After an important comeback win against the Vancouver Whitecaps in mid-week, the Montreal Impact hosted D.C. United. With their spot in the MLS playoffs hanging in the balance, Wilmer Cabrera’s men put in a lacklustre performance and suffered a 3-0 defeat to the visitors.
The Impact now find themselves one point behind Toronto FC for the last playoff spot, however, with two games played more than their fierce rivals.
This tactical analysis will evaluate where D.C. United were able to hurt the Impact and subsequently dispatch them with ease.
Cabrera named an unchanged lineup from Wednesday’s win over the Whitecaps and persevered with the Impact’s 4-2-3-1 shape. With Ignacio Piatti out for the foreseeable future, Finnish international Lassi Lappalainen got the start on the wing while fellow Bologna loanee Orji Okwonkwo got the nod on the right.
As it’s been the case in recent times, Maximiliano Urruti was paired with Bojan Krkić up top while Saphir Taïder slotted in alongside Samuel Piette in the middle of the park.
Ben Olsen, on the other hand, had to make do without star man Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta. In their place, Ola Kamara and Paul Arriola got the start in attack, while ex-Impact midfielder Felipe Martins slotted in alongside Júnior Moreno in a double pivot.
Midfielder Russell Canouse played in an unfamiliar right-back role as Leonardo Jara missed out with injury. While D.C. United defended in a clear 4-4-2, it was very much like the Impact’s 4-2-3-1 when on the ball.
Whether it’s been under Rémi Garde or Wilmer Cabrera, the Impact have typically looked to dominate possession, especially at home. Despite their large spells with the ball, they have struggled to create clear-cut chances and have recurring issues breaking down their opponent. Against D.C. United, this was no different.
While the Impact finished the game with over 65% possession, most of it went through their defenders. In fact, over 60% of their passes came from their back four or goalkeeper. With D.C. United off to an early lead, the visitors were able to drop deep and defend in a deep block, offering very little to the Impact in their own half.
The Impact would finish the game with double the number of passes compared to the opposition (528 v 223), yet it was the visitors who had the best chances.
When the Impact’s defenders were able to get the ball up the pitch, it was largely to the wings. Rather than involving Taïder or Bojan into the game centrally, the Impact operated mostly from the channels.
With an emphasis on wing play, the Impact often used Okwonkwo as their main outlet, however, the 21-year-old struggled to beat his man. As over 40% of Montreal’s attack came from their right-wing, it’s clear to see why they struggled to generate offence. Recognizing the Impact’s desire to play wide, Ben Olsen employed simple yet very effective tactics when defending. The American manager instructed his winger to regularly drop deep in support of his fullback. As a result, it was not uncommon to see Okwonkwo go up against Joseph Mora as well as Lucas Rodriguez.
Pictured below is one example of this defensive setup and how it stifled the Impact’s wingers. Here, Lappalainen receives the ball out wide and is looking to take on his man. While Canouse is caught out of position making a recovery run, his winger Ulises Segura covers him and doubles up on the speedy Finn.
Since joining from the Impact’s parent club, Bologna, Lappalainen has made an instant impact scoring four goals in six starts. However, the 21-year-old experienced his most difficult game in Major League Soccer on Saturday. With D.C United doubling up out wide, Lappalainen saw his influence on the game greatly reduced.
D.C. United maintain a disciplined shape
Out of possession, Ben Olsen’s men were extremely disciplined and transformed their 4-2-3-1 shape into a more conventional 4-4-1-1. With Kamara occupying the defenders, D.C. United midfielder Arriola was tasked with positioning himself in the passing lane to the Impact’s primary outlet, Samuel Piette, as highlighted below. In this instance, Taïder is forced to drop deep into his own half rendering his influence ineffective, as well.
D.C. United regularly dropped off the Impact’s centre-backs when in their own half and set up in a triangle formation. When the ball would go to the right, the left-winger would tuck in more centrally and essentially help close up the middle, as illustrated in the image below. And vice-versa.
This forced the Impact to play wide and they were often stopped in their tracks. As soon as the ball is spread wide, the corresponding D.C United winger used it as a trigger to go press the receiver. In the sequence below, Segura anticipated Jukka Raitala’s pass and intercepted easily sending his side on the counter-attack. This was a common theme throughout, especially once the visitors were in the lead.
Another way D.C. United were able to stifle the Montreal Impact was through the use of overloads. While the visitors were typically cautious with their pressing, they would often overload one side if they sensed the Impact were vulnerable in possession.
Pictured below is Impact defender Daniel Lovitz in possession. Other than a long ball or a pass back to the goalkeeper, the American international has few options as a result of D.C. United’s overload.
In this instance, Martins takes notice of Lovitz’ lack of options and presses up the pitch in support of his winger and two forwards. With Taïder eliminated as an option and Camacho covered by the opposing winger, D.C. United have essentially closed Lovitz’s primary options. The left-back would inevitably dribble into the overload and turn over the ball.
Rooney-less D.C. United go direct
Without Rooney and Acosta in the lineup, D.C. United lost a lot of their creativity and link-up play in the final third. As a result, Olsen put into place route-one tactics and often bypassed his own midfield with long balls from his defenders and goalkeeper. D.C. United’s defenders would combine for 19 long balls between them, many of which found their intended target.
With Arriola playing in the hole behind Kamara, the Norwegian international was instructed to knock it down to the American and subsequently stretch the defence. Moreover, the visitor’s wingers would drop deep in these instances, offering themselves as outlets for Arriola in possession.
Pictured below is one of many of these sequences. In this instance, Kamara is occupying both Raitala and Rudy Camacho and beat the former in the air. As the ball is played to him, Impact defensive midfielder Piette goes to close him down, leaving Arriola open.
Kamara’s resulting header was an accurate one and gave Arriola time to control it, and spread the ball wide to an onrushing Segura. And like that, D.C. United broke the Impact’s bank of four in the midfield with a simple long ball. Given their success with this tactic, Olsen’s men repeated it regularly throughout the ninety minutes.
The Impact are still mathematically alive in the playoff race despite this loss, but it’s very hard to see them pip Toronto FC or the New England Revolution to the final spot on current form. Simply put, Cabrera’s men are conceding goals at an alarming rate and are struggling immensely at the other end.
This analysis highlighted the Impact’s short-comings against D.C. United and demonstrated where Cabrera will have to make adjustments moving forward.
With just four games left to the regular season, it’s hard to envisage the Impact putting their woes behind them and making the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
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