Reigning MLS Cup champions Seattle Sounders kicked off group B of the MLS is Back tournament, where they faced the San Jose Earthquakes, in Orlando. The game was sluggish due to the fact that both sides had not played a competitive match since early March. The result finished at 0-0. However, there were a total of 28 shots, with exactly half of those hitting the target. The quality on display from both sides was quite poor throughout the game. Both managers will be hoping that this is mainly just down to a lack of match sharpness and fitness.
Tactically, the match played out like a game of chess. Both teams were not willing to overexert themselves out of fear of being exposed. They struggled to break each other down and, in the end, the game ended in a stalemate. Both head coaches may not have been too displeased. A goalless draw in their first game for three months is not the worst result and will set their teams up in good stead for the rest of the remaining matches.
This article will be a tactical analysis of the draw. We will be analysing, in-depth, the strengths and weaknesses of both sides in their tactics, throughout the game, as well as taking a look at where each team could have improved in their set-up.
Brian Schmetzer kept the same formation with his Seattle Sounders side, with the 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1. The backline and goalkeepers all kept their starting spots from the first two games of the season. However, the only difference was the left-back. Nouhou Tola replaced Joevin Jones in this position, despite Jones starting the first two games, in March. Gustav Svensson maintained his starting position, accompanied by the versatile Jordy Delem. Roldan was moved to the right-wing to make way for the return of Nicolos Lodeiro behind the usual starting centre-forward, Raul Ruidiaz.
For Matias Almeyda’s San Jose team, the goalkeeper, backline, midfield, and forward-line stay the exact same from the opening two competitive matches of 2020, against Toronto and Minnesota. The only difference for the Earthquakes is a shift from their usual 4-3-3 shape, to a more conventional 4-2-3-1.
Seattle Sounders’ defensive structure:
Defensively Seattle Sounders set up in a 4-4-2 zonal mid-to-low block, similar to Atletico Madrid under Diego Simeone. Usually, Schmetzer likes for his side to press high and get into the faces of the opposition. However, against San Jose, they pressed only when San Jose attempted to play out from the goalkeeper.
San Jose Earthquakes like to have the ball and dominate possession. As this was the first game back, Schmetzer had to be strategic with how he wanted his side to press. Seattle were more than happy to allow San Jose to have possession of the ball, especially in the first phase of play. There was very little pressure applied to the central defenders. Seattle allowed them to have the ball in these areas as well as in the wide areas but had to make sure that the central corridors were compact, which is the blueprint to the zonal defensive block.
This footage above shows Seattle Sounders’ zonal block in effect. No pressure is being applied to the central defenders, allowing them to circulate the ball in these areas. The front two are close together and are positioned to mark the midfield pivot. When the pivot receives the ball, they will close him down instantly. The midfield and defence sit in a compact, two banks of four, closing the space in the centre of the pitch. This made Seattle extremely hard to break down, which resulted in a clean sheet for them.
The aim of the zonal block was to limit the space inside the central areas, as well as the half-spaces. This led them to give up possession, however, it was in harmless areas. As soon as San Jose found a gap in their defensive block, and played a pass into it, the Sounders players would quickly swarm the player on the ball, and by doing this, they were hoping to either win the ball back by pressing with numerical superiority, or else forcing the player to play the ball back outside the block.
The congestion in the central areas, due to this, led the San Jose Earthquakes to have 75 percent of their attacks on the flanks. Seattle felt they would be able to deal with crosses into the box and so allowed space on the flanks for the Earthquakes to play into. The Sounders backline dealt with 75 percent of their aerial duels. This shows that their plan to allow San Jose to play in the wide areas worked.
Seattle Sounders’ build-up play:
Sounders’ head coach, Brian Schmetzer likes his side to play out from the back. Gustav Svensson is deployed as the single midfield pivot for Seattle. He drops to either one of the sides of the central defenders, or else in between them. This is to attract his marker to press him when he receives the ball, which leaves space in the central area for another player to drop into and receive the ball.
Both fullbacks, Leerdam and Tolo, push high up the field. They are both quick and excellent at making overlapping runs on their flanks. Both players had a combined total of 1 key pass, 2 deep completions, as well as a 33 percent cross success rate.
The wingers for this game, Morris and Roldan, played as inside forwards. When Seattle had the ball, they pushed into the half-spaces between the San Jose fullbacks and central defenders. This is due to their excellent ability to cut inside on the ball and create a chance or play off the centre-forward Raul Ruidiaz. However, they also come into the half-spaces to bring the opposition fullback more central, which in turn leaves space in the wide areas for the fullback to overlap.
In the image above, we can see the average positioning for both sides. The front four are all positioned very close together, which shows that in possession, Schmetzer likes his attacking players to be able to link up together and create combinations to break down the opponent’s defensive line. This is what they tried to achieve, but to no success, against San Jose.
Schmetzer was very intelligent in his game-plan for this game, particularly in their build-up play. San Jose like to deploy a tight man-marking system when out of possession. To combat this, during the build-up phase for Seattle, their midfield line pushed very high up the pitch. This was because they knew the midfield markers for the Earthquakes would follow them up the pitch, which created massive gaps in the midfield for Seattle to play into once a player quickly left his man and dropped into the space to receive the pass.
In the footage above, we can see that nobody was marking the central centre-back. Once the midfielder made his move and brought his marker up the field, there would be a vast amount of space for the ball-carrier to, either run into to progress his side further up the field, or else to pick a pass from a player that dropped into the space. More than one-third of Seattle’s passes were forward passes. Roughly one-sixth were progressive passes, which proves that their build-up tactic worked.
Matias Almeyda: A student of the great Marcelo Bielsa:
San Jose Earthquake’s head coach, Matias Almeyda made 40 appearances for the Argentinian national team. During this time, he was managed by one of the most influential managers of all time, Marcelo Bielsa. Bielsa had a clear impact on Almeyda, which can be seen in the San Jose Earthquakes’ playing style.
Against Seattle, they dominated possession, by 59% to 41%, which is very much a ‘Bielsista’ trait. This was mainly due to the fact that Seattle allowed San Jose to have the ball in non-dangerous areas. San Jose set-up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which had plenty of width and attacking fluidity. They were quite patient on the ball in this game. This was because Seattle made it very difficult to play through their lines. However, San Jose were also very cautious in possession, attempting only 79 progressive passes from their 558 passes in total.
They used a lot of wing-combination play throughout this game, in order to break down the Seattle Sounders defensive line.
From the footage above, we can see how the San Jose Earthquakes set up in possession. The winger has moved across into the half-space, which leaves room for the ball-carrying fullback, Lima to run into. The ball-near defensive midfielder, at the bottom of the picture, has moved across to help with the numerical superiority, and the attacking midfielder, Eriksson is also shifting across to create this superiority. If the Sounders fullback or winger closes the fullback down, the winger Qazaishvilli will make an overlapping run into the vacated space. San Jose broke Seattle’s defensive line on numerous occasions. However, they failed to be efficient with their great combinations.
Defensively, as I stated before, Almeyda deploys a man-marking system with his players. This is very much from the Bielsa school of coaching. They believe more in winning individual man-marking battles all over the pitch, rather than in a rigid defensive structural set-up.
This footage shows Almeyda’s man-marking system at work. Particularly in the opponent’s first two phases of attack, there is not so much emphasis on defensive structure. The tactical focus is primarily on marking your man and winning each battle throughout the pitch. This worked to a certain extent as the Earthquakes finished the game with 63 ball recoveries. However, they only won 48 percent of their defensive duels.
Another problem they faced was their lack of match fitness cost them in their offensive transitions. San Jose are a team that like to press the opponent high and transition rapidly, much like Leeds under Bielsa. However, the problem for them was their fitness. Gradually as the game went on, the humidity took its toll, and by the second half, San Jose opted for rest defence rather than a rapid offensive transition. Rest defence is when a team wins the ball back but instead of transitioning, they opt to play the ball short and retain possession, to give their players breathing time. By the end of the match, they had only completed 57 passes to the final third, out of 558 attempted passes in total. The Earthquakes also only completed 10 passes to the Seattle penalty area.
Tactically, from the analysis, this match was like a game of chess. Both teams struggled to break each other down. However, defence triumphed over attack, and both managers must take a great deal of credit for how their team’s set-up defensively. It made it really difficult to break through each other’s defensive lines, which resulted in a goalless draw. Neither manager will be too upset as there were a lot of positives from both performances. Fitness levels will also improve drastically the more training sessions and matches each player partakes in, which will lead to far more energetic football in the coming weeks. In what was a very difficult match, and very difficult conditions, both sets of players and management will just be happy to leave with a point, rather than a loss.