As FC Dallas has returned to play the past two weeks, a team whose midfield ingenuity and speed of play had impressed a year ago, has looked broken. Lethargic, out of ideas, unable to find a plan B – these are all descriptions that have been thrown around by fans and media alike as FCD seemed to lose its possession with intent persona.
Luchi-ball is an attractive style of soccer for purists who want to see technically gifted players in quick transitions. The three FCD games since Major League Soccer resumed its regular season haven’t seen the same adventurous off the ball running and resulting passes from a ‘free’ midfield.
FC Dallas’ midfield shape stems from its defensive approach. In the opening two games, we witnessed a double-pivot with Thiago Santos alongside Tanner Tessmann, and the past three games have seen the return of Bryan Acosta partnering Santos.
The theory in a double-pivot is that one player supports the attack and the other covers the defense. We saw it in those opening games as Santos made several runs with the ball, and Tanner Tessmann grabbed an assist.
Less attacking nature has been evident in the past three games, but Coach Luchi Gonzalez sees a progression as the team gets back in the flow of things.
“We just wanted to really shore up defensively,” said Gonzalez. “I think we’ve actually shown the capability to do that. That’s going to be important to win games, having a very clear way to defend with the team… Now that we feel a confidence and a rhythm defensively, I do want us to now take the next step in terms of presence on the field in pockets behind the midfield, and then especially in behind the last line.”
While Acosta has seemingly struggled with the flexibility of the new role – after playing as a single pivot in the aftermath of Carlos Gruezo’s return to Bundesliga – Gonzalez is backing the Honduran to be involved more on the offensive side of the ball.
“We want to improve [linking play] in our midfield and I think we’re seeing it,” Coach Gonzalez told media during his weekly conference call. “Without saying too much tactically, I think Acosta has a lot of that potential in that range to be more of a presence forward and have a little bit more freedom than Thiago, who prefers to sit more, protect the center backs, and protect the midfield.”
Acosta isn’t the only option, of course, Gonzalez says several others players are in consideration.
“[Servania has] been injured,” explained Gonzalez. “He was injured for a few weeks, so he just became available last week and started to compete, made the roster, and got to play a little bit. He did some good things so now it’s good to have that depth. You also have Tanner [Tessmann] who’s in that option. Edwin’s [Cerrillo] more in that six-role, but Tanner certainly has the eight capabilities.”
Matt Hedges talked of a lack of tempo in Dallas’ passing game after the draw with Nashville and his defensive partner Reto Ziegler expanded on the team’s efforts to restore its quick-passing ways in an effort to prevent teams closing down the ball and shutting off passing channels.
“It starts from us from the back,” said Ziegler on Monday. “But also in the middle of the field. Our midfielders, especially the last games – Thiago Santos and Acosta – had a lot of the ball and they are capable of making very good passes. I think if they if they pass a bit quicker they can give the tempo to the team and that’s something we work on a lot.”
As the midfield compresses deeper, so does the attack in an effort to receive the ball.
Comparing the 2-2 draw with Montreal earlier in the season with the recent goalless draw against Nashville in the images below, a look at the touches made by the two main attackers can illustrate the difference in Dallas’ recent play.
Paying particular attention to zone 14 – the area immediately in front of the box in the middle third of the field – as well as zone 17 which is the zone immediately ahead in the area, we can look at both the number of touches and proportion of total touches by the 9 and 10. (The two areas are shaded green in the image.)
Against Montreal back in March, Zdenek Ondrasek, Jesus Ferreira, and Ricardo Pepi (sub for Ferreira) combined for 91 touches. Of those, 33 came in zones 14 and 17 which are highlighted in green. That works out to 36.26% of the attackers’ touches coming in the danger areas.
Compare that to the recent tie with Nashville where Franco Jara, Ondrasek, Ferreira (sub for Ondrasek), and Ricardo Pepi (sub for Jara) recorded 65 touches. Only 9, or 13.85% of those touches came in the box without linking midfield play from the double pivot.
If you want to take it a step further and look at touches in the final third to include the wider zones adjacent to 14 and 17, against Nashville we saw 27.69% of touches by those players. The game versus Montreal featured 52.75% of those attackers’ touches in the attacking third of the field.
Since his debut we’ve seen Franco Jara coming back to the defensive third to receive passes and attempting to run down the wings. A failure to supply the ball into the two vital attacking areas has resulted in just four touches in the box from three games for Dallas’ newest striker. While his performances haven’t been spectacular, the game plan simply hasn’t been conducive to his strengths.
Unfortunately, while the approach is one step at a time, these initial steps are merely avoiding defeat and looking to add to the past two scoreless results.