MLS Tactical Analysis: Minnesota United FC vs San Jose Earthquakes 1:3

Minnesota United FC

  1. Shuttleworth / 30. Miller, 15. Boxall, 5 Calvo, 3. Thiesson / 20. Schuller, 7. Ibson / 10. Ibarra, 25. Quintero, 32. Gomez / 21. Ramirez

San Jose Earthquakes

  1. Tarbell / 24. Lima, 31. Cummings, 23. Jungwirth, 6. Salinas / 7. Eriksson, 20 Godoy, 14. Yueill, 10. Hyka / 11. Qazaishvilli / 9. Hoesen

Minnesota applied no defensive pressure to the visitor. San Jose encountered no resistance when they attacked. The host’s horrendous defense gifted San Jose a win.

Minnesota’s defensive problem

These two teams have been two of the worst defensive teams in MLS; Minnesota and San Jose have conceded 1.91 and 1.89 goals per game, the 5th and 7th highest in the league. Every Minnesota’s defensive weakness was on display in this game.

Minnesota allow 160.2 passes to reach their final third per game, only the 7th highest in the league. But all of the teams that allow for more passes than Minnesota control a lot less possession; every one of them concedes more than 510 passes per game, at least 50 more than Minnesota. Unlike Minnesota, those teams intend to suffer a lot of attacking pressure, either because of their tactics or strengths.

The passes that reach Minnesota’s final third constitute 33.8% of all of the opponent passes, the 4th highest in MLS. With so many balls reaching the final third, the opponent can also roam Minnesota’s most vulnerable area; Minnesota let the opponent play 116 passes per game in the final third, making up to 23.7% of all passes, the 4th highest in MLS.

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Minnesota’s defense had many problems in this game. First, the defensive central midfielders, Ibson and Rasmus Schuller, provided no defensive protection to the defenders. Both are technical players, but neither can defend.

Minnesota attacked with eight players; they used Ibson and Schuller’s passing ranges to initiate the attack, either with their penetrative pass to find Darwin Quintero in the center or their distribution to the flank. The fullback always pushed high to support the winger and Quintero to create an overload or a combination so that they could enter the shooting/crossing positions. Everyone participated in the attack except for the center backs.

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Ibson and Schuller participated in the build-up in almost every zone. In the center, they either exchanged position with Quintero or played box-to-box when they found space. Ibson pushed high throughout the game; he, Miguel Ibarra, Christian Ramirez, and Francisco Calvo (because he stayed in the box to make up for his mistake in the second half) made up over 90% of the touches inside the penalty box. Their advanced positions in the attack meant they couldn’t protect the defense.

As the deepest central midfielders in front of the defenders, Ibson and Schuller should have done that job. They didn’t because both of them positioned too high. They left too much space in front of the center backs. They also didn’t cover each other when one moved out to confront the ball handler. Calvo and Michael Boxall couldn’t move past the half-line to cover that empty area, so they were hopelessly exposed when San Jose regained the possession and counter-attacked.

Minnesota’s defenders also got caught between the man marking and the zonal marking:

Their defenders – especially Schuller, Ibson, and Jerome Thiesson, – often moved out of their positions to confront the ball handler. But they were too slow. By the time they engaged the ball handler, he had already had the time to turn, control the ball and survey the landscape. He could often bypass Minnesota’s defenders. And without the protection of a strong defensive midfielder, San Jose could always run directly at the last line of the defense. Again, the center backs couldn’t cover the confronting teammates because of the massive space their teammates left them. Minnesota’s players initiated the man marking (following the player) without finishing it (tackling), and they left gaps all over the defensive line.

Most teams change their defensive behaviors as an opponent advances the ball to their goal; an average MLS team decreases the opponent’s pass success rate in the final third by 7.2% compared to that in all zones. Minnesota, however, don’t increase the defensive pressure as the opponent enters their territory; they only decrease the opponent’s pass success rate in the final third by 4.4%, the third lowest in the league. Kansas City and New York City have less defensive pressure in the final third, but they are possession dominant and allow only 65.8 and 90.1 passes there, the 1st and 7th lowest in MLS. They don’t need to worry about increasing the defensive pressure because they don’t have a lot of defending to do. Minnesota have an opposite scenario; they had almost twice as many passes reaching their final third as Kansas City and New York City.

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Minnesota allow the opponent to have too much freedom in that area. Their defensive pressure isn’t great, and they don’t increase it when it matters the most. Against San Jose, Minnesota’s defenders often stood off from the ball handler and aimed to guard the space behind them:

They would not tackle until the attacker entered the shooting or the crossing position. They hoped to contain the attackers, but they ended up conceding space. San Jose’s players had so little pressure when they controlled the ball. They had the time to gauge the passing lane and wait for their teammates to move into the proper positions. They kept passing it to probe for a mistake. Minnesota’s lack of pressure when they “sat deep” explains why they conceded three goals in this game.

San Jose’ offensive structure

Minnesota’s defensive struggle allowed San Jose to play their best offensive game. Compared to the host, San Jose had a more organized and solid offensive structure. They used a 4-4-1-1 / 4-4-2. The two central midfielders had a clear distribution of responsibilities; Anibal Godoy was the playmaker while Jackson Yueill did a lot of running and dirty works. Godoy participated in a majority of the moves during the build-up.

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San Jose’s defenders needed to pass to him multiple times for them to transition into the attack:

San Jose attacked the flanks through Jahmir Hyka and Magnus Eriksson. They initiated most of the offense on the left side. Hyka focused on attacking the left flank. He would move out of his position to create space for Vako Qazaishvili, Shea Salinas, or even Yueill to attack. But San Jose’s most dangerous play was to isolate Eriksson on the right side against Thiesson in a 1 vs. 1 situation. Minnesota’s lack of defensive presence in the midfield and their attacking mindset meant that Thiesson always had to face Eriksson alone with a ton of space behind him:

Eriksson also moved to the center to receive the ball. Thiesson would almost always follow him there. Moreover, Eriksson and Danny Hoesen used a lot of the positional exchanges to create space for themselves and other teammates. Again, San Jose could generate a gap on the right flank where Nick Lima can attack. Moreover, San Jose’s fullbacks never push up together; when one moved up, another one would move back. This way, the visitor always had an extra defender to provide the cover if their play broke down.

Minnesota’s passive attitude in the defense meant almost all of their players needed to sit deep in front of the box. Even when they regained the possession, they had limited option to advance the ball. Moreover, San Jose asymmetric build-up and switch play guaranteed that Minnesota didn’t have enough players to cover the ball far side (right). Their defensive line pushed to the half-line during the build-up. Unlike Minnesota’s center backs, Harold Cummings and the others didn’t worry about the offside trap and attacked the loose ball immediately when San Jose lost the possession. The counter-pressing ensured that San Jose were always attacking the host.

For 25 minutes in the second half, Minnesota created several half chances. The combination between Quintero and Ibarra was particularly dangerous. But they didn’t convert any of the chances, and their defense again let them down; In San Jose’s second goal, for more than ten seconds, Minnesota’s defenders couldn’t clear the ball even it was right in front of them. With such defense, Minnesota may not make it to the playoff.

San Jose finally got their first road win. Their attack impressed in this game. One will wonder why they only have two wins this season.

Data via @AnalysisEvolved

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