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Tactics Board: RSL vs. Seattle

The American de Ligt, long throws, and positional play (kind of)

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Real Salt Lake Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Another game, another come from behind draw. Any points are good points, especially when you can get them on the road or against the reigning champions, but giving up early goals and furiously rallying to come back isn’t a sustainable formula (insightful analysis, I know).

The good (and kind of bad) news is that these haven’t been rope-a-dope games where RSL hangs on and manages to grab a goal against the run of play. Real Salt Lake outshot opponents 41-20 over the last two games, and based on xG were pretty unlucky to not have won at least one of the two, if not both. Here are a few takeaways from the Seattle game:

(I was going to lead with “Corey Baird rage fouls” but by the time I’d finished taking screenshots I’d burned through 3 external hard drives and just couldn’t afford any more storage space)

The American de Ligt

I am a proud Justen Glad stan. I am aware that I see everything he does through Homegrown colored glasses, but I also believe he should play every available minute this season. His ceiling is much higher than either Silva or Onuoha’s (mostly due to age). He should be the bedrock of whatever RSL do going forward. The goal was great and his defending was solid, but one of my favorite things with Glad is the pressure he puts on opponents by stepping into the midfield.

It’s a “kids these days” kind of move that is mostly being done by young center backs, and it allows a team to push their midfielders higher in the attack. With a simple dribble, Glad eliminates two defenders and can now play a pass that can potentially eliminate even more. Breaking lines and breaking ankles? As a center back? And I made it through all of this without making a Glad related pun? That’s world class.

Long throws

On the rare occasions when I acknowledge that I sometimes play soccer, I am frequently met with the question- “Can you do a rainbow?” I admit that I cannot. Then the person tends to ask- “Can you do that thing where you do a flip and throw the ball?” I admit that I cannot. Then, properly shamed, I admit I don’t really play that much soccer and go about my day, talking about the weather or NPR or whatever non-soccer people talk about.

While flip throws may not be as essential to soccer as the general public may assume, Real Salt Lake have joined the trend (I believe largely started by Brentford and Statsbomb founder Ted Knutson) of using long throw ins as extra set pieces.

It’s a cheat code that suddenly creates more set piece opportunities, an area where RSL are suddenly pretty dangerous. Four of the six goals scored in the past two matches came off of set pieces. Albert Rusnak alone has had six key passes (passes leading to a shot) and one assist, purely off of set pieces in those same two matches.

While neither of the pictured throws resulted in goals, the first created a great chance for Baird at the back post and the second could’ve been called for a penalty (though I agree it wasn’t one). It turns out that if you invest in your staff, good things can happen. What a crazy world.

Positional Play (Kind of)

Based on off season comments, a lot of the buzz around the team was that RSL would be playing like Liverpool. I read Freddy Juarez’s comments differently, hearing buzzwords and philosophy that sounded more like the (only) other big English club: Manchester City. Corey Baird would do his best Raheem Sterling impression, Rusnak would dictate like De Bruyne, and Pablo Ruiz something.

Ok, so it was never going to look like Man City, but before the Covid-19 break I did see inklings of Positional Play, a Spanish style of play (not tiki-taka) championed by Guardiola that emphasizes occupying space in a way that gives you an advantage over your opponent (which seems obvious, but go on youth coach Twitter and say “positional play” and you will make a lot of new friends).

Even though Juarez has seemingly gone a little more pragmatic since the break, occasionally you can still see elements of the style in the way Real Salt Lake plays. One of the key principles is establishing “numerical superiority”, or numbers up situations. Here we can see that through our ball circulation (the ball started on the right) RSL has unbalanced the defense and created a 3v2 on the far side. Unfortunately, no one in the midfield sees this. The man on the ball needs to recognize it, but so do the other two midfielders, one of whom should be occupying the open square/rectangle (I’m trying my best) to be a conduit for the switch of play.

In the next image, we see another Positional Play principle, using the “third man”. This is a concept Real Salt Lake doesn’t go to often enough, where the ball is played into a target who then in one or two touches lays it off to the “third man”. Marcelo Silva drills this ball into the feet of Albert Rusnak, a pass that would normally be risky as it gives the defense a lot of time to converge on the receiver. Herrera’s run weaponizes that attention and he’s able to receive in space, on the move, facing the attack.

I’m not sure why RSL doesn’t use Third Man runs more often, but I’d guess it comes down to two things- 1. Baird isn’t much of a target forward and rarely checks to the ball, and 2. It takes a lot of coordination of movement and thought. For as many shots as RSL have generated, there haven’t been too many segments where the team looked like a fluid, well-oiled machine (except when Rusnak tackled Baird at the top of the 18). Getting Martinez back could help with the first issue, but due to the squad rotation required from this condensed schedule, we might not see dynamic attacking play for awhile.

(In a weird thing that I don’t have screenshots of, Rossi seems to really like playing this pass, but over bizarre distances. If you look at his pass map from Wednesday you can see several sideways or back passes that he just boomed over 20-30 yards. Accurate passes, yes. But strange.)

It’s 10 P.M. and I’m watching Alone, so I don’t have a clever conclusion (I also transcribed a 3,000 word interview today so go read that). Real Salt Lake plays Minnesota on Sunday. If they do everything we discussed here, don’t allow any goals, and score at least one goal, I predict they will win. Until next time.