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Talking Tactics: Tinkering with Innovation

Looking back on historic innovations can shed light on how RSL can innovate in their current state.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at New York Red Bulls Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Whether you are a die-hard football hooligan or a causal weekend watcher, tactics seem to be at the forefront of many discussions. From evolving nuances to the tactical fumbling of management, soccer tactics seem inescapable, especially in the post-Cassar wilderness that is Real Salt Lake.

Even before his official announcement as head coach and many questions have already been asked about Mike Petke’s possible influence on the tactical side of the game. But what are some of the tactical approaches that Petke could employ?

Total Soccer

The Mighty Magyars pioneered this style of play. They introduced the idea that players could play in more than one position — albeit most of the Hungarian players had played together since childhood.

Talking about Rusnak’s integration into the squad, Jeff Cassar unveiled his future tactical vision of the club. He spoke about utilizing a system similar, however the discipline required was never properly introduced.

This ideology was later popularized by Rinus Michels of Ajax Amsterdam. Ajax employed a 4-3-3 formation and introduced the concept of the high-press - which is not all that different from the formation Petke employed during his first match as the head coach of the New York Red Bulls. While close to how the Claret-and-Cobalt have attempted to lined up this season, there were a few major difference.

First, the philosophy of total soccer emphasizes off the ball movement, switching of positions, and employing tricky passes to dumbfound opponents. In essence being a tactically flexible system, instead of relaying on stale changes made game in and game out.

Second, it employed a deep lying striker — a False 9 if you will — but more on that later.

In all, while Cassar was right to attempt to implement this style with the talent on RSL’s squad, Petke will have to add tactical flexibility if he wants to find success in the 4-3-3.

Petke could improve the team chemistry so triangular passing can take priority over regular long-balls. Squad rotation between young, versatile will aid in tactical flexibility, but it will take time - something that RSL’s interim might or might not have.

Catenaccio de Barcelona

RSL plays in Barca’s colors — why not use their tactics, right?

While Catenaccio is a tactical system primarily associated with Barcelona under the management of Argentinian tactician Helenio Herrara, the system was originally conceived by Swiss coach Karl Rappan who called it the Verrou, referring to the Verouilleur or sweeper.

Like Chapman’s system, Verrou is another form of the modern 4-3-3 with two exceptions. First, one center-back will play as a sweeper cleaning up any messes that develop beyond the defensive line. Second, one winger will drop off slightly into a wide attacking midfield role, making it sort of a 4-4-2.

Like Herrara, Petke will take over a squad equipped with great talents. Beckerman, the club’s talisman, and the creative play-maker talent that is Albert Rusnak make up a sturdy midfield spine. Demar Phillips is already a good attacking left-back and with the tricky Plata, they form a frightening offensive pair on the left side.

With the right winger – Allen, Saucedo, or Brooks – dropping deeper into the midfield to facilitate play (essentially acting as a shuttler), Plata would act as an early type of support striker for Movsisyan to play off of, and Rusnak left to marshal the midfield.

While this system can be susceptible to primitive, provincial tactical approaches, such short comings are considered freak results rather than a tactical victory.

Herbert Chapman’s counter-attacking style

Arsenal manger Herbert Chapman is remembered for his tactical innovations more than his FA Cup victory over his old club Huddersfield Town, 2-0. Although the latter was his crowning achievement that cemented his legacy in the history books, Chapman introducing passing play the encouraged counter-attacking soccer.

Under Chapman, Arsenal used a 3-4-3 formation, aptly named the W-M for the way players line up in the formation which spells out the two aforementioned letters. A variation of the 2-3-5 formation of the time, this formation entailed a defensive midfielder assisting the defense centrally and pushing the fullbacks higher up the pitch (presumably the attacking midfield).

While this might seem outlandish for the Claret-and-Cobalt, they already have many of the appropriate pieces.

For instance, Jordan Allen has been played in nearly every positon on the pitch before being assumed as the starting right winger. One such role was as a right full back. In conjunction with Demar Phillips, who already likes to get into the attack, Allen could provide additional offensive support while also allowing another attacker (Sebastian Saucedo or Brooks Lennon) into the formation.

In addition, RSL would gain an extra man in the midfield which could help them develop attacking moves, something they have struggled to do in a three-man midfield.

To accomplish this switch, Petke would still deploy Joao Plata as the creative inside left wing but move Yura Movsisyan into a more preferred False 9 role.

Players would be instructed to sit deep and drop into something similar to a 5-3-2 formation when in defense. The Claret-and-Cobalt would allow the opposition to keep possession in their defensive half but remain compact, never letting them make any headway, while also relieving Plata of any defensive duty.

This style is particularly effective against the style of play most MLS clubs favor – the emphasis being on getting into wide areas and crossing the ball, something a five man back line would make difficult.

After quickly dispossessing the opponent whilst they were still forward, RSL could play the ball up the pitch with pace and quick passing techniques to two strikers that can play off one-another.

Cantera vs. Cartera

Roughly translated from Spanish, academy vs. wallet, is a philosophy that emphasizes homegrown players over spending sprees.

This is easily my favorite of the tactical systems discussed. Beyond any sort of formation, team chemistry is stressed over everything else.

Coming through the academy system, homegrown players have played together for some time and are used to each others playing styles and tendencies. Having been educated in the organization's philosophy, and since the Claret-and-Cobalt are already investing heavily in their academy, giving homegrown players a chance at the senior level is the next reasonable step.

It is evident that anyone in charge of RSL has noticed the strength of the organization’s academy. With four recent CONCACAF U-20 champions on the squad, and the veteran core established under Jason Kreis mostly dismantled already, integrating rising stars like Lennon and Saucedo with international talent like Rusnak, Movsisyan, and Plata will pay dividends down the road - a similar template Pep Guardiola used to integrate the then rising star Lionel Messi.

Guardiola’s Trophy Cabinet has two Champions Leagues titles and his Barca organization has been acclaimed as one of the best teams to ever play soccer. Tactically, he employed similar Total Soccer tactics as Michels’ Ajax, but combined supreme technical quality with unwavering discipline.


So maybe, just maybe, the real lingua franca of the tactical soccer world is chemistry.

A simple indicator of team chemistry is pass accuracy. The more a team understand their teammate’s style of play, the better the passing tends to be. Players start to instinctively understand the habits of their teammates, therefore, able to place the ball at their feet before they even get there.

When you don’t have to think about where your teammate is going, the player can instead focus on placing the ball in a specific spot on the pitch, earning a half a second advantage that can create havoc for the opposing team.

Disregarding the player outright displeasure on the pitch at the end of last season, passing accuracy would be enough to indicate that it has been in the making for some time.

In Cassar’s first year, RSL completed 82 percent of their passes which dropped to 79 percent for the next two years before dipping once more to a mere 66 percent in his final three matches of 2017.

It is not rocket science. But a strong, youthful core could implement any sort of tactical style as their chemistry has already bore fruit (see CONCACAF U-20 2017 Tournament).

Mike Petke had a talent for eliciting loyalty from fans and players alike during his tenure at the Red Bulls, which is something RSL is in desperate need of. With a stronger locker-room and greater team chemistry, RSL will be able to find success under Mike Petke.