Seattle Sounders – Vancouver Whitecaps: Leerdam Saves The Day In Close MLS Encounter (1-0)
Eight minutes of stoppage time came to the Seattle Sounders’ rescue, as Kelvin Leerdam seized the opportunity to get his side back to winning ways after a four game winless streak in the MLS. The decisive strike came as the ultimate sigh of relief, in a game which remained uncertain until the very end despite the home side’s efforts.
Tactical analysis and match report by Kareem Bianchi.
The Seattle Sounders’ title hopes collided with international football’s demands for players, affecting recent performances and dragging coach Brian Schmetzer’s team downhill after a positive start to the season. Confined in a four game winless streak, the Sounders were steered away from the top places, yet not all was lost. Given the circumstances, any result other than a victory probably would have ensured that the remaining hopes of participating in a title would be postponed. A win on the other hand, whilst still keeping the Sounders eight points behind first place Los Angeles, handed them the opportunity to overtake other competitors, holding up to three games in hand, a consequence of the difficult puzzle that is called MLS fixturing.
Known as draw specialists, the Whitecaps were looking to continue their undefeated streak, strengthened over the span of six games by cynically collecting five draws. Thus, despite a harmless appearance at first sight (Vancouver sit in eighteenth place), they posed another hurdle Seattle would have to overcome.
Vancouver takes early initiative
The Vancouver Whitecaps started the game on the front foot, circulating the ball calmly to open gateways in order to play the ball forward. In the Whitecaps’ 4-3-1-2 shape, especially offensive midfielder Hwang In-Beom played an important part, as his movements to receive were functional for multiple reasons.
The aim of the buildup was to access players between the lines, mainly through diagonal balls from wide areas, while the positioning of the defensive line was intended to create the necessary conditions to stretch the opposition. The fullback on the side of the ball would position himself on the same line as the midfielders, with the defensive midfielder, Jon Erice, dropping between the two center-backs while the one on the side of the ball shifted wide. Presumably, the two reasons behind the pivot falling back into the first line were to escape the cover of the deeper striker in the Seattle Sounders’ 4-4-1-1 shape and attempting to stretch the opposition vertically.
This pattern could seem redundant since the visitors already had numerical superiority with the center-backs, yet it offered valuable defensive central cover which would have supported more aggressive shifting and defending in the case of the ball being lost. Moreover, it allowed the center-back far from the ball to stay wider in the halfspace. If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. The high positioning of the fullback stemmed from the need to push the defending winger deeper and open space for the center-back to carry the ball.
Through In-Beom’s dropping movements ahead of the double pivot, the visitors could provide the wide center-back with even more time and passing lanes upon receiving, by drawing pressure centrally from the rival midfielders and strikers before the South Korean man played a first time wall pass A one-touch pass that quickly sends the ball back to sender. In the meantime the sender has quickly moved into free space, and he momentarily escapes pressure. to the defender. If nobody picked him up due to stretched distances (as a result of the two central midfielders pushing up) he could also act as a free man.
First In-Beom drops deep, and subsequently exploits Leyva’s blindside to receive a diagonal ball from Ali Adnan between the lines.
The supporting cast to achieve the strategy was not always optimal, which at times forced the defender to pass the ball outside instead of to the preferred solution inside. Even when they were able to access the center, there was a lack of options for developing the possession further and threatening the defense, allowing the opponents to fall back into their defensive shape. Struggles at playing the ball quickly in tight spaces also was a factor in the inefficiency in central areas.
Seattle’s possession game was more wing-oriented, and focused primarily on creating overloads When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. and passing connections through the natural staggering of the 4-2-3-1 shape. From this formation, natural triangles were created around the ball, which allowed the progression to develop through the connections out wide. If the opponents were able to shift in time and congest spaces, then the players committed to achieve it and the consequent shifting of the rest of the defensive structure, would expose the weak side.
For this reason, Brian Schmetzer’s team always kept two men out wide far from the ball (the winger and fullback), as well as the center-backs distant from each other to have passing options in the halfspace even when circulating the ball deep to the opposite side. It’s interesting to notice Joevin Jones’ role in creating wide overloads, as he roamed across the flank and the halfspace to provide passing solutions.
Lots of activity in the halfspaces from the Seattle Sounders
Aside from high pressure by the Whitecaps in man-oriented fashion in early stages and on specific triggers – such as back passes to the center-backs or goalkeeper – both sides defended in a ball-oriented medium block. A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. Man-marking occurred within these specific zones.
As the first half went on, each side had their own spells of possession, but neither were able to create clear openings or chances. The Whitecaps’ downfalls were addressed previously, whereas the Sounders generated good chances on the right flank, where Henry Wingo took on Ali Adnan successfully a couple of times in one-versus-one situations. He whipped in some good crosses; but other than that, Seattle struggled at creating consistent superiorities out wide and as such, added to the lack of options between the lines, the possession often stalled once it reached forward areas. Especially on the left, fullback Bradley Smith was frequently isolated against two defenders, which is never a good idea when attacking.
Seattle takes control
Seattle let their wingers change flanks in the second half. Coupled with that small tactical change came a more aggressive approach and a progressive increase of dominance throughout the second half. This slowly pushed the Whitecaps deeper after each attack, leaving them pinned back on their own half. Since the crosses could still be provided by the fullbacks, two wingers on the side of their strong foot were a bit redundant, making it a questionable tactical choice by manager Schmetzer.
Seeing his side’s difficulties in countering and retaining possession, Marc Dos Santos decided to bring on striker Lucas Venuto for midfielder Victor around the 70th mark, replaced positionally by Hwang In-Beom, who in turn saw Yordy Reyna take his previous spot at number ten. However, the substitution did not particularly alter the flow of the game, which remained in Seattle’s control with just a few chances on the counter left to the visitors. The three points were saved at the very end of the match by Dutch right back Kelvin Leerdam, who picked up a pass inside the box and calmly finished with the inside of his foot, as cool as a veteran striker would have been.
While the first half could be described as an even affair, with good spells from both sides throughout it, the second half saw the home team dominate from start to finish as Leerdam’s injury time goal deservedly handed the Seattle Sounders the long sought victory.
The Vancouver Whitecaps showcased some good plays, like the use of Hwang In-Beom as a free man, but ultimately failed to consistently create chances and interrupt their opponent’s long possession spells, succumbing when they probably expected to have reached yet another valuable draw.
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