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Tactical Review: RSL’s wingbacks and a toothless attack

A road draw is always acceptable, but there was little to be encouraged by against Houston Dynamo.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Houston Dynamo FC Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

As the dust settled on the first 90 minutes of the 2022 season, many RSL supporters found themselves rather underwhelmed at the first display of the year. Despite the fact that a road draw is basically always an acceptable result in MLS, there was little else to be encouraged by. Let’s single out one of the key factors that led to a rather toothless performance from both teams of the field on Sunday night: the wing backs that weren't.

Given a roster of healthy center backs, the 3-4-1-2 made an appearance. A further sign that Mastroeni still favors three-man back line systems when applicable. Houston on the other side lined up in a traditional 4-3-3 with a single defensive midfielder in Matias Vera.

It would be worth analyzing how these two formations match up if it had actually come to fruition. However, RSL more or less changed the script from the very start, for better or worse.

There are two ways to makes sense of what was essentially a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 from RSL. Traditionally when one wing back is pressing high forward, in this case Brody, the wing back on the opposite side should fall back, in this case Schmitt, and make a back four. This is the defensively sound way to approach things, covering the space left behind by attacking wing back by sliding everyone over, and having the other wing back tuck in; which is exactly what we see.

Still, what we see on the positional graph is far more improvisation than it is tactical intention. Schmitt should be pushing up just as often as Brody, but this really never took place in practice. Brody was almost always the one pushing, and Schmitt was almost always sitting deep.

Scenes like this were all too common, as for most of the game, Brody was pushed up almost like a winger, and Schmitt tucked in almost as if part of a back four. Given that RSL’s system had not two, but one attacking wing back, and not three, but four full time defenders, it hardly comes as a surprise that not only did we lack any bite going forward, but that we were also defensively very strong. The resulting play gave each side little chance to create.

All signs point to this being more of a lack of chemistry between Brody and Schmitt, rather than a game plan in effect. Take for instance the half-time interview made by Justin Meram where he specifically noted “I think we need to get our wing backs a little bit higher so we have numbers forward. Then we can play behind and combine for overloads on the side.”

Exactly how a 3-4-1-2 would be played, if RSL had managed to play the formation as intended.

Meram to his credit, was playing the role of teacher and veteran most of the game. For those paying attention, he was rather frequently, perhaps excessively, shouting suggestions to Schmitt tirelessly throughout the match. The pinnacle of that saw both players distracted mid-play in conversation around the 28th minute, pulling Schmitt’s focus away from the ball and almost leaving Kreilach out to dry.

What can we take away from this poorly executed attempt at a re-run of the back three? We’ll go with the obvious. Schmitt needs time to gel with the team — and in the future, we will likely be running with the more experienced wing-back duo of Herrera on the right, and Brody on the left.

Given a week-one performance, its not an unacceptable tactical failure. If anything, I vastly prefer this in regards to setting a foundation; better to be overly defensive than negligible and disorganized. It certainly wasn’t a game to remember, but a result is a result, and we can at least be satisfied with the defensive effort.