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.
Nico Mendez of 3rd Degree and Dallas Sports Nation joins Dustin and Jonathan to preview both matches in FC Dallas’ return to play against Nashville.
They also talk about the schedule, rules, and protocols that MLS and FC Dallas have adopted as they look to restart the regular season, as well as some news on the personnel side with the departure of Jesse Gonzalez and a potential replacement!
Soccer is a game of chess played on a grass field and won by the thinnest of margins. There’s going to be A LOT of MLS on TV in July, so Joseph Lowery of the MLSAssist Podcast drops by to educate Dustin (and you) in how to watch soccer with an eye on tactics.