checked his surroundings and Molina slid into the box, unopposed, and scored.
Sometimes I wonder if FC Dallas doesn’t need to hire a coach whose sole job is to constantly shout at defenders in training to swivel their heads.
Down 2-1 at halftime and chasing the game, Luchi changed the formation, tactics, and personnel. Johnny Nelson made way for Ricaurte, Hollingshead shifted to LB in a 4-3-3, and the team started to play much more direct. Ricaurte made an immediate impact and the team felt much more threatening with him in the mix. He played passes into places no other FC Dallas player besides Paxton Pomykal would even dare try. He contributed to buildups. He even tracked back on defense and put in hearty tackles. Rarely does the introduction of one player change the look of a team as much as Ricaurte did.
The only downside to his debut was that far too often he would look up in search of a player making a run into the box, only to find that no one had made the run. Someone on the 3rd Degree Podcast mentioned this and said it well when they said “it looked like FC Dallas isn’t used to playing with a playmaker on the field.”
I’m going to say it. FC Dallas is a lot more fun to watch when they’re chasing a game. What’s so frustrating is that you can tell that Luchi wants them to play that way even when they’re not losing. The main difference is how quickly they play the ball after receiving it, often one-touching it between 2 or 3 players. If you listen closely, you’ll often hear Gonzalez shouting “Rondo! Rondo! Rondo!” on the sidelines to urge his players to play the ball more quickly and make faster decisions. This is not the first match where the pace of FC Dallas’ play seemed to speed up in the second half. You could make the argument that this style of play is deliberate or even tactical, if not for a certain animated coach on the touchline.
Jonathan convinced Kenny Price to come out of retirement and talk about the past week’s FC Dallas news, their 3-1 victory over Minnesota United, their 1-1 draw in Kansas City against Sporting KC, and everything in between!