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Three things to look for tactically from Real Salt Lake

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With new players and a full off season with Mike Petke, how will RSL shape up?

MLS: Sporting KC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Ahhh, Three Things. I’ve missed you so much. Like a nice, warm blanket made of criticism, snark and gifs.

But look, RSL has been very pro-active in so far in the off season managing to pick up defenders Aaron Herrera and Taylor Peay as a Homegrown and from the USL team, respectively, then making the more headline grabbing move of bringing young USMNT prospect Brooks Lennon back from EPL giant Liverpool.

Yesterday the news broke that RSL had made their 4th signing, putting pen to paper with Spanish centre forward Alfredo Ortuño. I think this reflect the final piece of the starting XI puzzle for Real Salt Lake, barring something extremely dramatic like Rimando or Beckerman not returning for this campaign.

Keeping in mind that both Nick Besler and Connor Sparrow both got snapped up in the dying embers of the 2017 season, we are starting to get an idea of how Real Salt Lake will line up and what kind of play to expect.


Finding the Target

The main change this season I’m predicting is the front four operate. As a kid growing up watching mid-90’s Premier League, I spent a lot of time watching British football still favouring big centre forwards (referred to as Number 10’s) who could collect and lay off the ball and allow a deeper and more creative strikers (Number 9’s) to finish the ball. It was all based around a very archaic FA approach known as POMO, or Position Of Maximum Opportunity.

As football evolved and changed to keep up with their European contemporaries, Target Men type players needed to round out their game much more and become better all round players. They have to hold the ball up, have great vision to make game changing passes and have great movement to open space.

Which is what Real Salt Lake missed in all honesty last season. Silva tried his best to perform this role but isn’t really suited to the physicality needed to play as a lone striker holding the ball. Enter 6ft 1in, 77kg target man Alfredo Ortuño.

Ortuño will give Rusnak, Plata and Savarino the one thing they need to be dangerous, and that’s space. Look for Ortuño to collect direct balls from the midfield or wing positions and keep hold of it deeper while the attacking three charge forward. This gives the opposition defence two options:

  • Move from your line to close down Ortuño and open a space for one of the three rushing attacking players to move into as the ball is played to where you should be
  • Stay in your line and allow Ortuño to retain the ball, linking up with the midfield further or taking the chance on himself.

Either way you’re running the risk of being punished and forces defenders to be decisive and quick about it. Anybody can make the wrong call and forced to choose enough times in 90 minutes, you’re bound to get it wrong at least once.

So I think we will see a fluid attacking line based around drawing defenders out and opening spaces around the box.

Wingback Movement

With the signing of Herrera we now have two wing backs with great movement, with Acosta being the other on the left. Both have very similar skillsets; they are willing to move forward, have the stamina to keep tracking back, they like to play longer and more high risk/high reward passes. It’s hard to call them defenders because they play more like deeper lying wingers, which is why I’m using Wing Back rather than Full Back.

With the front four playing high up the field to keep the ball in the danger zone, the risk we face is having the midfield two be overrun when we don’t have the ball and leaving it easier for the opposition to get closer to goal. Having the wing backs push higher up and stay mobile means we can have four in the midfield or four in defence, depending on what is needed. Following the second bullet point above:

  • If Ortuño plays the ball back and the midfield pushes up to chase the ball then the wing backs offer a wide option, stretching the play and opening angles to move past the rushing midfield, creating more space for the attacking quartet.
  • If Ortuño plays the ball back and the midfield lay back then we have the time needed to push into space ahead of them and force wider opposition players to come of Plata or Savarino and close them, opening space for another attack.

Look for the wing backs to push into midfield but not overlap so much to try force space on deep-lying defence.

High Tempo, High Pressure, High Pressing

The final piece of the puzzle is the defensive line and it all comes down to how high we play. If the objective is to encourage players to push on us to keep creating space then a high defensive line might seem like it would achieve the opposite but the truth is a high defence encourages space being created.

Leaving a big gap behind our defensive line is like having a target on the pitch telling players, “Hey, if you’re fast you can play the ball over us and link up with a fast attacker before we can respond!” That’s probably how we will get stung the most, to be honest, as high pressure attacking means you’re susceptible to counter-attacks.

But with the wing backs playing somewhere between the midfield two and the centre backs we end up with what could be called a circle. Two centre mids, two wing backs, two central defenders. If you stay high and trap the ball in that zone you can double up on the pressure and force a team to play the ball into an angle that leaves it easier to intercept and start the attacking phase we talked about above. So as before it gives teams two choices:

  • Play the ball long and hope that their attack is fast enough to get on the ball while staying onside
  • Pass the ball and try unlock the defence but at high risk of playing the ball into the path of a defender and turning the ball up on the half way line.

The best teams link everything together so much that you don’t notice when the phases of play change and nobody knows when those phases can change. Employing a tactic like the one above, which seems like the most likely aim given how we played last season and the signings we’ve made so far, means that Real Salt Lake will play a high-pressure, high-tempo and high-lined brand of football designed to make teams respond in ways that leave space in high-risk zones. That space is then to be exploited by a ruthless lineup of young attackers with frightening pace and endless work rate.

Will this be the way Real Salt Lake win their second MLS Cup? I can’t say yes for certain, but it’s hard to imagine anybody being able to stop RSL if that is what they choose to do.