When you take the hands out of a game, you remove man’s special tool for refined play and frustration becomes the order of the day. The low scoring rate in soccer reflects that reality.
There are two ways to address the problem, run up your opponent’s frustration by forcing him to make more passes to get to the goal or minimize your own frustration by accepting the delay and beating it with cunning and skill.
The MLS style, adopted by DC United Coach Ben Olsen, is based on athleticism and obstruction and a focus on forcing a way through the opponent rather than around him. Witness the bench time for DC United’s more subtle players like Branko Boskovic and Hamdi Salihi.
The direct approach is not without merit as can be seen with the success of Chris Pontius and Andy Najar. Still, an obstructive defense will most often stifle their efforts. Against Red Bulls New York, Olsen chose to clog the middle with a two man defensive midfield and frequent inside play by the wide midfielders.
Thus, Nick DeLeon’s comment, “I was just trying to tuck inside. The coaches wanted the outside mids to come inside and help because Henri and some of the forwards would drop back into that space and would crowd the midfield.” The tactic succeeded in closing down the Re Bulls’ primary attacker.
Henri showed his frustration with frequent gestures, but neither he nor his teammates took the appropriate action to exploit the newly freed up space on their left wing in which Joel Lindpere took up residence. As Najar responsibly rotated into central defense to maintain team shape, DeLeon often left Lindpere unmarked.
His rationale was that, “Andy’s a quick defender, he’s not an easy kid to beat. You touch it past him and he’ll catch up to you real quick, so I’m not too worried about that. He can handle himself.”
Asked about Najar’s having to take on both Henri and Lindpere, DeLeon simply replied, “He’s a beast.” While the young Honduran has been very active and effective since his return from duty at the Olympics, he is not inexhaustible and the thin air in Utah may slow his work rate.
Real Salt Lake’s Coach, Jason Kreis, will surely note Olsen’s approach. With a strong Kyle Beckerman in central midfield to encourage the same crowding, he will exploit the wings more effectively than New York, hoping to either outflank or wear down Najar.
Olsen has made it too easy for opposing coaches by persisting in the athletic MLS style despite having solid alternatives on the bench. He and the coaching staff believe that the more patient style of Boskovic and Salihi can only be effective against tired and slower legs in the second half.
I disagree. Saturday’s game will be at altitude and dominance of early possession will be essential. Instead of repelling RSL’s attacks with a bunkering empty bucket, DC needs to take control. That means positional discipline with the wide defenders rarely overlapping and less team rotation.
In such a scheme, triangles will be a bit more predictable since they will be based on less position switching, but the scheme will require much less running and will have the added benefit of having wing attacks made by primary attackers, Pontius and Deleon, rather than an overlapping Chris Korb or a tired Najar.
This more measured approach will require good possession skills and accurate passing. That points to Boskovic’s starting in an attempt to impose United’s style on RSL. Variety on attack should come from educated runs by Salihi and the unpredictable Dwayne De Rosario.
To further emphasize controlled play, Olsen should play Emiliano Dudar in place of Brandon McDonald whose long balls out of the back are too often the first step in opponents’ buildups.
As the early season progressed, DC United grew more sophisticated in its play and Pontius in particular showed greater understanding of the usefulness of width and delayed movement into space. Then, the style suddenly went away. Olsen went with the “work harder” mentality and forgot the “work smarter” approach.
It’s time for a return to simple, intelligent play.