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Talking Tactics: Ghostly shadows loom over new era RSL

Real Salt Lake is entering a new era but as the tactics get hammered out, there are some simple changes that can pay immediate dividends.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Minnesota United FC Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Petke has been given the helm of the Real Salt Lake senior team, to begin with. Still, Jeff Cassar’s influence over the tactical makeup of the squad still lingers — there’s no doubt about that.

Once peers in the coaching structure, Cassar has since been let go and the organization is now lead by Petke, who is an intense and motivated coach.

Once upon a time, on a chilly spring Tuesday, Petke strolled across the grass watching his players practice. It was cold and after a 4-2 defeat at Minnesota United’s hands (well, feet) the player’s attitudes were not much warmer. Suddenly, a player scoffed a shot and the all too familiar Ghost of RSL’s past reappeared on the training ground.

Albeit, this might not be the most accurate telling of what is going on in the RSL camp right now, it does illustrate the elephant in the room when it concerns RSL.

Since their winless streak began last September, no other club’s offensive corps has been as impotent as RSL’s. In 13 matches, the Claret-and-Cobalt have scored nine times – 0.69 goals per 90 minutes. If you remove the draw against the Galaxy that started this streak, the number shrinks to 0.5 goals per 90 minutes. To put those numbers in perspective, a half a goal per match is what Sebastian Giovinco contributed to a squad that scored 1.5 goals per match during the previous regular season.

Real’s 0.5 goals per match average is the worst current average for any MLS team during the same time period.

Bah, humbug, right?

For a team that was once one of the MLS elites, this statistic is sure hard to swallow.

Like Marley’s ghost appearing to Scrooge first, RSL must solve this simple quandary before it moves on to the larger tactical puzzle.

This overhaul is going to take some time, so aside from miracles Real must keep their eyes towards the horizon as changes will come.

However, there are some small lessons from the midfield that could help the Claret-and-Cobalt in the interim:

The diamond was the envy of the league in a time where most of the attacks came through the center of the pitch. The diamond 4-4-2 was so effective in that regard because it kept the midfield compact. While RSL lacked the width they have in a 4-3-3, the midfield was able to stop the progression of most attacks aimed straight down their gullet.

Recently, however, the Real midfield has not been as successful at stopping attacks down the center of the pitch. Most evident in the three losses this year, the Claret-and-Cobalt midfield has not been central and compact:

Screenshots from Who Scored.

The heat maps above show that in all three of RSL’s losses in 2017, the three-man midfield has had a negligible presence in the center of the pitch. Instead, the midfielders have operated more along the touchlines and left space down the middle.

To make maters worse, it was not as if the midfielders were getting touches on both touchlines. RSL’s midfield was hanging on to one side of the pitch more dominantly than the other - leaving space not only down the middle but also on the other side.

To put it plainly, 67 percent of Minnesota’s offensive plays potentially bypassed RSL’s midfield by either going through the center or down the right side of the pitch. The Chicago Fire and LA Galaxy were similar avoiding RSL’s central midfielders potentially 67 and 60 percent of the time, respectfully.

Now compare the heat maps of losses to the midfield player’s heat-maps during the draws:

Screenshots from Who Scored.

In both cases, RSL’s midfielders played more compact, more centrally.

But, as with anything, there are hand-offs.

When RSL’s midfielders play centrally, the squad concedes less goals, but when they play out wide the squad scores more goals. On average, when the RSL midfield is central the squad scores 0 goals and concedes no goals. When they play wide, alternatively, the squad scores 1 goal but concedes 2.7 goals.

If Petke has Real play anything like he did the Red Bulls, the new manager will want to stop leaking goals, first and foremost. Having won New York’s first silverware, Petke understands that offense wins matches but defense wins championships.

Therefore, expect Petke to emphasize compact, central positioning for any tactical arrangement.

Like their counterpart in USL, Real Salt Lake has struggled in front of goal last year but, unlike the Monarchs, it has carried over to 2017. What’s more, the lack of consistency in the opposition’s box is extremely disheartening, considering the attacking players on the roster.

The Monarchs have started their season off in a much better place then their parent club. Two matches in and the USL side has earned two wins in conjunction with four goals.

Mike Petke was brought in over the off-season to manage the Monarchs and his changes appear to have made a difference.

True, Petke only oversaw one Monarchs’ match from the sideline, but his mark on build-up play is undeniable.

Petke has always favored strong build-up play over quick counter-attacking options. He would rather the midfield be heavily involved in offensive moves, rather than skipping straight to the attackers.

One criticism under Cassar was that RSL lacked any semblance of midfield interplay. Simply, the midfield players were not involved in attacking moves.

Playing the ball quickly to the strikers and punishing a pressing defense is all well and good, but only doing that over and over again is complete insanity. So expect some additional change in the midfield.

Charlie Adams of the Real Monarchs has been playing the box-to-box role. Unlike RSL, whose No. 8 is more defensive minded, Adams has formed quite the partnership with Sebastian Velasquez - the Monarchs attacking midfielder. Able to alternate back and forth, the Real Monarchs create more and better chances because of this midfield tandem.

Kyle Beckerman is already a tried and true No. 6, so dropping him back a little bit farther and moving the No. 8 higher might just be a recipe for success that RSL has been looking for.

Instead of Sunny, who has been struggling this year in the box-to-box role, Petke could look to Luis Silva to partner with Albert Rusnak in the midfield in hopes of making the midfield a bit more dynamic - in addition to having an option on the bench if fresh legs are needed in the defensive midfield role.

In the attack RSL’s midfield would look more like a ‘V’, leaving Beckerman back in RSL’s half to preserve his legs, while either Rusnak or Silva would move alongside the captain when the squad is defending.

This simple tactical adjustment in a stale midfield would not only benefit the squad in creating chances but could also open up the door for some of the younger players on the squad. Sebastian Saucedo and Jose Hernandez have been most successful playing centrally, so opening up another attacking role in the midfield might help these youngsters break into the squad.

Modeling RSL after the Monarchs might seem like an oxymoron, but it could be just the thing the doctor ordered to right this sinking ship.

Tell us what you think. What are some small tactical adjustments Mike Petke should/could consider? Do you like our ideas, or do you see it another way? Share your opinions in the comment’s section below.