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!
I’ve gotta be honest here. I’m not entirely sure what the game plan was for FC Dallas on Friday night in Houston, but I am sure that the only thing that worked out well against the Dynamo was the defense not giving up a goal. Poor execution, out game-planned, and questionable personnel choices made it hard to really understand what the goal was in this leg of the Texas Derby.
I Said It, I Meant It
At some point in the match, I tweeted “So far, it’s looking like my tactics article for this game will just be highlights of Matt Hedges defending” So here’s a few clips of Matt Hedges doing sly, understated, g.o.a.t.-y things on the night he passed Jason Kreis on the FC Dallas all-time appearance list.
Hedges gives away the ball with a bad pass, but then positions himself to cut off any non-sense from Houston. Then slides to force a throw-in instead of a corner. Best “scramble” defensemen in the league. pic.twitter.com/23nQobmRKT
But seriously, the only thing I took away from the first half was an increase in long horizontal balls (switches and diagonals) farther up the field. Rather than methodically attempting to switch the field by playing short passes along their defense, FC Dallas attempted to find space by working the ball down the sidelines and then having the opposite fullback run into the space vacated by shifting Houston midfielders. The Defensive Mids were also looking for the runs into this space, if it was there when the team gained possession.
We all saw the difference that subbing on Fafa Picault, Brandon Servania, and Paxton Pomykal made in the match, and there two reasons.
Firstly, fresh legs. Fafa is likely the fastest player on the team barring Mikey Barrios, and Paxton is known for his relentless determination to get the ball forward. This combination created issues for Tab Ramos’ side which only made one substitution the entire night (and not until the 83’ at that).
Fafa Picault added to the team from his introduction. Here he tracked all the way back to the FCD goal line, forced a turnover, and then was almost involved in the transition with Jara pic.twitter.com/R6EHVUtI7R
Secondly, quick decisive passing. Whether it was something Luchi adjusted or whether that’s just how these players prefer to play, the result was a much more quick and decisive buildup. FC Dallas looked as if instead of “thinking about it” and waiting for other players to get into space, they played “one-touch” soccer and played the ball into the space their teammates were headed to.
Hedges plays a quick diagonal outlet to the sideline, then its a 1-touch combo into the Houston half and the break is on! pic.twitter.com/8of1HtHUTH
This is the 3rd match in a row that Luchi Gonzalez has set up with a double pivot of Thiago Santos and Bryan Acosta in front of the defense. I’ve said it a few times now, but this pairing is a bit problematic. There’s still not enough of an understanding between the two of them on who needs to cover the space in front of the back line, and when. Several times (again) the defense was left out on an island with dangerous opposition players having nothing but time and space to pick an attacking vector.
Santos cheats over to help out Cannon, Acosta doesn’t shift (at least he’s goal side of his marker) and then is slow to get into the open space in front of the defense pic.twitter.com/lDO1DRoN6g
We can only hope that this pairing start working together better in the very near future, or sooner-or-later an opponent will make them pay.
Quick Play, Quick Turnaround
Luchi Gonzalez might not have much time between the next few matches to fully game-plan or script his side, and that might be a good thing. Now that the team has a few matches of experience implementing the tools that he wants, I would love to let the team loose on Wednesday against Colorado.
Sunday night (morning) brought the repeat fixture of FC Dallas and Nashville SC’s return to play. With it came a repeat in the offensive struggles for FC Dallas. Given that Luchi Gonzalez likes to lay the foundations and build upon them, let’s take a look at how the team built upon the tactics employed in the first meeting of the two sides.
Just a note, no gifs this edition. I spent that time getting the podcast out the door.
More Fluidity, More Options
In the previous article, I talked about how FC Dallas were very intentional about how they progressed up the field. In retrospect, it felt very much like a Luchi Gonzalez pre-season match. If you’ve ever watched one, you know that they’re very scripted and the team very rarely deviates from the script. However, he definitely opened the script up for improvisation in Sunday’s match, if only just a little. The progression felt much less like a list of checkboxes, and more like a “Choose Your Own Adventure”.
In the first match, the only options used by the players to work the ball up the field was the series of passes that were next in the script. If their next step/pass was blocked, they recycled the ball back to the CBs and started again. On Sunday, they used the script from Wednesday as a jumping off point, but didn’t let one blocked passing lane stop them so easily.
They generally tried to find the next player in the sequence, but If the next passing target wasn’t available, the player on the ball had the freedom to explore two more options.
Option 1: Look for open players in the next line upfield. Having an outlet available in a more advanced position than the next progression step (aka passing up to Barrios or Pomykal when Santos or Acosta had the ball instead of trying to find Jara/Ferreira) meant that the team could just “skip” that Nashville line and not have to worry about breaking through it.
Option 2: Look for space to carry the ball into yourself. Players taking the license and freedom to turn and dribble into space caused the Nashville players to react, opening the passing lanes that were previously blocked.
I don’t have the exact stats, but it definitely felt like their possession spent less time cycling between the defense and the defensive midfield.
Sunday’s match saw the introduction of Franco Jara as the “false 9”, rather than Jesus Ferriera playing at the 10. It’s a subtle difference in responsibility and roles, but it had the same effect in the end. This time, though, the problem wasn’t creativity on the ball alone. It was getting into a position to even receive the ball AND doing something with it after they got it.
As FC Dallas worked the ball up the field, far too often Jara (and even Ferriera when he came on) did a rather poor job of utilizing the space between the Nashville lines. One possession, they’d be too close to Nashville’s midfield line and couldn’t get open. The next, they’d be too close to the defense and turn the ball over quickly after receiving it. The result of Jara/Jesus being too close, vertically, to the defending midfielders is that it makes it very easy to be marked horizontally, cutting off passes and pressuring the moment a pass is received. Being too close, vertically, to the defensive line has the same exact consequences.
To be fair, Nashville did a fantastic job of being compact in defense. They didn’t always leave a lot of space between the midfield line and the defensive line, but the space was there and FC Dallas’ linking players need to do a better job of dynamically finding that space.
John Nelson Has A Field Day
Ryan Hollingshead missed Sunday’s match against Nashville (and will likely miss the next two upcoming matches as well) due to attending a remembrance ceremony for his late father. He traveled via commercial airline, and thus must now quarantine himself away from the team. In his stead was 2019 MLS SuperDraft pick, John Nelson.
In the first Nashville match (and really almost every match he’s played LB in), Hollingshead has been very actively involved in the offense. He overlaps with the winger and positions himself VERY high up the field.
Given that this was Nelson’s first game since June of 2019, and that pushing high up the field can create a liability in defense and leave the FB on a defensive island, Luchi opted to have him stay home more and focus on the defensive aspects of his game. It’s often wise to ease a player back into match sharpness in order to prevent them from being caught-out and risk ruining their confidence (Jacori Hayes at NYCFC, anyone?). Nelson will need that confidence as he’ll be filling in for Hollingshead for at least the next few matches.
However, keeping the fullback from fully committing to the attack creates ripple effects across the rest of the team in how the team performed offensively. If the back doesn’t venture very far forward, then that means the winger is likely to have to drop deeper to connect and provide options as the ball moves through the midfield. Then, there’s nobody up top when options are sorely needed to break down defenses like Nashville’s. This likely contributed to some of Dallas’ issues in finding a breakthrough goal.
A Better Matchup On Friday…Hopefully
FC Dallas now turns to Houston on Friday to try and stop their scoreless skid. On paper, this should be a much better stylistic matchup for FC Dallas, as Houston is more adventurous than Nashville. If they can prevent Elis and Quintero from scoring, FC Dallas should be able to both find more space to work in and exploit the relatively slow Houston defense.
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.
The FC Dallas buildup attempted to go through Jesus Ferriera as they progressed up the pitch but too often it resulted in turnovers pic.twitter.com/wrQDlJtL9O
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)
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.