New England Soccer Today

Technically Speaking: #CLBvNE

Photo credit: Kari Heistad/capturedimages.biz

Welcome back to another edition of “Technically Speaking,” where our resident coach and former pro Rick Sewall takes a closer look in the Revolution’s latest performance.

Have a question for Rick? Feel free to ask away in the comments section!

NESoccerToday: Following Saturday’s loss, Josh Smith referenced that the communication between the backline and midfield could’ve been better. Did you notice the same, and if so, where did you see it occur the most?

Rick: Since watching the game on TV means that you cannot listen to talking of any sort on the field, I cannot say, with any certainty, whether or not a lack of this sort of communication had any negative effect on the Revs defensive game. But if Josh Smith is including in his definition of “communication” a lack of the kind of game preparation and planning that make the defense work as a seamless whole, then I’m with him – this is what the Revs would have needed more of, to stop Crew SC’s two quickly-developing goals.

The trio of Crew SC forwards — Justin Meram, Ola Kamara, and Ethan Finlay — were all too tricky, fast, or both, for any of the back four to deal with single-handedly. Put a masterful player like Federico Higuain behind them, and you have some serious problems, as was shown by the excellent chances the Crew had in the 5th, 11th, 18th, and 36th minutes (beyond, of course, the goals they scored in the 13th and 53rd minutes).

The critical points of proper defensive communication are as follows: first, between the center backs themselves. Second, between the center backs and the left and right backs. And third, between the center backs and the defensive midfielder. The ideal outcome is that the defender challenging the man with the ball is given immediate support, resulting in a 1-v-2 situation.

Seeing Andrew Farrell and Xavier Kouassi far out of position on the goals (Farrell on the first, Kouassi on the second) means that the back five may have had a communication problem among themselves. I bet, however, that the coaches’ game planning had more to do with it. The coaches had to have realized that Meram, Kamara, and Finlay were likely to present a real problem to the back four because of their speed and skill. Knowing that, they should have gone for a more basic system of defensive play, one without emphasis on attacking from behind and overlapping.

Toni Delamea and Kelyn Rowe fared a little better on the left side of the defense, but there were problems when Rowe was badly beaten during Crew SC’s 5th-minute attempt, and Delamea was not quick enough to stop Kamara’s shot when he scored.

I wonder whether or not the talents of these four Crew SC players – and the implications of these for team defensive strategy – were properly stressed before the game by the coaching staff. Good communication among players will happen naturally as a result of good game planning. This includes the roles of the back four with the diamond in the midfield, especially the bottom of the diamond, Kouassi.

Saturday’s game was the third straight game in which the Revs have conceded multiple goals. Aside from improving communication, what else do the Revs have to do better to clean it up the defensive third?

Rick: Restrict the playing from behind and overlapping; have the coaching staff tell Rowe, Farrell, and Kouassi not to go forward so often. This plan would simplify defensive roles and would not seriously hurt the offense – as, truth be told, there is not one seriously threatening attacker among them. They would be more effective if they became selective on their attacking forays while keeping their primary focus on defense. When defenders do go forward, a midfielder must cover for them (unless, obviously, you are trying to dig out of a deficit toward the end of a game and making an all-out, do-or-die offensive effort). It would also be a big help to the back four, when fullbacks are tasked with overlapping, if the left and right midfielders were expected to mark overlaps by opposing outside backs.

The easiest solution to problems like these is to buy more talented players. This is the solution of most teams, especially ones who have money and are willing to spend it. Short of that, simplify the defense, and make all defensive responsibilities crystal clear to all players through repetition at practices. A well-coached defense with a cohesive, holistic game plan can survive occasional individual, in-game miscommunications.

On the other end of the field, the Revs offense looked potent, but lacked the finishing touch. What do you think happened to the Revs attack that scored 3 goals only a week before?

Rick: The Revs had nowhere near the counterattacking chances in this game as they had last weekend in Seattle when they scored three. Think of it this way: would you rather play 8-v-8 or 2-v-2 when you’re near your attacking penalty area? Crew SC seemed to have the Revs figured out and were able to pack their penalty area with defenders. They saw the problems created by last week’s Seattle game plan and observed that the Revs can be dangerous offensively if allowed to operate with freedom. Columbus even had their star offensive midfielder, Federico Higuain, spend a lot of time near the back four and actually work hard on defense. This supported Nicolai Naess and Wil Trapp, the two defensive midfielders in Crew SC’s 4-2-3-1 formation, in doing their jobs. As a result, the Revs’ counterattacking chances were few and far between.

The Revs got some good shots off—Lee Nguyen’s in the 21st minute off the crossbar, Diego Fagundez’s 38th-minute off-target shot, and his powerful on-target shot in the 41st minute from 20 yards. In the 66th minute Rowe hit a good one, on target, from 22 yards.

The problem the shooters have is their lack of consistency, which will continue as long as they shoot with the technique they are currently using. Witness Juan Agudelo’s wild shot over the bar from 16 yards in the 29th minute, and Fagundez’s wide-open shot from 26 yards in the 53rd minute, that went way over the bar.

The lack of consistency is caused by three major factors 1) a lack of foot control, resulting from not locking the plantar-flexed ankle; 2) using the wrong sweet spot—the inside of the big toe instead of the instep; and 3) a circular swing of the kicking leg, that ends with a twisted follow-through, with the body usually completely off-balance. These factors result in a very small margin for error- if mishit only slightly, the ball will go way off target.

I figure the Revs have two choices to solve their scoring problems. Either shell out big money for a couple of scoring hot shots, or teach the rest of the team how to shoot properly and with confidence.

If you were the Revs GM, and you could acquire only one player to make this team better, what kind of player (and skill set) would you be looking for?

Rick: My preference would be a field general like Higuain, one with the appropriate vision and skill to do what he did so well against the Revs—“pull the strings,” as Paul Mariner said. This takes awareness, all the basic soccer skills, a knowledge of where to be when (and why to be there), and an ability to concentrate for a whole game.

Most premier players over 30 are reluctant to play half their games on artificial turf, and, because of this, getting an older and experienced field general could cost the Revs top dollar. Maybe a young and speedy winger would be the next best logical choice. It might even reduce the need to have the backs attack from behind so often.

What stood out the most about Saturday’s game?

Rick: Higuain played well in the first half, but I was pretty much blown away by the way he took over the play in the second and created chance after chance for Crew SC, until he was withdrawn in the 79th minute. He would at one time be pressuring Cody Cropper, another time be near the back line playing defense. His passing was sometimes simple, at other times very creative. Players don’t often take complete control of a game the way he did. I would add that, with Higuain on the field, Crew SC did not have much of a chance to have a “communication problem.”

If I were the Revs defenders, I would have picked him up and marked him closely whenever he got within 40 yards of my goal. The Revs absolutely neglected to do this, and they were lucky Higuain only burned them for one goal.

I was astonished to hear Brad Feldman say that the only difference between the two teams was two goals and some good goalkeeping by Zack Steffen, as game stats were fairly equal. In my mind, a two-goal win for Crew SC was totally justified, especially given the way the game went in the second half. Crew SC clearly had the upper hand, because they created many more good scoring chances.

Side note: About two months ago, the Revs easily beat a depleted Minnesota United team 5-2. What was unusual about that game (as I mentioned in this column) was coach Adrian Heath’s decision to play from the back, with keeper Bobby Shuttleworth never punting the ball for the whole game, despite being seriously outgunned. His idea was (I assume) that, because his team’s chance of winning was at best slim, he would take the game seriously, but for the sake of individual and team improvement, rather than looking for a point.

Too often I have seen college, high school, and even teams at camps play unimportant preseason games as if they were knock-out cup games – purely for the win. If Coach Heath can play a professional game that actually counts the way he did, one would think that coaches at lower levels would do so also.

On top of that, on Sunday Minnesota beat a star-studded Sporting Kansas City team 2-0. I credit Heath’s team-building philosophy.

3 Comments

  1. ABU

    May 12, 2017 at 11:53 am

    You make a great point about youth teams playing terrible soccer just to try and win the game. That is one of the main reasons our youth development is so far behind the rest of the world. The focus is on winning the game and not developing the player. The results of the game at the youth level are almost irrelevant.

    One of my favorite example is Ajax, who has a sign at their training facility, these may not be the exact words but it’s very close, The only results that matter are those of the Senior Team.

  2. Rick Sewall

    May 12, 2017 at 1:45 pm

    ABU- thanks for your comment. One of my most memorable and successful seasons happened when I was coaching a group of 3rd graders , competing against 4th graders. We lost all games by at least 7 goals, getting good at taking the ball out of our own goal.The following year, again playing against 4th graders, we won them all.
    I would say that both seasons were successful because individual and team improvement were far more important than winning. The kids cared about how well they played, not whether they won or lost.

  3. Rick Sewall

    May 13, 2017 at 4:34 pm

    One of my favorite teams is the 1994- 1995 Ajax team, one that won the UEFA cup, beating an outstanding AC Milan club . They were rated the world’s best for that season. Many, if not most , of their players were developed in their youth system, at the time one of the best (if not the best) anywhere.

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