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Talking Tactics: Maintaining a fortress at home, sustaining points on the road

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Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

After dropping two points late into stoppage last week, Real Salt Lake came into their home opener wanting to create a fortress out of the RioT and they did just that. The lackluster performance of last week seemed like a distant memory as RSL took on the Seattle Sounders. Both participating in their third match of the year – a result of both being in the CONCACAF quarterfinals – the Claret-and-Cobalt seemed the sharper of the pair when the final whistle was blown.

Reject your sense of absence and the absence itself disappears.

Both squads came into the match with notable absences to key members of their squad. The Rave Green was missing Roman Torres and Brad Evans to injury and Oneil Fisher to a red card handed out in the first week. For the Claret-and-Cobalt, the absence of veterans Javier Morales and Demar Phillips appeared to weaken the squad, at least on paper. Despite this, both teams fielded their preferred 4-3-3 formations with substitutes simply filling roles.

While the absences can be viewed in many different shades, each squad appeared to have distinctive weaknesses. RSL looked to be lacking offensively. Anytime the Maestro misses a match, we’re going to hear an ear full, which is appropriate since he is in the driver’s seat for the RSL attack. But moreover, Phillips is known to push high up the left side in a more offensive posture as opposed to Chris Wingert. For the opposition, all the absences came in the defense. With RSL apparently lacking in attack and the Sounders in defense, it would appear that, at least in theory, both weaknesses canceled the other out leaving the match pretty wide open.

Regardless of all of this, the Claret-and-Cobalt performed much better than a week ago. The squad managed to maintain more possession while still retaining a 78 percent passing accuracy. The club also doubled their chance creation, just check out the following graphic:

Courtesy of Squawka.

Most impressive of all is that Jordan Allen, who stepped into Morales’ role, managed to create two great scoring chances and win more duels than the Maestro in the season opener. He also combined with Juan Manuel Martinez, El Burrito, to complete the most pass combinations (19) of the match. After being moved around the pitch, RSL’s Swiss Army Knife is already showing promise in the No. 10 role.

But just as the club mantra suggests, it’s not as much about the big moments that a player creates or their individual technical skill, it is instead actually about how the squad plays as a collective which separates them from the opposition and that is again where RSL excelled. Instead of solely relaying on the veteran core, the club has been able to develop depth and utilize it.

Sunny is becoming a X Factor

The battle in the midfield is one of the most important engagement of any soccer match and sometimes it can be overlooked. For instance, RSL found it difficult in the 4-3-3 formation early last season. Inserting Luis Gil in the No. 8 role and making Kyle Beckerman more of shuttler instead of a pure No. 6, the squad struggled to find consistency. Replacing Gil with Luke Mulholland alleviated some of these problems but still did not form that reciprocal midfield partnership with Beckerman.

Enter "Sunny" Stephen Obayan. The Nigerian player signed this summer has flown under the radar. Arguably Sunny has become an integral part of the squad since joining the club. Complementing Beckerman’s movements and tendencies, the Beckerman-Sunny partnership looked miles ahead of the Alonso-Freiberg-(Roldan) partnership.

Courtesy of Squawka.

Just look, RSL’s midfield duo controlled the center of the pitch while the Sounders left a lot of open ground in the midfield, especially on their right flank, respectfully. The Claret-and-Cobalt was able to lock down the midfield with Beckerman and Sunny able to properly perform the required rotations. Take a gander at the squad’s influence map:

Courtesy of FourFourTwo's Stats Zone.

Courtesy of FourFourTwo's Stats Zone.

See how Beckerman and Sunny are transcribed over one another, it suggests that they were able to rotate and cover the entire midfield leaving no gaps going forward or in front of the defense. When one player bounds forward to take on the No. 8 role, the other assumes the No. 6 role and visa-versa. This was one of the principle problems with the 4-3-3 last year, and with Sunny’s addition it appears to be solved.

As the Beckerman-Sunny partnership continues to pay dividends in the midfield and Sunny continuously gets into dangerous spots; RSL fans can expect to see much more the of the Super Eagles-hopeful.

The match came down to the substitutions and tactical adjustments

One of the biggest condemnations of Jeff Cassar is his substitution pattern, or lack thereof. For instance, there has been times where the Claret-and-Cobalt could have benefited from the addition of a fresh player that never materialized. This is in stark contrast to the rigid design of past coach Jason Kreis, who apparently had set times that players would enter the match. While RSL’s subs of Devon Sandoval and Olmes Garcia did not do much in the way of inexorably altering the match, they did run at the defense and tire them even further, but it was the Seattle subs that did change the match.

Both Garcia and Sandoval retained the same style of play as the players they replaced but increased the tempo. On the other hand, Seattle subs almost completely altered the Sounder’s style of play. After Freiberg came off with an injury, Seattle’s first substitution Cristian Roldan set deeper in the midfield and did not push forward much as his predecessor. But the real difference manifested with the Sounder’s second substitution.

When Darwin Jones came on for Jordan Morris, the entire opposition formation was pulled out of place. For what had been a strong defensive team, the lack of a defensive presence on the right side of the pitch opened up more space for RSL. In fact, it was the lack of defensive depth on Seattle’s right flank that created the chance that ultimately lead to the Claret-and-Cobalt’s second goal. More evidence is found in the player’s heat map:

Courtesy of Squawka.

See how Jones is all but absent in the defensive half? Well that opened up the match for RSL.

What is clear about this match is that substitutions and tactical adjustments can end up writing the final act of a match. Thinking of one club’s subs and disregarding the other’s is foolhardy because, like in this match, it was the opposition tactical adjustment that resulted in the final 2-1 score line and not the RSL bench.

What do you think? Is there any trend that you would like to mention? Is there a specific set of tactics that you felt dominated the match? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comment section below.