The San Jose Earthquakes finished the 2018/19 Major League Soccer season in eighth place in the western conference. They ended the year without a playoff berth and a record of 13 wins, 12 losses, and 9 ties under newly appointed manager Matías Almeyda in his first year as boss. It was likely not the end result Almeyda would’ve wanted, but it was still an improvement from the year prior which had the Earthquakes finishing with 4 wins, 21 losses, and 9 ties which put them in 12th place in the Western Conference.
Perhaps the most influential difference between those two seasons was Almeyda and his philosophy. A former Argentinian national team player, Almeyda utilises a defensive man-marking system which paid dividends for the Earthquakes early in 2019. Their ability to press teams high up the pitch for the entire 90 minutes was key in their success. This tactical analysis will highlight the strengths and weaknesses of Almeyda’s defensive man-marking system with an in-depth examination of this tactical theory.
The most important tactics in Almeyda’s man-marking system are constant organization and awareness both areas in which San Jose excels at, most of the time. This typically comes down to the spine of the team and, in the Earthquakes case, heavily relies on its two holding midfielders and centre backs. Constant organization and communication are what allow the Earthquakes to maintain their shape and begin their pressing high up the pitch. It is also a direct result of utilising a 4-2-3-1, allowing them to press with more players higher up the field. San Jose pushes five, sometimes even six, players into their opponents half in an attempt to either win the ball or force long balls for centre backs and defenders to cut out.
One of the clearest aspects of Almeyda’s philosophy is seen in how regularly the Earthquakes look to get pressure on the ball immediately even in their opponents half.
This picture provides a great example of the effectiveness of this high pressure. Here San Jose has committed five players into the LAFC half. Their ability to cut off passing angles and stay tight to their man marks gives the LAFC centre-back only one option, which is to play a long pass forward in an attempt to not give the ball away in a dangerous position.
This longer pass allows San Jose to adjust while the ball is in the air and win back possession. This is clearly the outcome Almeyda is hoping for and a situation his team are well equipped to deal with as situations such as this are consistent when San Jose is defending.
In this picture, we see it again. High up the field, San Jose has committed numbers to press in an attempt to win back possession. In this particular sequence, the key was to get pressure on the ball immediately. The ability to do so give the LAFC player less time on the ball and therefore less time to make a decision. As a result, he sees his right-back being closed down and, with no other options, again decides for the longer dumped pass. Having an organised and prepared backline, San Jose was able to win the ball and begin their own possession again. This organisation is key especially when the Earthquakes are unable to press and as a result, must defend in their own half.
The ability to maintain their organisation really is a direct result of the Earthquakes two holding midfielders. Both Jackson Yueill and Aníbal Godoy defensively cover a significant portion of the field and are constantly organising their teammates.
In the picture above we see a great example of their ability to stay organised defending in their own half. This also provides a great visual of this man-marking system where we see each Earthquake player marked to their Portland Timber opponent. In this sequence, the tight defensive man-for-man marking tactics caused the Timbers significant problems going forward. Ultimately, it’s forcing them to play backwards to their goalkeeper as they are unable to breakdown the Earthquakes defence.
Still, the most interesting aspect of Almeyda’s system is the roles of his centre-backs. In this particular man-marking system, the Earthquakes centre-backs will regularly step high up into the midfield to stay with their mark. Even at times stepping past their holding midfielders which is unique to Almeyda’s style of play. Still, at times this contributes to their success as it doesn’t allow players to sit in the half-spaces between the San Jose midfield and defensive lines.
Here we see Florian Jungwirth the left-sided Earthquake centre-back stepping to apply pressure on the ball. In this sequence, his ability to apply the pressure forces the LAFC player to play backwards. Due to their man-marking system, attacking midfielder Andrés Rios of the Earthquakes is able to cut out the pass and regain possession of the ball. Overall the ability of San Jose to remain organised as a defensive unit and stay tight to players is what makes this system a success. However, even when they are able to do so, teams have discovered ways to break them down.
Disadvantages of man-marking
Man-marking innately includes several disadvantageous factors in football. The first is that regularly places a team in 1v1 defensive situations all over the field. Creating fewer opportunities to provide cover for teammates which can result in large gaps of space being created for attacking teams. Similarly, man-marking often results in players overcommitting defensively often in attempts to win the ball. This can create numerical disadvantages for the defending team. Therefore, when employing these tactics a team and coach must be aware and have plans in place to prevent those situations. Unfortunately for San Jose and Almeyda, these situations occurred regularly in 2019.
Within the idea of overcommitting comes the high stepping of the San Jose centre-backs who regularly look to cut out passes to players in half-spaces.
Here again, we see Florian Jungwirth stepping to Carlos Vela of LAFC a former EPL and Arsenal player. Unfortunately, stepping higher up the field to Vela creates a massive hole between the other Earthquakes centre-back and left-back.
This gap is too big to close for the Earthquakes left-back. As a result of the LAFC centre-forward is able to receive the ball and strike a first-time shot which ends up in the back of the net. Putting LAFC up just 5 minutes into the match. Still, the Earthquake centre-backs are not the only San Jose players who get caught overcommitting.
Perhaps the most common issue comes when opponents have possession and both San Jose centre-backs are marking a player in their defensive half. This situation requires both centre backs to make a quick and difficult decision.
In this example above, LAFC is in possession with minimal pressure on the player with the ball. Therefore, as the two San Jose centre-backs begin to get tight to their marks the are creating space in behind for attacking players to run into. To effectively defend this situation both the outside-backs of San Jose must step in line with the centre-backs otherwise they leave attacking players onside. In this particular sequence, the right-back for San Jose is lower than the rest of the backline keeping the LAFC attacking player onsides. The ball is then played over the top and creates a decent opportunity for LAFC. While it did not directly result in goal this opportunity is created from a lack of organisation and awareness from the San Jose backline. Showing that perhaps late in the season the players were unable to maintain the level Almeyda’s system required.
Likely, the most isolated players in this system are the outside backs. This is in large part due to the positioning of Earthquakes 4-2-3-1 formation. While it does allow wingers to press higher up the field it also leaves their outside backs 1v1 for the majority of the match.
In the above sequence, the San Jose right-back is attempting to get tight to his mark as he receives the ball. As he is late and aiming to be man-marking a quick tough from the LAFC midfielder puts him beyond the right-back.
Here we see once beyond the right-back San Jose is unable to provide any cover out wide and as a result, LAFC is able to attack down the left side of the field. This sequence ultimately results in another quality attacking chance coming from another Earthquake player overcommitting in their man-for-man pressure.
Another example which illustrates just how isolated players in this system can get defensively came again versus LAFC. While it is a transition here we see a covering centre-back for San Jose 1v1 with a massive gap between him and his partner. This is certainly an unfavourable position for the Eastrthqaukes which ultimately results in a goal for LAFC. Again placing a defender in 1v1 situation with minimal or no cover and proving difficult to manage.
Press breaks down
While these defensive situations all cause problems for San Jose their press breaking down often leads to dangerous chances for opponents. The reason is it often results in players leaving their own marked player to cover for someone who has been beaten on the dribble creating big holes on the field.
In this sequence, we see the centre forward trying to cut out a pass to the Timbers right centre-back. As a result of this Timbers holding midfielder on the ball is able to dribble past him into a massive area of space.
This gap allows the Timbers to begin their attack down the middle of the field with minimal pressure on the ball. Due to the man-marking system, several Earthquake players are forced to follow their marks who immediately recognize the hole and begin to sprint towards the San Jose goal. Ultimately, while a small detail the inability of the San Jose attacking players to press correctly created this massive gap an attacking opportunity for Portland. And because the rest of the group is marking individual players it causes significant problems for San Jose defensively.
Overall, this analysis shows how the Earthquakes man-marking system under Almeyda proved to be effective in 2019. It is worthwhile to note it was the first year for both the manager and system in San Jose. Therefore, some growing pains are to be expected. Still, towards the end of the campaign teams such as LAFC were able to find those dent in the San Jose armour. Ultimately, Almeyda will be looking to resolve some of the mentioned innate weaknesses of his man-marking system. His tactics will certainly be put to the test in the upcoming Major League Soccer is back tournament set to kick-off on July 25th!