After over a decade managing Army, Russell Payne made his Northwestern coaching debut at SeatGeek Stadium against Chicago’s WAC Team, Chicago State. Unfortunately, individual errors cost the ‘Cats the game, as the Cougars left Bridgeview with a 2-1 victory and spoiled a potential dream debut for Payne as Northwestern’s manager.
The ‘Cats got off to a relatively slow start, and within six minutes, a cross flighted in from the right wing by Chicago State’s Emmanuel Apau wasn’t dealt with properly by the NU center backs and fell right at the feet of Enrique Zamora, who finished it off past graduate goalkeeper Miha Miskovic.
Although they were trailing almost immediately after the opening kickoff, the deficit didn’t seem to deflate the ‘Cats’ spirits. They steadily grew into the game, and eventually midfielder Rom Brown headed home the equalizer off of an excellent cross by Vicente Castro from a corner kick, bringing Northwestern level just after the 30 minute mark. That scoreline would hold until halftime.
While the two sides were pretty equal throughout the first half, there’s no doubt the ‘Cats dominated the second. They controlled possession, pinned Chicago State in their own half, and created the lion’s share of scoring opportunities. Despite the stellar performance, however, the ‘Cats couldn’t capitalize on any of their chances. Even worse, off of a rare second half foray into NU’s final third, Chicago State was awarded a penalty in the 88th minute, which Cal Wayne-Allen promptly placed just beyond the outstretched hands of Ethan Bandre. That goal, deserved or not, put the Cougars up 2-1, and they would hold that advantage until the final whistle.
As disappointing as the result may have been for the team, it is still only Payne’s first competitive match in charge, and ultimately, it will be a process to turn around a squad that finished last in the Big Ten last season. In line with this, there are a few things to watch and look for as Payne molds and develops the ‘Cats to his liking.
For one, tt seems that Payne wants his team to be much more aggressive out of possession than they have been, as the ‘Cats held a higher defensive line and looked to press the opposition very far up the pitch. At its best, this system can allow a team to turn the ball over high up the pitch and create scoring chances in transition, much like Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. At its worst, the opposition can play through the pressure, giving them a chance to run at your defense and create their own scoring chances, or they can also attack the high defensive line with long balls in behind, which can put pacey forwards in a footrace against centerbacks who aren’t as used to covering the amount of space behind them.
When the ‘Cats are in possession, it looks like Payne is encouraging his players to be more direct with getting the ball up the field and to always have forwards making runs in behind the defense. Against the Cougars, this meant Northwestern was caught offsides 10 times, as many of the attackers struggled to time their runs against the opposition’s defensive line. It is likely that they will continue to rack up a high number of offsides each game, but hopefully they can also create a chance or two off of this tactic and not be as wasteful when they do get the opportunity to exploit the defense.
Finally, Payne will have to work on improving the fitness and endurance of his squad. With such an intense style both in and out of possession along with games every three or four days, he is asking a lot of his players physically. As already showcased against Chicago State, there will be a lot of substitutions and squad rotations to handle the demands placed on each player, but if he doesn’t manage his squad correctly, it could lead to major fatigue, both physically and mentally, at the end of games and burnout at the end of the season.
Northwestern hopes to rebound when they face UIC tonight and their season will continue against Loyola Chicago on September 3.