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Tactics Board, Minnesota vs. RSL: Rusnak’s best position?

Center backs “packing” heat, improved transitions, and Rusnak as a regista?

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Minnesota United FC Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll let brandon.wilde.9 start us off this week:

“I really don’t believe there is anything else to be learned from any MLS match until 2021. There will probably be wins, draws, and losses, but it’s all going to be incoherent, disorganized street soccer. It might be fun at times. There will be bunches of silly goals in both directions. But I would suggest that you try to assign meaning to it at your own peril. Nihilism is the name of the game.”

In the midst of a crazy compressed schedule it’s hard to read too many long term trends into anything this season, especially in a game like last night. There were 10 lineup changes from the Seattle match, with only Justen Glad remaining on the pitch. Even Glad shifted positions, from center back to right back. Throw in a formation change and it was always going to be slightly organized chaos.

And yet, had VAR reviewed the Rossi goal and had Nedum’s run started a fraction of a second later, this might have been a completely different game. There is a world in which RSL goes up 2-0 and locks things down defensively (which is theoretically easy when playing three CB’s and three D-mids) to see out a smash and grab road win. In this alternate timeline, advanced bionics allow Nick Rimando to play into his 50’s as a player-coach-VP (Becky Sauerbrunn is the President) and the live action Avatar: The Last Airbender does justice to the original while also mining new depths. If only we were in such a timeline.

“Packing” center backs

I’ve seen Erik Holt play a few times previously and hadn’t noted anything beyond him being present in the game and seeming to do mostly center back type things. I hadn’t thought of him as a offensively skilled defender, but he surprised me last night with some of the passes he hit.

Early in the game Holt was presented with time, space, and an easy option (that would’ve been immediately pressed by two defenders). Instead, he hit this pass:

His pass into the feet of Douglas Martinez bypassed four defenders and put RSL directly into the attacking phase. Holt hit multiple passes like this throughout the match and left me much higher on him as a player.

Justen Glad, a right back in this game but still a center back at heart, also hit some surprising passes.

With this pass from the wide area he splits two defenders and bypasses a third as he plays Douglas Martinez into the box. Martinez is in a dangerous area, with options for a cutback, ball to the far post, or shot.

Packing is a newer stat that basically tracks anything a player does to advance the ball past opposing players (this article explains it better) and is a good shorthand for how effective a player is in the attack. To have center backs who can play passes like those shown is a luxury. Now only if we had midfielders who could play similar passes.

Attacking transitions

In my first tactics post this season I lamented RSL’s lack of edge in transition. Too often players chose to recycle possession rather than take risks in transition. This was much improved against Minnesota (though still somewhat ineffective).

This play starts with a defensive intervention in the box by Justen Glad. The clearance finds the feet of Martinez, who could play a ball safely back to his midfield. Instead, he turns and launches the attack forward on the dribble.

In the next set of images we find our old friend Everton Luiz, who has just been gifted a ball by Minnesota. He has an easy option to the right, support behind, and space to the left.

Everton chooses the risky, dangerous option and hits a ball through the scrambling Minnesota defense into the feet of an attacking Giuseppe Rossi, who has options. (Spoiler: he doesn’t use his options and dribbles directly into the defense, but that’s not what we’re talking about here)

Rusnak the regista?

I have advocated for Rusnak to be used exclusively as a number 10, high up the pitch, and to focus on getting him the ball in the half spaces as often as possible. Despite that, there is a little bit of doubt in my heart, and that doubt mostly comes from a comment 15to32 posted a few weeks back:

“I think the team could experiment with moving Rusnak to the 2-man midfield line to play as a Regista. I know, I know, this is going to make us weaker on defense. Which I can’t really argue with. My thoughts are about going the other direction. If you put Rusnak next to Everton and tell Everton to cover everything in front of the back four, then you can give Rusnak the deep lying playmaker role which aligns better to his passing abilities (see his pass that started the sequence on the Meram goal) and doesn’t ask him to run at players – which he has never shown to be a strength.”

My first thoughts were that the experiment was too much, something that conceptually works, but wouldn’t be functional in practice. However, as I’ve watched Rusnak’s movement over the past few weeks the idea has grown on me. Rusnak’s biggest negative quality to me is his lack of involvement. He floats around and doesn’t move aggressively enough to create separation from defenders. I can’t tell if it’s a laziness issue or a tactical one, if he won’t move to the open spaces or if he doesn’t anticipate them. Either way, when he drops back to receive the ball, he suddenly becomes much more active and involved in the buildup.

For whatever concerns people might have about Rusnak, he is an incredibly skilled passer of the ball, something our other midfielders are not. If he could play the 6 as a possession hub, and do enough defensively (his defensive positioning is actually pretty good but he’s very weak in the tackle) it could unlock a lot for this team.

The time to experiment is now: Unlock Rusnak the Regista.