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Talking Tactics: Adaptability, defense and more against the Rapids

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake is now the only unbeaten team in the in the league. Coming off the heels of the Herriman Academy announcement, RSL took the early initiative against Rocky Mountain Cup rivals the Colorado Rapids. Averaging now more than two points per match, RSL has moved back into the league's elite after a disappointing 2015. Pundits and league fans alike are taking more stock in the Claret-and-Cobalt as results have been going their way. Tying their second best start in the club's history (accumulating more points), here are some of the statistics that dominated the RSL, Colorado match.

Individuals who cultivate a variety of skills seem brighter, more energetic and more adaptable than those who know how to do one thing only

For years, the Claret-and-Cobalt played a single style system with little deviation. The 4-4-2 diamond would build play through the middle of the pitch overwhelming the opposition’s central players match-in and match-out. Chances were created by Javier Morales, who had the keys to the attack, and the back-line was screened by no other than Captain Kyle Beckerman. The two other midfielders were act as shuttlers getting the ball up and down the pitch. But with the 4-3-3 formation finally starting to click for RSL, the squad is better able to adapt to the opposition.

The 4-3-3 is a classic soccer formation for an attack minded squad. When attacking, the formation allows the fullbacks and the midfield to get involved providing essentially eight different options. In defense, falling into the sister formation of 4-2-3-1 provides defensive depth both in front of goal and on the wings. It is this ability to rotate players – from wing-to-wing or fullback-to-midfield and vice versa – that makes this formation incredibly adaptable to the situation at hand.

Take for example Real’s attacking sides habits. On average in 2016, the Claret-and-Cobalt attack down the left side of the pitch 40 percent of the time, down the middle 20 percent of the time, and down the right 40 percent of the time. From these numbers it is easy to see that RSL favors flank play in their new system. With that in mind, when you look at the positional report for the RSL, Rapids match something stands out.

Against the Rapids, Real attacked down the left 46 percent, down the center 20 percent, and down the right 34 percent of the time. Similar numbers appear against the Portland Timbers with the Claret-and-Cobalt favoring the right side of the pitch this time with 45 percent, compared to 21 and 34 percent through the middle and on the left, respectfully.

These numbers suggest the RSL prepared for or simply found a weakness on either side of the pitch that their formation helped them exploit. Against Portland, both Jermaine Taylor and Zarek Valentin would push high up the pitch so throwing Beltran and a winger forward would overload the right side. Against Colorado, however, it was Eric Miller’s inability to stay connected with Bobby Burling that opened up chances for RSL down their left side of the pitch. Just check out the next two videos:

The first shows the development of the play specifically down the left side of the pitch, while the second shows buildup using both flanks. In either case, RSL adapted to their opponent’s style of play and exploited some habit for their own benefit.

With wingers able to switch and play on either side of the pitch and midfielders continually rotating into the back-line to cover for advancing fullbacks, RSL is demonstrating adaptability on the individual level.

But what about the macro-level?

Take a look at these snippets of information from RSL’s last two matches:

v. SKC v. COL
Possession 36.6 58.4
Chances Created 13 7
Pass Accuracy 70 % 74 %
Avg. Pass Distance 21 m 19 m
Shot Accuracy 67 % 57 %
Opp. Caught Offside 8 6
Fouls Conceded 18 11

While it simply may look like a bunch of squiggles on your screen the numbers depict a changing style of play for the Claret-and-Cobalt between last week and this week. More willing to sit back and utilize fast-break opportunities against Sporting Kansas City, RSL was more prone to holding possession and creating build-up play against Colorado. As a result, Real’s passes were shorter against the Rapids and less chances were created. But what carried over between the two matches was RSL’s defense playing a high-line and looking to catch the opposition offside – as opposed to their traditional cover defensive technique.

In short, both the players’ individual ability as well as the club’s to change their style of play keeps the opposition guessing and opens up more opportunities for RSL. Being flexible will allow the club to adjust and change passed on its needs for a specific situation. So expect to see an evolving and ever-changing style from the Claret-and-Cobalt as the season progresses.

Defense wins you championships and, in this case, the match

Colorado tried to do what RSL did against Kansas a week ago. The Rapids were content with sitting back and defending and using the counter-attack. When compared head to head the stats are eerily similar.

RSL v. SKC COL v. RSL
Possession 36.6 41.6
Chances Created 13 11
Pass Accuracy 70 % 71 %
Avg. Pass Distance 21 m 19 m
Shot Accuracy 67 % 67 %
Avg. Duels Won 39 % 44 %
Avg. Defensive Actions 50 45

In all, it looks like the two clubs were playing the same style of soccer. This, however, can be deceiving as it was not as effective for the visitors this week as compared to last.

The major difference was the defense between the two matches. While RSL’s defense stood firm against SKC, Colorado’s developed holes for RSL attackers to operate in just in front of their 18-yard box.

Courtesy of Squawka.

Therefore, RSL wingers Joao Plata and "El Burrito" Juan Martinez were able to fold into the vacated space and wreak havoc.

In contrast, Colorado had little opportunity to operate in the same area across the pitch.

Colorado Heat Map v. RSL
Courtesy of Squawka.

Like Kansas City the week before, the Claret-and-Cobalt's defense and central midfield duo was able to close down the area in front of their box against Colorado.

Not only that, but the new partnership between Justen Glad and Aaron Maund appears to be doing better than when Jamison Olave is on the pitch. For instance, the average amount of scoring opportunities created by opposition is 7.5 per 90 minutes when Olave is absent, down from 11.7 when he is on the pitch. Not only that but the number of total fouls committed by the RSL defense is down as well as the number of cards shown. While the latter could be correlated to different refereeing styles, these two statistics are enough to take notice of the Glad-Maund partnership and is possibly what Jeff Cassar also saw and resulted in Olave sitting on the bench for the Colorado match.

Other things to consider:

3. Colorado out shot RSL at home 14-to-11. The Rapids also managed to keep a higher percentage of shots on target, 67 to RSL's 57. Colorado also managed to produce a shot every 2.67 minutes in possession while it took RSL almost double the time (4.78 minutes) to produce a shot. Although Colorado's attack seemed more active, it was the Claret-and-Cobalt's offense that was more clinical. Quantity does not always lead to a goal, but quality almost always does.

2. Real's midfield was much more involved against the Rapids than at any other time so far in 2016. The midfield duo of Kyle Beckerman and Sunny Obayan were involved in eight of the teams' thirteen highest pass combinations and top 18 pass combinations in the match.

Courtesy of FourFourTwo's Stats Zone.

With the midfield more involved, RSL completed more successful passes across the pitch and a high percentage in the attacking half – 65 percent compared to a season average of 61 percent.

1. RSL received a season low of one comer kick all match. The Claret-and-Cobalt had to wait all the way 'til the waning minutes of the first half to be awarded their first and only corner of the night. On average, Real was awarded 4.2 corner kicks per 90 minutes across all competitions in 2016 to this point.

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.