If you follow soccer outside of MLS, you know that Chelsea won the English Premier League this week, to chants from its opponents of "boring boring Chelsea". Jose Mourinho’s preferred tactic this season, particularly of late, has been to get ahead on a great piece of talent and skill with Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, then settle in behind the ball, possess and defend, and win 1-0. It’s been described as a particularly ruthless form of soccer: not ‘jogo bonito’, but certainly ‘jogo effectivo’.
The Colorado Rapids this season have so far shown themselves to be something like the bizzarro-world version of Chelsea. Pablo Mastroeni has the same theory of defending ferociously and nicking the other side for one goal to win it. Except, the Rapids aren’t winning. Rather, the Mourinho-style approach has led the team to be acceptable when up 1-0 and hang in for a tie, but they're almost totally hopeless if they fall behind.
It’s not always this way: the Rapids showed attacking teeth against RBNY without regard to the score. But playing their third match in eight games, the Rapids came out looking to play conservatively. It worked enough to earn the team another point on the road, and the Rapids are keeping themselves in the conversation for MLS playoffs as long as they can up their game in June-July. That’s a big if, and most fans like me prefer ‘up-tempo, winning football’ to ‘keeping yourself in the conversation.’
On to the tactics and numbers.
The Worlds Slowest Lineup
This has got to be the slowest #Rapids96 lineup of all time. Dang. Powers, pittinari, burling, axel, Cronin, labrocca.— Brian Mercer (@BMer916) April 30, 2015
(This is from the game before, but only Burling wasn't in this lineup.)
This starting lineup telegraphed its intention as soon as the lineup hit the twitterzz: we’re going to possess and defend. It’s ok to field a team of sure-footed plodders: Southampton this year have been quite effective with this strategy. But playing Nick LaBrocca at Right Attacking Midfield to start the game implied to all viewers that this team was set up to send two players forward and put the rest behind.
This isn’t a totally terrible tactic, if those few fast attackers (Ramirez, Torres, and later Badji) work incredibly well on the break. But a lack of attacking numbers can also hamstring you if you hope to do anything but maintain a tie. Observe starting at 1:00 minute:
Conveniently, both of the Rapids biggest chances in this one appear consecutively on the video (note: getting nice, simple videos for this column is a bitch. Did you know MLSdotcom highlight clips aren’t embeddable by us lumpen proletariat? Damnit, MLS.) Torres gets the ball on a great feed from the underappreciated Michael Harrington, and he’s off to the races. Powers is hanging on just enough that he might have been able to score on a misplayed rebound, but this goal is all Gaby Torres, because it had to be. There was really no one to help him, both because the team lacks foot speed, but also because this was the plan: defend in numbers, and rely on one man’s speed on the break.
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The Badji miss illustrates this point even more so. Powers, under pressure, serves up an unbelievable pass over the top to Badji, who breaks all alone on goal with a wicked display of speed. Doing his best impersonation of Dom Oduro or Sanni Nyassi, though, he’s all leg and no boot as he fires the sh-ass (that’s a goofy ‘Men in Blazers’-ism for a shot that’s so bad it becomes a pass). That’s partly Badji just not quite having the skill to control and convert. But also- there’s acres of empty space there. Nobody on the Rapids could get there? One of the things that makes Seattle so incredible is that if they can break with just Deuce and Oba, they’re likely to score. But usually, for Oba to be Oba, he needs Deuce. For the Rapids this game, just having the intestinal fortitude to sally forth with two or even (crazy talk coming) THREE attackers would have resulted in more goals. But Badji’s alone on top of the attack, and the attacking mids are all a bit deep- too deep to support Badji and hammer home a 2-0 coffin nailer.
This was understandable 0-0 and even 1-0, but the Rapids were still putting their attackers on an island with the game drawn 1-1.
I’m not sure I’m advocating any tactical change here. I like the 4-2-3-1 because in this game it resulted in both of these midfield turnovers that led to attacks. I’m just saying: actions have consequences. The lone striker offense puts a tremendous amount of pressure on one guy to convert sometimes, and by not putting your attackers a bit higher up the pitch, a lack of risk means a lack of reward.
In Manager Chess, this one was a Stalemate
The depleted Galaxy started the night without Robbie Keane or Jose Villareal, which meant they had to go with a lineup of Bradford Jamieson IV, Baggio Husidic, Mika Vayrynen, and something called an Ignacio Maganto. This was the Galaxy defense and the Los Dos attack. This meant that the Galaxy could conserve their best creative midfielder, Juninho, and best goal poacher, Alan Gordon, until needed. Pablo Mastroeni could then open with a more conservative starting lineup that included holding midfielder and hard-working magical heat map elf Nick LaBrocca. Additionally, perhaps Pablo knew that the Galaxy would start a small and quick tandem of Jamieson and Gyasi Zardes, and he countered with Shane O’Neill, a more mobile central presence than Bobby Burling. It worked well in the first half to keep them in check.
As the game opened in favor of the Rapids and the Galaxy looked disorganized and sloppy through the first, it was clear changes would be made.
The game mostly changed upon the addition of Juninho at minute 59’, as the Galaxy suddenly starting stringing more passes together and dominating possession. The Rapids were by no means controlling the ball in the first half, but they completely gave up the ghost in the second.
The Rapids additions of Badji, Serna and Sanchez didn’t significantly change the equation, but I take it as a bit of smart managing that Pablo went on the road with a tired squad and started a defensively-minded team. Bruce Arena’s addition of Alan Gordon when the Galaxy fell behind instead of to start was a good gambit that paid off. The Rapids couldn't stop Gordon, who's lack of speed makes him a liability in a lineup at the beginning but tremendous finishing makes him a valuable weapon as a late addition.
So, call it a stalemate. Pablo’s opening lineup was the right one to go toe-to-toe with LA at StubHub Center, but Bruce flipped the right switches in the second half to draw even. I’d like to think the Rapids would have countered with a more consequential group of subs, if only we had a Conor Casey or Didier Drogba to come in for 15 minutes and force the opponent to adjust. I’d like to think that Vincente Sanchez is supposed to be that guy, but so far this year, it doesn’t seem that plugging him in late has added much.
Shane O’Neill got his first start in forever, and he was pretty good, except for getting muscled -up by Alan Gordon for the game-tying goal. Lets hope he gets another chance, because he’s such a great asset to have in central defense…
James Riley had a quietly efficient game closing down runners and angles. Considering he was pulled off the scrap heap after barely playing at all last year for LA Galaxy, his acquisition is looking to be a shrewd one by Claudio Lopez and crew…
Dillon Powers seems to be playing back in central midfield full time, thankfully. Whether Pablo will give Gaby Torres another run at the number 10 position and try Powers in defensive midfield paired with Pittinari, Sarvas or Cronin remains to be seem…
We’re all really glad to see Sam Cronin back and healthy. After a week when Chelsea’s Oscar smacked his head and was knocked senseless on the pitch, only to be running around for another 15 minutes of action, I’m grateful that the Rapids had the sense to let Cronin heal for a few weeks before coming back. Lets hope MLS always serves as the model for what TO do in the event of a head injury, compared with the EPL’s ‘what NOT to do’…