Pre-season results can notoriously be misleading.
Often a ground to try and build match fitness and trial prospects for the first team, we’ve all seen teams light it up in pre-season and then struggle mightily once things get serious — the opposite as well. What we can, however, gain from these matches is a bit of insight into any formational and player role changes that the coaching staff have cooked up over the off-season.
While Real Salt Lake didn’t give an all-too inspiring performance in their three matches up at Providence Park, they did at least leave behind some clues as to how they might approach the 2022 campaign.
What has been on display has been no less than intriguing, if not downright surprising.
Match 1: RSL vs. Viking FK
The first match, and the one with the worst team performance to tag along with it, was the only one where RSL lined up in a familiar shape. The classic 4-2-3-1 was systematically dismantled by Viking FK of the Eliteserien league of Norway. As can often be the case when going against an opposing midfield triangle in a 4-3-3, the two, in this case Ruiz and Löffelsend, were often having to cover a lot of ground just to prevent overloads; themselves having little time on the ball when they did possess it.
This was one of many catalysts that led to a rather uninspiring match from the Claret and Cobalt. The low point of which came in the third goal from Viking FK, following a prolonged sequence of play where the Norwegian side completed 19 passes to RSL’s 0 before finding the back of the net on a wide-open man at the back post. The better team certainly won this match.
Being dominated by a team from overseas that will be competing in the next UEFA Conference League — all while playing in a familiar formation — wasn’t much to make waves within the fanbase, making the next two games feel closer to something of a tsunami.
Match 2: RSL vs. Minnesota
The only result of the three games that wasn’t a loss is disappointingly the one that is least indicative of what RSL will look like in the coming season. Against Minnesota United FC, Pablo Mastroeni took the chance to field almost an entirely reserve team. That fact alone squanders much interest in the game, but that could hardly be the case, as it wasn’t the players on the field that were especially noteworthy, but rather the formation they were played in.
Not only did we get a formation with three center backs, but also one without conventional attacking wingers. The most noteworthy and interesting to analyze is the way the two players behind the center forward operate in this set up. RSL most often uses attacking wingers in order to hold a high line, and stretch defenses, pushing them as deep and as wide as possible to create as much space as possible in the center.
In this 3-4-3 (or 3-4-2-1) setup, they basically aim to accomplish the exact opposite of that. With a striker and two attacking midfielders ready to assault directly down the middle, the entire back line, and indeed the opposing defensive midfielders need to hyper focus on jamming the middle of the pitch. This then creates space on the wings where both wing backs are deployed, very, very high to take advantage.
Despite the fact that Minnesota United fielded a lineup heavy on starters, they were unable to generate much attack due to how defensively they were forced to operate. RSL, to the same measure, generated little themselves, leading the game to an uneventful 0-0 finish.
Match 3: RSL vs. Portland
The last game was the culmination of the first two, mixing in a more starter heavy lineup from the first game, along with the new formation seen in the second.
Contrary to how we are used to seeing Meram and Menéndez line up pushing wide and high, we got a first look at how the two of them operate in a more central attacking role. Within the game you can see the merits the narrow system provides. On several occasions, the attacking run of the wing back on one flank could rather quickly and effectively be used by rotating over the nearest attacking midfielder and supporting defensive midfielder.
With the opposing full back pulled in tight, there is more space on the wings to deliver an effective attack. The beauty of it on attack being that there isn’t a player simply waiting out on the wing to collect the ball and try to create something while marked, but rather that two, or even three, players enter the space as a result of the move, and the defense is forced to react more emphatically. The result of which leads to a much more dynamic approach to creating an overload on the flank.
The downside that comes with this system is that the wing-backs deployed have to essentially cover the entire field vertically, which is a bit unreasonable to ask; even of a professional athlete. The attack needs them to provide width to spark opportunities going forward, the defense needs them to cover crosses and dribbles on the flank in order to keep the back three intact. On the second Portland goal of the night, Chang ended up out of position on attack, forcing the back three to move closer to his side to cover. The resulting space created on the opposite side was then exploited with a very well placed through-ball, leading to a goal scoring opportunity.
It will be interesting to see if Mastroeni decides to bring the back three system as a main option for the coming season. Not only would it give RSL a different look and method of attack, but it’s also quite practical given the players we have. Chang seems to operate better as a wing-back, leaving six players to cover the three open places in attack (Kreilach, Wood, Rubio, Meram, Cordova, Menéndez), a situation perfect for both depth and competition.
While it might force a starter-level player to the bench, it really takes on merit when you consider that there is still no “Rusnák Replacement” for the center of the attack outside of Kreilach. My assumption would be that given there is no one else ready to fill in that spot, that if Damir is needed elsewhere or unavailable, this 3-4-3 will become the main formation for the duration — not replacing Rusnák outright, simply adjusting the formation to a system that doesn't need a Rusnák-like player to begin with.