A lot of people think that talking about tactics in MLS is the sign of a charlatan and that tactical elements actually don’t exist. While I think that MLS is definitely not the Tactical breeding ground of the next Jose Mourinho or Antonio Conte, I still think there are things we can learn from an analysis standpoint. You can learn a lot from the mistakes made, but there are also a lot of good things happening with certain teams as well. Caleb Porter and Gregg Berhalter are two managers that are pushing the envelope in MLS to become a more tactical league. With that said, here is a brief analysis of the recent match between FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake on June 25th, 2016 in which FC Dallas won 2-0.
FC Dallas came out in a 1-4-2-3-1 that did resemble a 1-4-2-4 in a lot of instances. Real Salt Lake opted for a 1-4-3-3 which allows us to take a look at potential issues for Real Salt Lake.
From a formation standpoint, which I don’t put too much weight into, but it is a starting point for analysis, FC Dallas overloaded the midfield 5v3 which pulled the Real Salt Lake midfield 3 all over the pitch. However, it was the movements of Acosta and Gruezo that created vertical passing lines into Diaz, Barrios, and Castillo. Additionally, the numerical superiority in the midfield for FC Dallas allowed Dallas to exploit space into depth behind Salt Lakes back 4 since the front 4 reduced the oppositional cover of Real Salt Lake. Their back 4 and midfield were so occupied defending the players around them that Zimmerman and Hedges had time and space on the ball.
Real Salt Lake also chose not to build out of the back at all. They played every goal kick long and Olave/Kavita chose to play the ball long to Sandoval continuously. Zimmerman followed Sandoval and won nearly every header over him which limited Salt Lake’s direct play, rendering it very ineffective. The direct play also allowed FC Dallas to remain compact which made it even more difficult for players like Allen, Garcia, and Holness to get on the ball.
If Real Salt lake chose to build more they would have been able to drag FC Dallas out of their compact shape and find vertical passes into Allen, Sandoval, Holness, or Garcia. Additionally, in build up, or lack thereof, Real Salt Lake chose to push their wingers extremely wide which didn’t make much sense. If you are going to use a center forward like Sandoval, he needs support underneath or else his hold up play as useless. This led to Salt Lake losing the ball continuously. Their endless cycle of losing the ball, having to track Acosta and Gruezo into half spaces opening vertical passing lines, left them in a defensive shape for almost the entire 1st half and entire game.
In the 28th minute, it seemed that Real Salt Lake switched to a 1-4-4-2, which seemed to make matters worse. The superiority in the midfield was now 5v2. However, they did push Mulholland or Holness, it was hard to tell, closer to Sandoval which was an attempt to provide him support.
Real Salt Lakes biggest mistake was having their wingers follow FC Dalla’s outside backs. This allowed Acosta and Gruezo to continually find the ball with the ability to play vertical in the half spaces. Additionally, it dragged Salt Lake’s midfield out of position which created space to bypass the opposition.
It would have been a better tactical change to keep their wingers high up the field to zonal defend space, instead of the position of the opponent, since space was the most dangerous issue they faced in the first half.
So, when Real Salt Lake switched to a 1-4-4-2 my initial thought was, “are they looking to sit in a compact block of 8 and counter?” If so, why start Sandoval who offers you no threat into depth? Additionally, with Allen and Garcia positioned so wide, they wouldn’t be able to provide Sandoval support in the counter.
Real Salt Lake creates a lot of space and width in possession, but they are too far away from eachother which forces them to play long to Sandoval as that is their only way to bypass the front line of FC Dallas. Their creation of space; however, kills them when they lose the ball as FC Dallas is compact and they can counter into the spaces vacated by Salt Lakes build up shape. Quite ironic that the team looking to counter-attack is leaving themselves open to counter-attacks.
Acosta and Gruezo were really good at finding the ball in the half spaces to receive and turn. Their ability to reduce the oppositional cover allowed Diaz to find space higher up the pitch in between the lines to receive and turn, while Urruti’s threat into depth occupied the center backs and kept them from stepping up to mark Diaz.
It is also important to mention that when Real Salt Lake moved to a front 2, FC Dallas began dropping Acosta or Gruezo in between the center backs to create a 3v2 in the back.
FC Dallas really had some great positional interchange and movements that were fun to watch. Some other things of interest were the position of Acosta and Gruezo when FC Dallas was in the scoring phase. They positioned themselves in Zone 14 to help keep possession when Salt Lake headed the ball away which kept Salt Lake’s players inside their own 18.
Again, some interesting things done by FC Dallas in this match. It is easy to say that MLS isn’t tactical, but we can learn from any game. In fact, you may find your team in a similar scenario in the future and watching this match could have helped you come up with some strategies to prepare for the opponent or adjust at halftime.