Coming into this MLS game, both the Southern and Northern sides were vying with different motives. New England Revolution sat right below the playoffs line while Orlando City SC were four points below it. A win for any team allows them to compete for the playoffs spot in a better way.
With major stakes on the line, both teams battled it out this Saturday. In this tactical analysis, we aim to show you with the use of tactics and analysis, how an exciting MLS matchup between New England Revolution and Orlando City SC came to a close draw.
Orlando’s head coach, James O’Connor, made a total of three changes to the squad that had drawn to league leaders LAFC. The midfield trio of Dillon Powers, Oriol Rosell (suspended), and Benji Michel were replaced by the trio of Carlos Ascues, Mauricio Pereyra, and Tesho Akindele.
On the northern side of the country, Bruce Arena made only one change to his side that had lost to NYC FC. Midfielder Wilfried Zahibo (suspended) was replaced by Diego Fagúndez.
New England’s two striker system wrecks havoc on Orlando
New England’s ingenious use of strikers is one of the most interesting tactics utilised by an MLS team. A two-forward system is virtually extinct in today’s football as more emphasis has been placed on full-backs and wingers, however, Arena’s extraordinary tactics ensure that the Midnight Riders can utilise their two-forward system to maximum efficacy.
Out of the two forwards, Juan Fernando Caicedo and Gustavo Bou, one of them- mainly Bou- dropped deep from the forward line to the midfield line. This simple move creates many problems and scenarios that are difficult for the Orlando Lions to defend against.
As one can see from this heat map, Bou did not play the usual role, instead he was dropping into midfield and aiding the attack through that manner. This move created many problems for Orlando to deal with.
The first problem is simply that of superiority. When Bou drops deep, the midfield four turns into a flexible line of five. When the Lions defended attacks from the Riders, they often utilised a fluid 4-3-3 which would when required, turn into a 4-4-2. By having Bou drop deep, the Midnight Riders can create a 5 v 4 situation in the midfield, a clear numerically superior situation for New England.
This creation of a 5 v 4 was important as it creates a free man in right between the defensive and midfield line. In football, the concept of a free man is an important one as it means that this free man can form triangles and other relationships with his fellow players that allow the team to break lines and progress vertically.
This concept becomes more dangerous when the forward dropping is one of the most in-form players in MLS. Bou, in his ten appearances, has a blistering record of 8 goals and assists. Clearly, Bou is a dangerous playmaker and scorer of goals. As such, his presence between the defensive and midfield line is a destabilizing presence.
His constant movement through the entirety of the pitch means that he is often the third man in situations, an aspect which allows him to be a passing outlet for his team. Therefore with his simple positioning, Bou can break the midfield line and receive the ball with a lot of space. Moreover, since he is often positioned on the half-turn, Bou can directly take the ball and attack the defensive line.
Here we see Bou dropping from his attacking position and joining the midfield. The first thing to see is the amount of space (shown in red) he has. This means that when he receives the pass, he has many options to pass to. He can pass to fellow striker Caicedo or dribble between the defenders.
He can also go leftward and shift the defence in that manner. These combinations made Bou dangerous as he took advantage of the moment of lapses and used it to directly attack the defence. However, this dropping deep and attacking was only the first phase of the attack.
In the second phase of the attack is where Caicedo becomes important. With Bou driving into the defence, the Argentinian striker attracts one of the defenders. With the proximity of the striker, Caicedo can make a run and make himself a passing outlet for Bou. With a single pass, New England can break the defensive structure of The Lions and set their striker in a favourable position.
Here we see Bou, in blue, in the centre area. This attracts the defensive unit of Orlando and as such makes them unnaturally congested. Notice how this creates space between the two defenders of which both Caicedo and the winger can take advantage of.
This dynamic between the strikers allowed New England to pose various threats to Orlando with simple scenarios such as these being utilized at its maximum efficiency. The same dynamic between Bou and Caicedo extends to other parts of the attacking structures of the Midnight Riders.
Carles Gill connects the strikers in a creative manner
A key component to any two-forward attack is the attacking midfielder who completely links the latter structures of the team to the frontmost part of the team. That midfielder is captain Carles Gill whose connection with the two strikers has already been influential. Gill has already assisted Bou three times.
So then where does Gill fit into the duet of Bou and Caicedo?
Continuing our previous example, Gill’s presence means that New England can form a third man in the most dangerous area of the pitch: the final third. With Bou attacking from deep and Caicedo making runs to make himself available, Gill acts as the late midfielder, running into the space left by Caicedo.
This positioning has several benefits. The first one is that it pins down one, sometimes two, defenders. Just as the third man can provide himself to be the attacking lynchpin, the third man can also allow the other two to flourish in the attack. By filling in the space left by one of the strikers, Gill forces the nearby defender(s) to be pinned because if they are to move then Gill is open for a cutback or worse, a clear shot at goal.
This pin is advantageous to the strikers as one or two defenders of the defensive line have been eliminated in their pursuit of attack. As such, Bou can drive inwards for a longer time meaning that Caicedo can position himself in more dangerous positions.
Aside from functioning as a pinning agent, Gill can also reverse the dynamic and form an inverse triangle near the defensive line. This slight change introduces another creative perspective when attacking. This time Gill functions as a central cog, attracting nearby defenders near him.
The two strikers use the natural width present between them to separate the defensive line even more, allowing other midfielders and full-backs to habitate dangerous spaces near the goal. Conversely, the strikers can move inwards forcing the defensive line to become unnaturally congested which opens up space on the wings.
As one can see, the positioning of Gill at the bottom forces Bou and Caicedo to work as a stringed duet as compared to when Bou was at the bottom of the triangle where both strikers had the liberty to move freely. These shifts and nuances allow for a greater disruption of the line which allows New England to create higher quality chances frequently.
Here is the setup for the third goal. One can see the inverse triangle set up between Caicedo, Bou, and Gil. Here, Gill’s pass breaks a triangle of three defenders and sets up Bou against the defensive line.
At the same time, Caicedo starts moving to the right. This movement drags the central defender in the same direction which frees up Bou to get on his feet and score. The movements from both strikers in conjunction means that the defensive line is scrambled and is unable to be structured and narrow. This allows for space to be created and for the strikers to score. Moreover, Gill’s contribution should not be understated.
His passes break a dense shape and puts the ball on Bou’s right foot which allows him to shimmy and score a goal. Gill’s creative mind was the origin behind this goal and therefore it should come as no surprise when one sees that Gill created the most key passes in the game: nine.
Furthermore, almost all of these nine key passes occurred between the defensive line and the midfield line, the exact space where Gill would be if he were at the bottom of the triangle with Bou and Caicedo.
As such one can see that not only does the relationship between Bou and Caicedo help New England attack through individuals, an aspect that introduces unpredictability and creativity in an attack, but it also helps the Midnight Riders attack through a team, an aspect that introduces structural components allowing the team to attack repeatedly.
Penilla adds another attacking threat for New England
While the strikers and the relationship between them and Gill was certainly an important aspect of the attack, a much more general aspect of New England’s attack was Cristian Penilla. His presence in the attacking structure was yet another tactic that Arena used to penetrate Orlando’s defence.
Functioning as a left midfielder, in normal terms, Penilla was often part of the midfield line that attacked. However, whenever New England wanted a direct pathway to the attack, as to threaten the Lions and test them, they would use Penilla to great effect.
The basic premise behind Penilla’s positioning is a standard tactic however one that is deadly. Simply put, Arena would, from time to time, put Penilla very high and wide- this positioning almost put him in line with the attacking line of Bou and Caicedo.
As discussed earlier, both Bou and Caicedo were primarily involved in moving and creating space. We saw how Gill was able to utilise this space. Penilla profited from the work of the two strikers but also used his own positioning to open up the defensive line.
By being high and wide, Penilla pinned the full-back to be near him. This meant that there was a noticeable gap between the full-back and the centre-back. Combine this near-sided tactic with the central tactics utilized by Bou and Caicedo and one can get the picture of a hectic Orlando defensive line.
Penilla’s positioning meant that he was 1 v 1 with the full-back and this gave New England to, sometimes, directly find him. His wide positioning meant that he was able to dribble, having 100% success rate, and consistently send the ball into the final third with 65% of all of his passes going into the said zone.
This attacking positioning also meant that he found in the box multiple times which explains why he had five shots on target, the most in the whole game. Therefore, Penilla added another attacking threat that the Orlando defence had to deal with. In addition, the fact that almost all of his shots were created from normal play points to the fact that Penilla was often a player that was utilized as a late attacking threat.
Using the central attacking movements to direct the attention of Orlando on one side of the pitch, New England would then send in Penilla as another attack target for the team.
Nani Show for Orlando
There was no doubt after the game that Nani was the major star for Orlando. While Orlando had attacking structures put into place, it was undeniable that Nani was critical in each and every one of them.
One of the main plays from Orlando when attacking was attacking the right flank of New England, and this can be clearly seen in the heatmaps of the attackers with all of them being concentrated on exploiting wing overloads.
With the attack being focused, the traditional right midfielder, Nani, would start drifting outside the secluded right-wing flank. This allowed Nani to occupy the most dangerous space in the pitch: the central space. This occupation gave Nani lots of time and space to interact with the Orlando attack.
As is with any star player, Nani attracted and disrupted the defence structure of New England. This allowed other teammates to get into positions where they could get attack the goal which, in turn, allowed Nani several passing outlets as he utilised these as can be showcased by the five key passes made by the Portuguese veteran, the most in his side.
This is the build up to the third goal from Orlando. Notice how Nani doesn’t rush into the attack but rather recognizes the amount of space in the centre as a cue to slowly occupy the space. This ensures that Nani will be in a position to oversee many chances and creative passes.
As such, he can either dribble into these spaces or pass to his nearby players. This liberty can only happen with the condition that he had a large amount of space.
By his nature, Nani can introduce uncertainty in his play which makes the defender cautious. This caution means that Nani can press ahead and try to score a goal which is exactly what happens. This type of intelligence in play introduced a second dimension to Orlando’s attack.
As a result, Nani’s presence was felt everywhere in Orlando’s attacking structure: every movement and pass made by Nani was made to further Orlando’s attack. This can be seen as 71% of all his passes were directed to the final third. When he wasn’t directly contributing to the attack, Nani played the role of the vertical progressor.
In teams whose attacks are not as structured, a vertical progressor keeps the ball moving forward. Too many times, midfielders often pass sideways or backwards, and this inhibits the team’s past progression and work. A vertical progressor ensures that through some manner, the ball is always moving upfield.
Out of his 66 passes, Nani made 53 forward passes, a statistic that is a testament to his continued pursuit of aiding the team in the attack.
Then there are his individual components which add another dimension to Orlando’s attack. While generalized and structural attacks are important to the attack over the whole game, individual and spontaneous actions are just as important. These actions add creativity and unpredictability which allow the team to make unexpected breakthroughs.
Nani added this component as is evidenced by his two goals, both of which came out of the blue through his creative incision, and his one assist which was incisive and threatening. As one can clearly see, Nani aided the attack structurally and individually, allowing Orlando to claw back after each goal.
Very few times does the timeline reflect the game. Often times it misleads but in this game, the scoreline reflected the actual nature of the game: a close and thrilling game with chances and great plays being created at either end.
As the MLS evolves, it continues to produce games that break the stereotype of a league that only houses veterans of foreign leagues. Games like these are a testament to a brooding league whose managers continue to excite in many tactically interesting ways.
Arena will be pleased with his attack and the efficacy of his tactics however what will concern him is how quickly his team collapsed after some good Orlando pressure. On the other hand, O’Connor will be pleased that his team made a great comeback, working together to fight until the end.
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