When suffering an attack your best ally is to keep calm.
The hybrid formation that Cassar has rolled out in the last two matches has really changed the chemistry of the squad. It is dumb enough to write off Real Salt Lake already, but what is stupider still is forgetting one important factoid, they are still RSL.
For the first time in seven years switched up the formation and changed the roles of players on the squad. It is easy to forget that this is a process and rarely do you see a team that makes major changes come flying out of the gates. The reality is that a new culture and style have to be adopted, so it is not something that players can just go in and fill holes. The process, therefore, is something that takes time to adjust to and for players to buy into.
Through this process one aspect of RSL's game has really picked up the slack, the defense. In the defense the veteran players along the backline that have worked with each other for over a decade, combined, knows their positions and movements and has been the difference on the pitch.
In the new 4-1-3-2 formation we have seen this familiarity translate to the midfield. In the last couple of matches the defensive switches have been simplified and we have seen the other players get deeper into the attack. Cassar's adjustments allow the out-and-out striking partners Alvaro Saborio and Devon Sandoval hold up the ball as the rest of the squad gets involved in the attack as Jordan Allen and Luis Gil provided the creativity for the side. While this has been important for finding the back of the net, the defensive partnership of Kyle Beckerman and Luke Mulholland cannot be overlooked.
Beckerman and Mulholland fill the role of the central midfield wrecking crew. They are tasked with breaking up the opponent's play and delivering cutting balls into the offense. These two players have shown to be an amalgamation of similar minds that have come together quite nicely - think of the partnership between Diego Chara and Will Johnson in Portland. Despite these players not being the flashiest of luxury items, they have provided RSL with a solid foundation of late.
This was especially apparent in the first 60 minutes of Saturday's much needed 2-1 victory over Chicago Fire, a club that has been on the upswing. For the first time in what seems like ages, RSL were able to get their formation and tactics sorted from the start. And it paid off:
The graphic above (courtesy of Squawka) depicts the heat map of both sides - Chicago on the left and Real on the right. What the graphic shows is that while the Fire's central midfield partnership was pushed out towards the touchline, RSL's central midfield duo dominated the central passing lanes. As Chicago's midfield completed close to 80 percent of their passes from the flanks, RSL maintained an 80 percent passing rate within the width of the 18 yard box:
Even going to three men at the back, Chicago was unable to overrun Beckerman and Mulholland. Real Salt Lake took control of the match and held on despite conceding the possession stats - but as we have mentioned before: it's not about the amount of possession, it's how you use it. Furthermore, these players have been instrumental in RSL latest 251 minute run where an opponent has not scored from the run of play - not to mention a 50 percent penalty killing rate in the same amount of time thanks to Nick Rimando. While that number does not seem to impressive now, it will as the numbers begin to add up.
Thanks to the savage breakup work of Beckerman and Mulholland, Jeff Cassar has been able to make other adjustments on the pitch to improve offensive performance. The point is that with one less thing to worry about, the RSL coaching staff can focus on other aspects of RSL's game.
The Claret-and-Cobalt are still, without doubt, in the experimentation phase and dealing with a string of injuries. When they are able to fire on all cylinders, however, RSL has shown they can play some very effective, very dangerous soccer. The only question remaining is how the squad will shape up once all the pieces are available on the pitch? Until then, RSL have the option to lean on the cool, collected midfield partnership of Beckerman and Mulholland.
If RSL is to continue to climb the standings, the Claret-and-Cobalt's central midfield roles will have to play as important a defensive role as they take in offensive responsibility.
What do you think? Is the Beckerman-Mulholland partnership one of the best in MLS? Will RSL continue to rely on their partnership? How can those two improve the play of RSL? What does this mean for the shape of the side? Is defense just as important as offense? Share your opinions in the comments section below.