At the end of May this year, FC Cincinnati announced the appointment of former treble-winning Manchester United and Ajax centre-half, Jaap Stam, as head coach. His first few games in charge would come in the MLS is Back Tournament. Out of the three games they have played as of writing, Stam’s men have managed to win two. This is already a much bigger improvement as they didn’t manage to win a single game pre-lockdown.
Fans of this recently-founded club should be very encouraged by what they are seeing. Particularly their improvements in defence. In Stam’s first game, they lost 4-0. A tactical change to a back five, against two very attacking sides in Atlanta and the NY Red Bulls, allowed them to keep two clean sheets. Due to a lack of quality in the squad, Stam will not be able to rush the integration of his system and has had to tweak his set-up in the games so far. This will be explained later in the scout report.
As of writing, this is the most recent side that Stam has fielded. It is the same line-up from the previous game against Atlanta, the only difference being the left centre-back, Pettersson. Van der Werff was absent with a groin injury, so Pettersson replaced him, with Waston pushing over as the central centre-back manning the backline.
The midfield has stayed the exact same for the past two tough matches. It combines age with youth, precise passing with driving ability, and pace with aerial prowess. Haris Medunjanin acts as the holding midfielder for Stam’s Cincinnati, with Caleb’s Stanko’s running power, and Frankie Amaya’s close-quarter passing range too. It is a perfectly balanced midfield for them.
The two centre-forwards, Yuya Kubo and Adrien Regattin fit quite well in Stam’s side. The ex-Newcastle player, Siem De Jong, is capable of playing up-front for them too. However, Cincinnati have been forced to play on the break in their games so far, so Kubo and Regattin suit much more than De Jong, who is far slower in offensive transitions.
FC Cincinnati’s low block and defensive set-up
Jaap Stam comes from the Dutch school of football coaching with a pure emphasis on possession, building out from the back, and creating triangles in possession. At Reading in the Championship, which is predominantly a physical league, they averaged 59% possession during the 2016/17 season when they reached the play-offs final. In Stam’s first three games, they only averaged 40.7%. More than likely, this is down to a lack of ball-playing ability in the squad, which forces him to play more defensive than he has in his previous job.
So far, Cincinnati have played against teams that play a very possession-based style. These teams are very precise and confident on the ball, far superior to Cincinnati’s ability. Against these sides, Stam has deployed a low block, sitting his backline at the edge of their box.
The average positioning above proves the depth of their defensive block. Not one single player is inside the opponent’s half of the field with their average position. The game-plan relies sitting deep, compacting the central area, marking the half-spaces, and hitting the opponents on the counter.
In his first game, against Columbus, Stam deployed his usual 4-1-4-1/4-3-3. They dominated the opening first 10 to 15 minutes of the game, however, this quickly deteriorated. Columbus managed 60% ball possession, putting four goals past Cincinnati whilst conceding none. Stam deployed a medium block for this game, however, Columbus capitalised on their forward line’s pace advantage, playing through balls as well as long passes over the top of the Cincinnati backline.
Marking the half-space
They also utilised the half-spaces really well against them. Columbus pushed their full-backs high. Once the Cincinnati full-back moved over to close down the full-back, there would be space in the half-space for the forwards to run into.
Stam needed to rectify this for the next two games. He decided to deploy a 5-3-2 low block in both games against Atlanta and the Red Bulls. This was because he knew that both sides use the half-spaces as well as the width of the pitch.
In this image, we can see the 5-3-2 low block, covering the half-spaces. New York push their fullbacks extremely high and wide. This allows for their wingers to drift inside into the half-spaces and play between the lines. In the image, the New York player made a run into the half-space. The Cincinnati wingback had to close down the opposing fullback. However, the right central midfielder for Cincinnati moved over to mark him.
Due to the fact that they are playing with a back five, they now always have a wide centre-back to push over and plug the gaps left by the wingback who has to close down the opposing fullback. The back five has given Stam’s new side defensive solidity. They have kept two clean sheets in their last two games, against very attacking sides, despite their opposition being the favourite.
This footage here is another instance of Cincinnati marking the half-space. The Atlanta winger has drifted into this area, however, due to the deployment of a third central defender, the wingback can mark his opposing number without worrying that there is a gap behind him in the half-space for the winger to take advantage of.
FC Cincinnati in possession
As I stated before, Stam wants his Cincinnati side to eventually morph into a team with enough quality to dominate their opponents in ball possession. At the moment, they are far from this reality. However, during their games, there are clear signs of this transformation happening with their offensive set-up. Whilst in possession, Cincinnati look to create as many triangles and diamonds as possible.
In their newly found 5-3-2 shape, in possession, it looks more like a 3-1-4-2/3-1-2-4, depending on the positioning of the wingbacks.
From the footage above, this 3-1-2-4 shape can be seen whilst Cincinnati are in possession. For their games against Atlanta and New York, Medunjanin acted as the single pivot midfield in their offensive system. He was tasked with screening the backline looking to move the ball from area of the pitch to another, whilst dictating the pace of their play. As Cincinnati like to build their way through the thirds, phases of attacking play are vital for them.
Medunjanin’s role regarding the attacking phases, as the pivot player, is to bring the ball from the first and second phase of attack, and progress the ball into the third phase, behind the opposition’s midfield line. Against Atlanta, he had the second-highest rate of successful passes to the final third in this role. His passing ability will be key for Stam throughout the remainder of the tournament, as he is the only player in Cincinnati’s squad with the passing ability to undertake this role. However, age is not on his side as he will be coming up to his 36th birthday in the new year. Stam will surely be looking to replace the Bosnian very soon with another player of similar ability.
In possession, Cincinnati look to make the pitch as big as possible. Their wingbacks push extremely high and wide in order to stretch the opposition’s defensive block. The two more advanced central midfielders tend to sit in the half-spaces. The half-spaces have been quite a common theme throughout this analysis. Stam is no stranger to the utilisation of these areas. Amaya and Stanko, in the previous two games, positioned themselves in the half-space whilst Cincinnati were in possession. This can be seen in the following image;
Both Amaya and Stanko tend to move beyond the opposition’s midfield line. In this footage, Amaya is moving into the half-space to act as a passing option for the central defender. By doing this, he is forcing one of the central midfielders to close him down in the space, which in turn leaves more space vacated by the marker for another player to drop into. It makes playing through the lines far easier for them.
Once again though, Stam’s issue is the quality in the side. Amaya is a very good young talent, however, Stanko is more of a midfield engine. He would not be a stereotypical player needed for a side who want to dominate possession, due to his lack of ability on the ball.
Lack of potency
Of the three goals scored under Jaap Stam’s reign so far, one was an excellent strike from Frankie Amaya outside the box, one was a simple capitalisation from a poor defensive clearance, and the other was an own goal from a corner. These goals would not exactly count as patterns of play or well-worked team goals.
Cincinnati have struggled in front of goal under Stam, boasting an xG of 0.56 goals per game. This is a very low outcome, despite winning two of his three games. They have also only had eight shots on target over the three matches. The reason they have struggled so much to create chances and score goals is because they have been forced to play very deep.
The lack of ball-playing ability in the squad means that Cincinnati must defend for long periods of the game and rely on hitting their opponents on the break. Hence why he starts Kubo alongside Regattin. Not only do they link up well together, but they are both quite fast, and are able to counter-attack rapidly. In Stam’s first game, Siem De Jong started. However, Cincinnati only boasted 40% of the ball possession during this game. They had to rely on the counter-attack and De Jong’s lack of pace, they struggled to do this.
This image above shows how Cincinnati like to counter-attack from their most recent game against the Red Bulls. They only tend to counter with four players. These four players are usually both wingbacks and their two centre-forwards. As their counter attacks begin so deep due to their low block, once they win the ball, they must stall for a second or two, allowing these four players to progress high up the field as quickly as possible. They do this by playing quick triangles once they regain possession. When their progressive players reach the middle-third, they will try and set them on the counter.
Another major problem for Stam is the lack of height in his squad up-front. Kubo and Regattin only won a combined total of two aerial duels from their previous two games. De Jong has the biggest aerial prowess for them, however, as previously stated, his lack of height means he is useless on the counter. When the backline is under pressure and pressed high whilst attempting to play out from the back, they play long passes so as to not take risks. However, this nearly always ends up in a turnover of possession for the opposition due to their lack of height. Perhaps in the future, Stam will look to deploy De Jong as a target man with either Kubo or Regattin next to him for a better mix up-front.
The improvement of FC Cincinnati has been very clear for the fans and pundits alike to see. His tactical identity is being stamped onto his side every game that passes, and these tactical factors can only improve. If he is to really integrate his style of play into this side, he will need backing in the transfer window, however.
His side is still in need of better ball-playing midfielders in the centre of the park, as well as ball-playing centre-halves who are comfortable under pressure and can play difficult passes instead of having to be forced long. Nonetheless, they have been very impressive under Stam so far, particularly with the formation switch, and Stam will be hoping to continue this good run of form right throughout the tournament, as well as into next season, in which they can only grow and learn under the Dutch head coach.