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Talking Tactics: Petkeball’s early effects on RSL

Reinventing Real Salt Lake is the momentous task at hand for Mike Petke, and he has already made strides.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Colorado Rapids Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Petke has been both a victim and a beneficiary of reinvention. On one hand, it was really no surprise that he was let go by the New York Red Bulls who have seen more head coaches in their existence than any other organization. On the other, however, Petke was brought in to radically overhaul a distressed Real Salt Lake.

Petke is a populist, never shying away from his appetite for a fight — he made that clear as both a player and a coach. One of the most iconic Petke moments is of the then assistant Red Bulls coach shoveling snow off the Red Bull Arena pitch in 2011. Although this doomed attempt could not avoid the postponement of the match due to blizzard conditions, it reaffirmed Petke’s aptitude for a fight.

Criticisms of Petke were centered around his heavily reliance on big-name players to produce, and, when the aforementioned players did produce, he was criticized for masking rudimentary tactical deficiencies with stacked talent - it really was a lose-lose situation that Petke found himself in at the Red Bulls towards the end of his tenure.

Despite evidence suggesting that Petke is more of a motivator than a nuanced tactician, his appointment to lead the Claret-and-Cobalt has certain produced results early. While he might not be the most cerebral of coaches to take this league, Petke’s tactical adjustments have definitely made RSL look like a more complete team.

Petke proves that you do not have to be a technical genius to succeed in this league, instead one just has to be a good all around soccer coach.

Take this scenario: RSL is competing against another team that is better technically; so what can the team do to counter, to overcome their opposition?

There are four components of tactics that can improve the overall chance of success:

  1. Players’ “raw” potential
  2. Players’ massive internal desire, motivation, confidence to succeed
  3. The coach’s tactical alignment and consistency
  4. The coach’s tactical habits, centered around in-game decision making

Since appointing the new head coach, RSL has improved on all of these levels. Petke’s actions demonstrate that he believes that great coaching can develop a player’s soccer IQ but the essential material for success comes from within the player. Successful players come in all shapes, sizes, and technical ability, but to be really successful an organization needs to allow players to play to their strengths.

Developing players is a passion for this organization boasting one of the most successful academies in Major League Soccer. This sturdy foundation of youth development is even more important to the success of this organization after investing millions-upon-millions of dollars in the Herriman Academy project.

Mike Petke has shown in his first two matches his ability to augment player development in the first team. He has given six under-24 players 660 cumulative match minutes. These match minutes assist in awareness training and decision-making, which are needed to be a successful player.

This suggests that Petke believes in the “raw” potential of RSL’s youth and is teaching them that success is not earned through practice alone; instead, it is generated through intelligent hard work and an inner desire to be successful when given opportunities.

For real successful player development to take place, the quality of coaching is massively important. Coaches have to teach good habits, and that is exactly where Petke excels.

If proper coaching is in place, then it falls to the players to have that intrinsic motivational desire to succeed, to battle through adversity and come up with a victory — something that RSL did against the Colorado Rapids for the first time in years.

Petke is a firm believer that players must do it for themselves.

Generally speaking, it is easier for coaches to work with highly motivated players — add a positive coaching environment, and organizations can find ways to be prosperous.

Petke’s time at the Red Bulls have taught us that he views obstacles as simply challenges to overcome. Each setback as a call to improve.

The New York Red Bulls were trophy-less until Petke instilled intrinsic self-motivation into his side. This triggered something primal in his squad of technically and physically good players who fell by the wayside due to a lack of mental strength or confidence to fulfill their dreams and earn their organization its first ever trophy in 2013.

With that, Petke proved that psychological strength is absolutely vital and necessary in order to be successful.

RSL had lacked this for quite some time, reaching its climax during the club’s 13-match winless streak, the club’s second longest, that began last September and continued until Petke’s first match at the helm. During this time, individual arguments between players broke out on the pitch (see Yura Movsisyan and Javier Morales’ penalty “discussions”) and obvious player discontent (see Joao Plata’s and Juan Manuel Martinez’s cantankerous substitution exits.) The Claret-and-Cobalt’s players were unmotivated, and the previous management could do nothing to inspire or convince these athletes to believe they can succeed.

Through emphasis in hard work, Mike Petke has instilled a attitude of grit into the squad that has not been seen since Jason Kreis’s exit.

Petke has already inspired dedication in his players. He did not have to change the internal makeup of his squad, instead just naturally igniting their inner-Goonies: “Never say die.” Petke has reinforced good work with media praise rather than harping on missed opportunities.

The scenario against Colorado often led to a different result in 2016. RSL was shut out seven times last year, losing five matches by a 1-0 margin. Under Petke, however, RSL players have not shown a propensity to give up mentally, if not physically. Often long before the last quarter of an hour, the squad would be simply going through the motions as if the minutes on the pitch were just a formality in what would certainly be a loss. The Claret-and-Cobalt have instead been transformed into fighters under Petke, willing to roll up their sleeves and grind out a result when necessary.

RSL is finally playing in a 4-3-3 after instituting the switch over two years ago. Under Jeff Cassar, the side attempted to line up in 4-3-3 but player positioning statistics insisted it was, in fact, a 4-2-3-1.

Petke had previously lined up his side in what can only be called a fast and furious 4-3-3 during his inaugural year as Red Bull’s head coach. After the first match, however, he switched to a 4-4-2 formation to better suit the talent on his squad.

Emulating previous designs, Petke has taken what he learned from the 4-3-3 experiment in New York and has already made three tactical formation adjustments to RSL.

First and foremost, Petke is a defender at heart and believes in playing a high defensive line. The high play see’s a team push their defenders further up the pitch in order make it difficult for the opposition to move the ball with much time and space. Essentially, Petke’s high line promotes the idea of counter-pressing, whereby RSL aims to regain possession in less than ten second.

Example of RSL Defensive line under Cassar vs under Petke
Screenshots from Who Scored.

With the defenders positioned roughly around the center line when RSL is in possession, the back-line has been able to get roughly 50 percent more touches. As a result, it is easier for Real to recycle the ball and go through different attacking patterns to break down opposition defenses at a faster rate.

And with the defenders so far up the pitch, the rest of the players also play higher.

Chief among the beneficiaries of the defensive high line are RSL’s wingers. Instead playing more contracted and along the touchline, the Claret-and-Cobalt’s wingers have been able to play a little bit higher and compact.

Example of RSL winger involvment under Cassar vs under Petke
Screenshots from Who Scored.

Like the defenders, the wingers have increased their average amount of touches per match by 40 percent, which has allowed them to be more direct in their attacking movements instead of relying on indirect actions, such as crossing.

Having the ability for the wingers to fold in centrally has opened up space for Movsisyan who has been able to assume more of his favored False 9 role. Being able to run onto the ball, Yura has been able to increase his number of chances and become an overall more potent threat.

This has also allowed Albert Rusnak to operate a little bit deeper.

Example of Rusnak’s involvement under Cassar vs under Petke
Screenshots from Who Scored.

The young Slovakian international has increased his presence in the middle third of the pitch by ten percent, and decreased his number of touches in the offensive third by 12 percent.

Playing deeper, Rusnak has been able to assume the role of offensive orchestrator. As such, his passing accuracy has increased by over 10 percent and he is finally able to be an offensive outlet.

With more options, RSL has nearly halved the number of long balls, favoring shorter, more controlled passes.

The Claret-and-Cobalt are also possessing the ball more and losing possession less.

Overall, Petke has brought about small tactical adjustments that has allowed RSL to become more consistent in their play.

RSL is no longer marred by substandard in-game decisions. Instead, Pekte has been making meaningful substitutions.

Cassar had a set substitution pattern that could be relied upon match-in and match-out. Whether you were the opposition or an RSL fan, you knew, almost like clock-work, the types of changes that the Claret-and-Cobalt’s management would make. With very little substantial changes, the opposition almost never had to make major tactical adjustments.

Petke has turned this on its head, however.

Take for instance the Colorado match. RSL was having trouble operating in the offensive half, so Petke pulled Luke Mulholland in favor of Luis Silva. This set in change a series of changes that were immediately impactful.

Captain Kyle Beckerman withdrew into a true No 6 position to screen the back-line, while Silva moved alongside Rusnak to add some more attacking creativity to the side.

Luis Silva’s distribution chart against the Colorado Rapids (15 April 2017)
Screenshot from

Sure, we witnessed Cassar pulling a fullback in favor of a winger, but this often pulled most of the remaining squad out of shape and opened up space for RSL to get punished.

Petke’s changes on the other hand have been both meaningful and consistent allowing the squad to both remain in shape and change the way they play.

Under Petke, the Claret-and-Cobalt has become more tactically flexible as in-game scenarios arise.

Through countless interviews, Petke has touched briefly on every aspect of coaching, and his understanding of his role is impeccable.

He understands that the complexity of operating a soccer squad means that if one aspect of his work is not where it needs to be, it can have effects on other areas. As a result, Petke’s attention to detail has not limited to tactics or technique training, but instead to a holistic approach to coaching in which he can affect all of his players.

He believes in the complexity of each relationship in the organization and so he must manage them accordingly. Petke looks at his players as people, who need guidance, motivation, and to who special attention is given. He understands the importance of his own behavior and the responsibility it entails. He might gamble with his actions occasionally, but he always knows is accountable for them, and that is the key.