Real Salt Lake needs to start full backs in defense, and the Brooks Lennon experiment needs to slow down.
To really see why, we have to go to the tape. RSL’s recently conceded goals can be attributed to a number of factors — as can all goals — but I’d like to demonstrate that there is an imbalance in the side’s setup.
Evidence A: RSL vs. Vancouver, 0-2
Brooks Lennon is playing pretty high up here, and we’re getting countered on. I don’t feel particular grief about Lennon playing high up on this one, but he acts like he’s been fouled here. Was he? I don’t see it, but it doesn’t particularly matter. He’s still standing, and instead of continuing his defensive run, he turns to the referee.
Here’s where things get a little hairy.
What we see here is Vancouver’s Anthony Blondell reading the spacing errors left here by Pablo Ruiz and Justen Glad and capitalizing with a perfectly timed run. This is an extremely smart run from him, because he’s seen that Glad is turning his attention to Nick Besler’s having been beat — probably rightly — and seems to be expecting Ruiz to cover Blondell. Instead, Ruiz is watching the player at the top of the box, which may be the right decision or it may not be, but we’re left with Ruiz and Glad relying on some sort of intuition about defending and not mutually agreed upon processes.
That all sounds a bit ridiculous, but the fact of the matter seems to me that Ruiz is not a defender, and he’s not going to make defensive runs like a defender. He’s instead going to defend like a midfielder, and that’s what he’s done here. It leaves Blondell with a great run.
To my mind, the two major mistakes here are from our full backs, who simply aren’t playing like full backs.
We’re not done.
Exhibit B: RSL vs. Orlando City, 1-1
Brooks Lennon’s propensity to turn to the referee and protest is something you simply cannot get away with as a defender, and you see it here again. I don’t care if Sacha Kljestan is offside on this play — but he’s absolutely, completely not offside, for the record. I care that Brooks Lennon has raised his hand here and slowed down when play is live. Just look.
See that blob on the far side? That’s Lennon raising his hand with Kljestan running past him. Let’s fast forward, because Nick Besler defends well enough that he slows down Kljestan. This doesn’t have to be so conciliatory, but it was.
Again, it’s about spacing. Dom Dwyer has made an excellent run and Kljestan did well to spot him and send in a cross, but Ruiz and Glad aren’t communicating here. Glad’s nowhere, really, and Ruiz isn’t a skilled enough defender to get in front of Dwyer or attack the ball. This is a no-win scenario. Each of the four defenders shoulders blame in the goal, but again, this one starts with a giveaway and a hand raised in protest. This can’t keep happening.
Exhibit C, RSL vs. DCU 0-1
Here we have a goal that hasn’t been scored in the run of play, but it’s illustrative all the same. Our first goal was very poorly conceded, and it comes down to our purported left back at the time, Pablo Ruiz.
See him looking at Paul Arriola here? You’d think he was watching him, but he doesn’t react to his run, because he’s not looking at it. He’s instead very late to follow Arriola, and by the time he gets toward him, he’s already put the ball in the back of the net.
Now, this is a unique situation in ways, largely because it’s more or less a trick play. D.C. has pushed everyone near post to allow for a far post run, and they execute it flawlessly. Still, Ruiz’s inattention here is yet another instance of him not being a true defender, and it hurt us on this play.
I don’t mean to imply that anybody here is a bad player — I strongly believe that’s not the case — but what we see here is that our full backs simply are not strong defenders. They may bring other qualities to play, certainly, but they’re not entirely qualities that are readily transferable to our defensive situation.