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The Salt: Is Damir Kreilach a false nine?

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I don’t actually think he is.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Portland Timbers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

In the words of my three-year-old niece, hello, hello!

That sounded cheery. I didn’t mean it to be cheery. I’m not too down after that loss in Portland — you never should be too down after a road loss to a difficult opponent, especially in this league — but the Western Conference picture is looking a bit scary at the moment.

So let’s turn our attention backward toward Saturday night’s match, particularly in regard to Damir Kreilach, who often gets a ‘false nine’ label attached to him, which I think is particularly because he’s a midfielder by trade.

Let’s also talk about what he brings over Sam Johnson, and why not starting Johnson may have been the right approach — or it might not have been. You’ll find I don’t really make a decision on this.

Why did Damir Kreilach start at forward against Portland?

So I don’t know everything — I wouldn’t pretend to — but I’m just going to pop up a few charts here. They’re all touch charts up until the time RSL made a sub and put Sam Johnson in the starting lineup.

Damir Kreilach

Albert Rusnak

Jefferson Savarino

Corey Baird

OK, so what do you notice here? For me, I see a set of four attacking players who are almost 100 percent interchangeable. That, for me, is what you get when you start Damir Kreilach at forward.

But I looked again and saw how much Kreilach came back defensively. He’s getting quite a few touches in the defensive third here. I think that’s by design, and that’s where I think we need to start tapping if we want to find the good watermelon. (Is that how you actually find a good watermelon? I don’t even know. I heard if you find one that’s heavy for its size, that’s a good indication. Is this a tangent? You bet it is.)

So here’s what I wonder: Is Damir Kreilach actually being played as a forward here? Is anyone? Is it a rotating assignment?

If you’re looking purely by touches in the box — this is not what makes a forward, I know — then Corey Baird and Jefferson Savarino were more involved. Does that mean they were forwards? I mean, probably, given the way we use our wide players. You might even argue that Kreilach was the least involved, at least by a ratio of touches-per-area, in the final third than any of the other three attack-focused players.

I don’t actually think this is a ‘false nine’ thing going on here. To my eye, when Kreilach is attacking, he’s closer to a traditional hold-up center forward than the false nine. During the attacking phase of play, he tends to stay close to center backs, rather than drawing them away from position. While I do think he’s capable of that, and that he’s played like that, I don’t think that’s what we saw tonight.

Now, I do think we saw Kreilach come deep on a number of occasions, but he’s coming deep enough that he’s sometimes near the midfield stripe. This sort of movement isn’t designed to pull center backs out of position — not at all, I’d argue. Instead, he’s come back to help build play in much the same way someone like Albert Rusnak would.

If you look at RSL’s best opportunity of the night — I’d argue it’s in the 55th minute when Damir Kreilach heads the ball across the face of goal for Corey Baird, who is caught flat-footed — it comes from Kreilach taking up a position in the box and winning the ball.

So, what is Damir Kreilach in this system? He’s clearly not a false nine — not to my reading of the role. He doesn’t drop between the lines to disrupt; he drops deeper than the second line — the defensive midfielders, typically — to pick up possession. He also generally tries to occupy the forwards.

There are, of course, times when he does try to open space by dropping a bit, but center backs don’t really follow him. This was likely by design for Portland Timbers, who held a very tight back line through the night and played a generally defensive brand of football.

There are certain false nine qualities Kreilach shows. At the same time, he’s often involved heavily in defensive play and looks closer to a box-to-box midfielder. Maybe it’s a hybrid role he’s in — it’s difficult to say.

Does the positional description of the front four matter?

The question is as above.

The answer? I don’t know that I have one. Left wing, right wing — they’re fluid. Center forward, attacking mid? Fluid. Center forward, box-to-box midfielder? Yeah, you get the idea.

It’s not a super meaningful question for me right now, so let’s move on.

Why not Sam Johnson?

On the surface, I completely understand why Sam Johnson was sat on the bench against Portland Timbers. I know that’ll see some flak, so let’s talk about it first.

When Sam Johnson plays, Real Salt Lake is necessarily a different team. He isn’t going to excel in possession play, he won’t drop deep to build possession, and he won’t rotate with the rest of the front four.

That‘s just Sam Johnson. I don’t think it should be particularly controversial. We know who Johnson is, and we know the types of plays in which he scores goals. He’s excellent off the shoulder of defenders, and he is lethal in the box. Those are excellent qualities for a forward. They’re especially excellent qualities for a forward who has space to operate, and I think what we saw from Portland was that they were playing extremely deep.

Here’s a shot from the match.

Portland is playing very deep and compact here — three defenders inside the box around the penalty spot. This is just one example — but I think it’s a pattern you’d see more broadly with more investigation. They’re not always quite this deep, but it’s a commonality.

As a result, RSL is left with little space to operate, and they are essentially forced to go with a possession-oriented attack. I don’t think that’s an approach that is strongly improved by Sam Johnson’s presence. Now, I do think there were times in the match when he could have been extremely useful. I think he might have even put away an opportunity or two.

I think it’s fair to say there’s a balancing act going on here. On one side of the scale is Kreilach and a cohesive front four that’s practically built for this. On the other side of the scale is Johnson and a lethal presence. Did Freddy Juarez get the balance right on this occasion?

I don’t think there’s a clear answer to that question. If Corey Baird had scored his golden opportunity, the game would have been of a completely different makeup. It may have been one that better served the lineup we had. It may have been one that didn’t. All I’m saying is that I don’t know, and we have no way of knowing. We can guess, and I do like guessing quite a bit. So...

Did Freddy Juarez get it right?

On the basis of the result, no.

On the basis of the attacking chances created, particularly in the second half, yes.

For me, it really depends on what you’re judging Juarez. Is it about the goals scored, or is it about the opportunities created?

There are other things on which to judge Juarez, but this is not about that. This isn’t really about substitutions — I know those are important, and I don’t know if I liked the lateness with which he executed those (I really don’t, I think) — it’s instead about how we started and the vision set out, particularly around the start of the second half.

So maybe Juarez didn’t get it completely right, but insomuch as a coach can make meaningful strategic decisions and players make meaningful tactical decisions, I think we’re looking at an execution problem — tactics, really — and not a vision problem — strategy. But let’s not get this decision-making process mixed up with substitutions, because I think that’s a totally different ball game.

I think.

Off-topic

So, I played Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

A lot.

And it’s great! I enjoyed it quite a bit. There were meaningful choices throughout — I played the Black Eagles, if that means anything to you — and the tactical aspects were really enjoyable and tense. I somehow made it through without losing any characters, but that did mean that I played a more cautious attacking style. I probably would have enjoyed a more aggressive style, too, but I couldn’t bear to part with anybody.

Except Lindhart. What a boring guy.