The amount of time that constitutes a 'small sample size' seems to change depending on how many games are played in your particular sport. In baseball, the granddaddy of all small sample size sports, you need to play 100+ games before people start to take statistics without a grain of salt. With schedules shrunk a bit in hockey and basketball, it takes 40 or 50 games to get that consistent opinion. In games with even shorter schedules, like football and soccer, the number shrinks even more significantly.
We're still not quite at that number for the Colorado Rapids under Pablo Mastroeni, with only five games played under the new manager, but there are clear patterns already starting to emerge when you compare his work to the work done by Oscar Pareja in his first season with the Rapids. Pareja's 2012 was awful and his tactics lost the team points on his own at times, and a lot of people expected Pablo to come in with a similar stumble. Instead, the Rapids are 3-1-1 after those first five games against tough competition, despite a few injury woes and under-performances from guys like Deshorn Brown, Marvell Wynne and Gabriel Torres.
Now that we've seen five full matches with Pablo at the helm, we can start to take away an observation or two. One easy one to spot has been that Pablo's tactical mindset, when compared to Pareja's in his first season with the team, has been mature and fitting for the game situations that the team has been in.
Pareja's Rapids in 2012 often got bright starts to matches only to collapse down the stretch and lose far more often than they won. Pablo's Rapids have started slow at times, but have, so far, gotten into games in the second half and won them more often than not. That's at least somewhat down to tactics: both have an attacking mindset to them, but Pablo's is much more nuanced and he is willing to let his team work its way into a game.
You'll recall that Pareja's 4-3-3 formation in 2012 provided a decent number of goals, but only because the constant of it tactically seemed to be 'attack! attack!'. The formation provided a numbers advantage pretty much 100% of the time for the Rapids in the final third and that was enough, even with less talent than some other teams, to nick goals, often early in games. Unfortunately, everything else about it was tipped in the other direction. Acres of space were available for counter attacks every time the other team got the ball because Colorado would quite often have eight players up in the final third, leaving the poor center backs and Matt Pickens stranded should anyone with pace be able to blow by them. Pareja preached possession, and his team got it, but mostly mindless booting the ball around the back that the opposition, set up on the counter, was more than happy to allow. And through 2012, his tactics really never changed. The line-up and formation may have, but the overall style was always the same, and it always led to the same results.
In the end, we chalked it up to tactical naivety by a young coach with too much of his focus on playing the type of flashy soccer that he once told me was "in his blood". We turned out to be right, as his second year brought a much smarter system that possessed less, but in smarter areas, and played an attacking style that, while still featuring a numbers advantage at its best in the final third, didn't flood it quite as much as his 4-3-3 did.
Pablo Mastroeni appears to have entered the league with a tactical mindset much closer to that of Pareja's in his second season. He's asked his team to attack just like Oscar did, but he's been much smarter about how he's gone about it. His teams haven't featured the outright onslaught of attacking options that Pareja's old 4-3-3 had; Pablo has trusted his defense to get the job done while his offense works its way into games. That has led to a 0-0 draw at the half every match for the Rapids this season. Ideal? Not at all. But a system that allows you to get a 0-0 draw at halftime to push your way into a win with attack-minded substitutions and adjustments in the second half is far more conducive to winning than a plan that gets you into that half at 1-0 sometimes, but ends nearly every time in a second half collapse that everyone saw coming.
Pablo covered the topic well in his post-game interview after the 1-0 win at Toronto FC. "You can make substitutions to defend players, but I make all my substitutions to defend the ball and put pressure on the ball. I want to win the game. I want to lean forward, I want to fall forward, I want the ball to go in the other goal, not ours. When you start to make defensive substitutions, it's a mind-set for me and as a player I hated it. The momentum starts shifting, balls start coming into your box, you're defending on your heels and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
His change to a diamond 4-4-2 that is bolstered by the team's wealth of forwards and possession-able midfielders was another smart adjustment, and one that has earned two wins in tough road matches thus far. That's been Pablo's style: not reinventing the wheel at any point, but making the killer adjustment to make it go faster based on what he's got. He's had to do that, with only Jose Mari and Thomas Piermayr coming out of the off-season for him in terms of signings. That's essentially the opposite of what Pareja did when he took Gary Smith's team and tried to turn them into Arsene Wegner's.
There is still work to do tactically for Mastroeni, and there is always a chance that his somewhat bold roster moves that seem to come every game will eventually backfire and knock the Rapids out of post-season contention as the season rolls along. Even if that happens, though, the folks who said that Pablo just wouldn't be tactically ready for Major League Soccer have gotten at least a small taste of what he knew as a player and carried into his being a head coach.