What did our beloved Claret and Cobalt do the evening of March, 10th? They did what they trained for. They did what they most wanted. They did what they are capable of. They “came to score” (The Aggrolites).
Where has our midfield gone? When thinking about our three consecutive losses, there was one major question that remained. While we may have rather given away nine points (how valuable they look now), we should be looking past the defensive errors to really discern how the losses came about.
It is important, first and foremost, to not blame any single player for the losses — neither the presence of or the absence of one or more players. If we are to win as a team, we are to lose as a team, and that's really all there is to that. If you're looking for blame, look away. Nor do I think we can blame this one on a coach, a front office, a fan base, any of that. The reasons we have lost these three are many and varied, but for me, it boils down to one simple thing: Tactics.
I don't mean that Jason Kreis has sent our side out entirely hapless and unable to cope with opposition sides. We saw against Chivas a side that absolutely purred, such was the quality on display. It was perhaps our most comprehensive display this season, and that three losses followed should not distract from that matter.
In fact, the tactical problems have really only manifested on the pitch because of the players on hand. It's not to say that we're lacking in quality players. Nothing akin to that. In fact, I highly rate all of the players we've seen in these three matches. But something clearly wasn't working.
We first turn our attention to the defense. Most of the time, we have seen a back four of Tanaka, Borchers, Wingert and Beltran. This is, of course, owing to the injuries of Jamison Olave and Chris Schuler, as admittedly, Wingert is not a natural pick to slot in at center back. But this is what it is, and there's not use complaining about that, especially as we've brought in another center back to hopefully help carry the load. I have heard some complaints about the performances of Chris back there, but for me, he's performed well and generally got his positioning right. He certainly could have done a bit better on a few defensive collapses, but again, those are team collapses. Tanaka, too, has been the subject of some criticism, but his willingness to get forward at will is, for me, a great benefit. He does perhaps need to improve his passing game around the center of the pitch, and I am highly confident that we will continue to see him improve in that regard.
From there, we turn to the midfield — and therein lies the rub, if you pardon the expression. It is, again, not the personnel we have on hand. that's not it at all. It is, however, a bit how these personnel are used. Kyle Beckerman (or, if you will, Yordany Alvarez) in that deep-lying playmaker spot has performed well, breaking up attacks (yes, I hold this is the case for Yordany as well) and generally getting the ball forward. I have no complaints about this position, generally. It is perhaps the most important spot in our side for a variety of reasons. The most important? It allows creative distribution from just in front of the defenders, where most sides will generally field a destroyer of some sort.
But the box-to-box players on either side — combinations of Jonny Steele, Ned Grabavoy and Will Johnson — have been problematic. Not for their effort, skill or turnover rate — those are actually quite at their normal rate, which makes our profligate appearance in midfield all the more puzzling. The player in front of those two — Ned Grabavoy and Javier Morales, plus a short stint or two from Luis Gil — isn't to blame either. So what is it that's so problematic?
For me, Jonny Steele and Will Johnson both have a penchant for playing in wide positions. This is fine and good at times, and it can help switch up our play. That Will Johnson sometimes features as a full back is no mistake. He is good in those positions, and he breaks up play expertly when he's there. He isn't the most powerful or the fastest, but he offers a lot in that position when we're chasing a game. But when we have our two box-to-box players simultaneously taking up wide positions, one of two things (perhaps both) happen: The deep-lying midfielder will step forward to fill the gap or the attacking midfielder will drop back. Both present significant problems, so let's go over both options.
If the deep-lying midfielder steps into a more forward position, we do gain more traction in the midfield in attack, but any giveaway presents a significant problem, as the player who would normally break up play is no longer in a position to do so, and an attacking midfielder is left to run, with Kyle or Yordany chasing back to break up play. This option is clearly problematic because it is a leading cause of rash fouls near the box or a direct cause of a goal. This isn't down to the defensive midfielder alone, because the most important part of our play is in passing and possession, like most successful modern sides.
If the attacking midfielder drops deep to help with possession, we are perhaps more likely to keep the ball, but he's pulled into a position where he cannot make the best plays. He is both too close for a releasing long ball and too far for a slotted through ball or other sort of play. Additionally, a gap is left between the forwards and the midfield, leaving our attack more toothless. While we still create chances like this — Javier Morales is a brilliant midfielder, after all, and is the league leader in creation of big chances (not per game — overall) — they end up going to a forward who has little genuine support. With the attacking midfielder taken out of the equation near the edge of the box and our box-to-box players in wide positions, our strikers are left to do it all on their own, and that's never going to be an option that results in loads of goals.
So how do we solve this? The solution seems simple: Tighten the midfield, pull the box-to-box players into more narrow positions, and let play run through the middle of the park. We may be defeating teams in possession and passing statistics, but we're left without options in the most vital part of the pitch between the center circle and the edge of the 18-yard area. While this would seem to leave us with less meaningful flank play, we should be turning to our full backs to fly forward at will and shake things up. This will help to pin the opposition full backs in their defensive third, allowing us more time in wide areas, and it will pull central midfielders into wider positions to provide more cover. The end result? We're left with more room in the center of the park, where things have been rather over-crowded.
Sure, that won't solve the problem of long balls over the top, but that's something we will naturally have to deal with as a side that plays attacking football. With Olave back in the side, we'll be better able to cope with these, but we'll also have to rely on Nick Rimando to spring from his box when needed. We know he's capable.
At the very least, though, we should expect to see improvement against a flank-heavy Seattle side — adjustments were always going to be necessary, regardless of our record to this point, but it all seems a little more pressing now, doesn't it?