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Talking Tactics: RSL playing lost and found, come up empty-handed on match day ten

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MLS: Real Salt Lake at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

After a weather delay that moved the match to Sunday, Real Salt Lake took the pitch in Houston. Sitting on only eight points, the Houston Dynamo was last place in the West and a mere point above the Chicago Fire, who is worst in the league on points earned. It seemed like a pretty easy task for the Claret-and-Cobalt who had won the last two matches in Houston but the men in orange had different plans. Many RSL fans, myself included, watched either an off- night for RSL or the rebirth of the Dynamo. In any fashion, here are some of the statistics that dominated Sunday’s storyline.

The enemy of offense is the absence of audacity

RSL garnered a lot of grief last season, specifically, for being perceived as timid in front of goal. Some fans noted that it appeared as if the Claret-and-Cobalt would rather pass around the 18-yard box, instead of pull the trigger themselves. Let’s see what the stats can tell us:

RSL Shot Stats by Season
League Rank Number of Shots Shot Accuracy Shots per 90
2016 18 121 51% 12.1
2015 19 373 49% 11.0
2014 12 460 49% 13.5
2013 5 516 48% 15.2

According to the stats, it appears that those same censorious (i.e., over-critical) fans might just be on to something. In 2015, RSL took less shots on average per 90 minutes when compared to the past four years. Not only that but the Claret-and-Cobalt found themselves 19th in the league, just above the Seattle Sounders. And scarier still, the match against Houston gave the impression that RSL might be slipping back into old habits.

Over the past year and a half, Real hoped to alleviate these ails by first purchasing Joao Plata’s rights and inking him to a five-year deal that would make him a Designated Player. RSL then shipped an aging Alvaro Saborio to DC United. His production had stagnated to the point where he was no longer worth his price tag and off-loading him to make room for something better seemed the only rational idea. The club then went out and secured Juan Manuel Martinez, the Burrito himself, with DP amount of money. Finally, the biggest news this off-season came as a consequence of Yura Movsisyan making his way back to the club. With these attacking players in hand, the club seemed to have the epitome of goal-scorers merely a week ago.

In Houston, however, the attack was all but absent. RSL only managed to let off a season low of seven shots despite the attacking trio of Plata, Yura, and Burrito all being on the pitch from the start of the match. What’s more is that combined they only produced two shots – neither of which were on-target.

The Claret-and-Cobalt’s first shot came in the twentieth minute when Chris Wingert of all people thought to kick-start the RSL attack but to no avail. The squad attempted six other shots that were capped off by a Movsisyan shot in the 65th minute that sailed over the cross bar. The preceding Houston attack resulted in the Giles Barnes goal that won the match for the Texas side and was seemingly the straw that broke the camel’s back that was RSL’s offense. In the final 25 minutes of the match, RSL did not record a single shot, let alone one on target.

On the night Real failed to record a single shot on target. This is a disturbing fact in itself coming from a squad with one of the highest shot accuracy percentages in the league. RSL will have to remedy this if they hope to get back on track.

Real Salt Lake Shots
Courtesy of Squawka.

RSL always had a strong midfield, but when it is absent, it is evident just how important it is to their identity

For years now, RSL has fielded one of the strongest midfield in the league. Anchored by Kyle Beckerman and driven by Javier Morales, the RSL midfield was extremely effective. However, they were neutralized in the Houston match-up.

The Dynamo dominated the midfield with their central partnership of Alex and Ricardo Clark. With those two dictating the flow of the game around the center circle, Real's midfield was pulled apart.

Sunny, who has been a key figure for the club thus far was absent and it showed:

RSL Positional Chart
Courtesy of Who Scored.

Without his presence, Beckerman was forced to cover John Stertzer leaving the pair almost on top of each other for most of the match. This opened up space in the RSL defensive half (designated by the red oval above). With space to operate, Houston's attack was able to cut deep into the Claret-and-Cobalt's formation - creating 13 chances and this goal:

The midfield partnership is essential in the 4-3-3 formation that Real employs and it, or the lack thereof, was a major reason RSL looked as bad as they did against Houston.

Oh where, oh where, was the flank play?

As aforementioned, RSL's first tier attacking trio all started the match against the Dynamo, however, neither Plata or Martinez played as fans have become accustom to. Usually able to operate on the flanks and cut inside for the lethal pass, both wingers were pulled in more centrally. Essentially playing under Movsisyan for most of the match, the Claret-and-Cobalt lacked all remnants of flank play.

RSL Positional Chart
Courtesy of Who Scored.

Unable to control the ball near the touchlines, Plata and Martinez were basically eliminated from the run of play.

Without the two creative wingers' involvement, RSL's attack was flat, creating only seven chances the entire match but more specifically between the 20th and 60th minute marks - no chances in the first 20 minutes nor in the last 30.

Other things to mull over:

2. Captain is the personification of a defensive midfield in Major League Soccer, but Beckerman played a different role for the club against Houston. He was the most offensive minded player on the pitch for the club registering three shots, two of which were blocked. Despite other players looking discouraged, Beckerman never gave up hope and led from the front for the major of the match.

1. Cassar has been criticized for being merely a reactive substitute user by no one more than myself, but the RSL head coach tried to make proactive substitutes against the Dynamo. Despite his team being stagnant for most of the match, Cassar once again waited to the last minute making all three substitutions in the final 16 minutes of the match. He did, however, make three offensive minded substitutions with Luke Mulholland, Jordan Allen, and Olmes Garcia.

Courtesy of MLSsoccer.com.

In short, Cassar attempted to turn the match in his side’s favor but once again waited too long – in my opinion, at least. Even with three additional "offensive" players on the pitch for RSL, the club failed to create a shot on goal, let alone a goal scoring opportunity. Cassar might need to do a little midweek reading of Hirotsu and Wright’s "Determining the best strategy for changing the configuration of a football team" theoretical paper that was published in the Journal of the Operational Research Society if he is ever to alter his reprobate substitution pattern.

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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.