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Talking Tactics: Does RSL still need to sign a center-back?

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Sporting KC Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake’s defensive depth has been at the forefront of both fans and club technical staff alike since before the season began. After losing players like Nat Borchers and Carlos Salcedo, in addition to having other prospects like Elias Vasquez fail to pan out, the club has been on the lookout for depth in central defense. Reports suggested that three prospective center-backs failed to come to terms with the club before the season started, but that has not stopped the club from pursuing other options. General Manager Craig Waibel has confirmed on numerous occasions that the club is in contact with center-backs across the pond to replenish RSL’s defensive depth.

But after a strong defensive performance in Kansas, some fans have been left wondering if additional center-back depth is required and if the club should continue pursuing potential candidates.

As of right now, the Claret-and-Cobalt’s center-back (CB) looks like this:

The starting duo is comprised of Jamison Olave and Aaron Maund. Of these two, Olave is the senior at 34 years of age and is arguably past his prime. The Colombian defender has recently claimed the all-time leading red card record with one handed out in Portland. The once monstrous defender is all but a shadow of his former self and does little to help out Maund who, at 27, is a good quality backup but not so much an elite tier defender.

Then there are the youngsters Justen Glad, Phanuel Kavita, and Danilo Acosta. Glad has been the only one of these players to see time on the pitch in 2016 with Kavita’s injury and it being Acosta’s rookie year and all. When Glad is on the field, RSL has been better defensively, there is no doubt there, but what happens if, God forbid, there is an injury.

Kavita is already out and Olave’s aged legs are questionable on turf. So say, hypothetically, before the trip to Vancouver Glad is absent for one reason or another, then RSL is down to the bare bones of Maund and Acosta with no backup on the bench. This alone suggests that an additional center-back would go a long way but what do the stats tell us?

Below are some basic statistics from the center-back pairing in the first four matches of the 2016 season.

Center-back Stats
v. ORL v. SEA v. PTFC v. SKC
Total Touches 72 91 49 65
Touches in the Offensive Half 3 13 3 9
Total Attempted Passes 35 68 12 33
Attempted Long Passes 9 16 4 11
Average Passing Distance 22 meters 22 meters 24.75 meters 28 meters
Passing percentage 83 72.5 77.6 75.4
Turnovers 2 1 0 4

While these numbers might mean little in this chart, here are other ways of interpreting this data:

RSL Player's Average Position for first four matches of 2016.
Courtesy of Who Scored.

Above are the average player positions for each of the four matches that RSL has played in the 2016 MLS regular season. With just a quick glance, it is evident that the Claret-and-Cobalt play a higher defensive line in matches that they win. If you need more evidence check out these heat maps:

RSL central defense heat map for first four matches of 2016.
Courtesy of Who Scored.

Playing a high defense line has its dangers but it also has it rewards such as winning the ball higher up the pitch and is thus more accessible for quick outlets to the strikers.

v. ORL v. SEA v. PTFC v. SKC
Defensive Third 7 7 18 8
Central Third 9 4 9 11
Attacking Third 0 0 0 2

Of the 33 club interceptions in the central third of the pitch, RSL defenders were responsible for seven or 21.2 percent of those interceptions. The greatest amount of midfield interceptions by RSL defenders came in the Kansas City match and accounted for 36.6 percent of all interceptions in the center of the field. RSL was also able to catch Sporting Kansas City players one the wrong side of the defensive line eight times, almost double the season average of 4.7. So while RSL’s high defensive line worked well against the likes of the Seattle Sounders, SKC, and, for the most part, the Portland Timbers, it hurt them in the final minutes of the Orlando City SC match.

RSL lacks the cerebral defender that can read the opponent’s attack instead of just react to it. Glad is getting groomed for this role but he is not there yet. Evidence can be found in the following two videos:

While the first can be chalked up to employing a high line, the second is a defensive error that allows Dom Dwyer to get an attempt on goal.

Equally disturbing, when paired with playing a high defensive line, is that the RSL central defense is contributing ten percent of the turnovers in midfield with nothing but space behind them.

The Claret-and-Cobalt center-backs are also more heavily relying on long-ball passing. When compared to last year, the average pass distance of CBs is up 3.4 meters – or 11 feet for those of you who are metrically challenged. What’s more is that of the 148 passes attempted by RSL center-back pairing this year, 40 of them (27 percent) have been long balls with both the matches against PTFC and SKC surpassing the 33.3 percent mark.  In addition, this has also lowered the pass completion average of the central defenders – Olave 67 percent, Glad 71 percent, and Maund 82 percent.  Look at the first table to see a rough, small sample of that inverse relationship; as the number of attempted long passes increases, the pass completion percentage decreases.

A long ball itself is not inherently bad. Instead, the intent is to move the ball a long distance down the pitch without simply putting it at the feet of a receiving player. In essence, it is the kick and rush strategy, which is especially effective for a squad with either fast or strong strikers. A simple and straightforward example of this is when Yura Movsisyan drops deep into midfield to pick up the ball and, like he has on multiple occasions, seemingly plays the ball forward on the flanks into open space. Appearing as if the ball will simply run out of play, Joao Plata bursts forward and retrieves the ball at a full sprint. Able to round the defenders and cut into the box, the speedy attacker is able to create a goal scoring opportunity.

While this style is often derided as either elementary soccer or just simply boring, it can prove to be incalculably effective when the situation suits this style – like it was against Sporting KC.

However, simply booting the ball up-field will not always lead to a positive outcome as opposition interceptions in the midfield could easily turn into a counter-attack and catch the defense off-guard. Examples of such clubs in the MLS that employ such attacking styles are the Vancouver Whitecaps and FC Dallas. Both sides are dominant at winning possession in the midfield and turning it into a breakaway chance for their attackers. Having not played these teams yet in 2016, RSL’s kick and rush strategy has been effective but other approaches will be needed throughout the year, and with the present contingent such an alteration could prove to be difficult.

Let’s use a previous RSL target as a case study. Jerry Akaminko is a Ghanaian soccer player and former trialist with the Claret-and-Cobalt in the 2016 preseason. Not only was he a physically dominating presence, but he was a cerebral defender – meaning he was cool, calm, and collected in defense and able to adapt his game. He approaches each striker differently and plays to his own strengths while limiting those of the opposition. He is able to accomplish things that other defenders would not dare try because he is both technical and comfortable on the ball.

Here are some of Akaminko's highlights while on trial with RSL:

All the aforementioned attributes are lacking on the RSL squad. The closest thing Real has to Akaminko and players like him is Justen Glad and he is still learning the ropes of the professional game.  Don't get me wrong, I am not advocating that Glad should be benched when Olave and Maund are available, quite the opposite in fact.  Justen Glad is by far the best center-back on Real's roster and he has earned that starting spot.  The other capable center-back is Acosta who was an elite prospect last year before he was signed to a Homegrown contract - something Kavita, Glad, and he all have in common.

While Kavita is more of a project, the real issue in central defense is Olave and Maund.  As I have stated before and the stats also suggest, Olave is beyond his prime (in addition to his salary being more than his contribution) and Maund is not quite a starting quality center-back (good, solid backup but not someone that should be relied upon match-in-and-match-out.  For more on this check out the five reasons RSL should be looking for a new center-back.

In order to succeed in an ever more competitive conference and league, RSL will need to be adaptable and have the personnel to fill different roles. As of right now the Claret-and-Cobalt does not have this in defense. With a bunch of strong center-backs with ability to recover but lacking in their ability to read the game, RSL will struggle if they do not address their depth issue. The summer is long and the run-up to the playoffs hard, so to answer the question, yes Real still needs to sign a (cerebral) center-back that can pair with and mentor Glad, who, rightly nicknamed little Borchers, is the future defensive lynch pin of this squad.