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Men’s soccer: Injuries taking their toll, but improvement is somewhat noticeable

Also, Jason Gajadhar is assuredly him.

Twitter @NUMensSoccer

Coach Russell Payne is making my life easier and more difficult at the same time.

I was joking about this with Alex Cervantes, who covers the team for the Daily, in the stands of the Maryland game, and I’ll do it again here.

While the newfound consistency in tactics and shape is a welcomed shift and will benefit the players in the long term, it provides a new challenge to me for what I write about in these updates.

At the start of the season, NU was switching it up every match, meaning I had an abundance of things to discuss for each game. However, comprehending the changes takes some effort and time, so it would take longer for me to pick up on what was happening on the pitch.

Now, things have flipped. On one hand, I’ve gotten to a point where I know exactly how the on-paper lineup looks in practice and when a substitute is limbering up on the touchline, I know who he’ll replace, but that comes at the cost of me not having any new insight to disseminate to you, the reader.

So, unless Payne makes some interesting changes, as you’ll see in the Maryland game, the game recaps will be brief and focus more on general commentary, and I hope you’ll understand that’s for a good reason.

Northwestern 1 (1.54 xG), Maryland 1 (1.14 xG)

Sunday, Oct. 9, (Evanston, Ill.)

After a week off following their 2-2 draw against No. 20 Penn State, the ‘Cats faced another ranked, Big Ten opponent at Martin Stadium in No. 8 Maryland (7-1-2).

While facing a top 10 team is a difficult enough task on its own, the injury absences of Justin Weiss and Vicente Castro, Northwestern’s arguably two most important attackers, made it an even bigger challenge. True freshmen Chris Thaggard and Jason Gajadhar slotted into the lineup in place of their more experienced counterparts, and to their credit, the team didn’t miss a beat.

Additionally, another true freshman, Jayvin van Deventer, who has gotten playing time in all three midfield roles, got an opportunity on the right of NU’s attacking trio. In theory, it was an unfamiliar position for him, but in practice, he took on most of his normal responsibilities when the ‘Cats had the ball.

Payne rolled the dice tactically and personnel-wise against his alma mater, betting on the raw talent he recruited in the offseason, and guess what? It worked.

Northwestern deployed a similar setup to what it has been using the past few matches, featuring a 2-4-4 in the first phase of buildup morphing into a 2-3-5 in the attacking half, but with some slight tweaks. Maryland pressed aggressively in a 4-2-3-1, and not wanting to take any chances, Christian Garner went long from most goal kicks.

There are a few key dynamics to point out with this structure. The first is how Brandon Clagette and Collin McCamy affect each other with their positioning. Typically, Clagette would advance down and occupy the wide right channel, but if he stayed deeper, McCamy would then push forward from his midfield spot to join the front line.

In turn, this also has an impact on Van Deventer, who, as has already been discussed, isn’t a traditional winger and will want to play in more central areas. A bombarding run down the wing from Clagette instructs him to come inside to the right half space, whereas McCamy going forward tells him to stay wide.

Lastly, there was a good amount of fluidity between the three freshmen in the attack. Thaggard would often interchange with Gajadhar, and also drift out to the right on occasion, in which case Van Deventer would need to come even further infield to ensure all five channels were occupied.

The other important change Payne made to Northwestern’s strategy with the ball was its width.

As depicted in the above diagram, the Wildcats would shift dramatically to the ball side and stay very narrow and compact as a unit. This is a concept known as “minimum width,” and it serves two purposes. First, it forces the opposition to play narrow as well, or else the team in possession will have the numbers and space centrally to slice through the heart of the defense. This narrowness from both sides opens up a lot of room on the opposite wing, and in theory, if Northwestern quickly moves the ball back to the left side and Jason Cyrus overlaps into the space, there’s opportunity to generate chances.

Secondly, by having everyone on both teams in such close proximity to one another, it makes counter-pressing and winning the ball back after it’s lost much easier. In turn, that eases the pressure of transition defending and also can create chances for the team that was originally in possession.

While the coaching staff did a great job of switching things up, it didn’t really matter due to how open the game was in general. Neither side had controlled spells of possession in the other team’s half, but it’s not like they were striving for control either.

Maryland’s tactics in possession are a good example of that. They generally built out in an asymmetric 2-2-6, while Northwestern continued with the 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 it has been using.

By having their right back push way up, the Terrapins aimed to take advantage of the 2v1 against Cyrus. This would come in the form of a diagonal from either one of the center backs or the holding midfielder, and from there they could create a mini-transition with the 6v6 at that end of the pitch.

This shape does have its benefits and drawbacks, and the ‘Cats, for the most part, did a good job of maximizing the drawbacks. Since the marauding right-back is more or less Bardia Kimiavi’s responsibility, he’s faced with a dilemma of staying forward and leading the press, or dropping back to eliminate the overload. He chose the former, which was a risk, but it worked as Maryland didn’t take advantage of the inherent patterns of play its structure created, and there is plenty of space to attack when the ball gets turned over.

Usually, I do my best to separate the phases of play in my explanations based on who has the ball, but with the state of this match, they really can’t be broken up. Here’s why:

For example, take a situation like the diagram above. The Terrapin defensive midfielder has the ball and is looking to, you guessed it, leverage the overload down the right. Where Northwestern really excelled was winning the ball back in these passages of play, and then getting it forward to Gajadhar, who was fantastic this match.

If, and when, the ‘Cats could do that, they had a 4v4 going the other way, and a similar situation led to their goal. Near the 60th minute, Gajadhar won the ball in the midfield, carried it 30 yards, played a ball out to Kimiavi in space on the right, and his cross created chaos in the Terrapin box, allowing Thaggard to tap into an empty net for his first goal in purple.

Unfortunately, Maryland responded 10 minutes later, as Northwestern also failed to deal with a cross and conceded an avoidable goal. A disappointing finish, yes, but given the circumstances, it was an admirable performance from the players and coaches. Plus, when a team starting six underclassmen can hang with one of the best outfits in the country, it’s hard not to be excited for what the future holds, both in the short-term and long-term.

Northern Illinois 1 (2.85 xG), Northwestern 3 (2.29 xG)

Wednesday, Oct. 12, (DeKalb, Ill.)

For the first time this season, your Northwestern Wildcats have benefitted from short-term expected goals variance. It’s been a long time coming.

With this non-conference clash taking place during the week between two matchups against Top 15 opponents, Payne decided to shuffle his lineup a little more than usual. Garner got the night off, with freshman Paul Walters filling in between the sticks, and Eric Smits earned a rare start in the hole.

Ironically, on the night the ‘Cats took a more cautious approach with their personnel, two players, van Deventer and Ibraheim Obeid, left the game with apparent injuries in the first half and did not return. Castro and Weiss still remained unavailable, and this resulted in, unlike the prior match, the team looking like it was missing some of its important players.

Tactically, Northwestern stuck with the 4-2-3-1, and against a team like Northern Illinois (4-4-4), which wants to sit back in a 5-4-1 block, it was able to more or less control the game. The increased control was offset by less cutting edge in attack and worse defending in transition, and against a stronger opponent, the final result may not have been as kind to Payne and co.

The Huskies opened the scoring early in the second half, but a great effort from a dead ball situation by the skipper, Ethan Dudley, minutes later leveled the game. Shortly after, Kimiavi put the ‘Cats in front with his first goal of the campaign, and Gajadhar put the match out of reach just past the 80-minute mark.

All things considered, Northwestern couldn’t have hoped for much more from this match result-wise, but having more players pick up injuries as it enters the last couple of weeks of the regular season isn’t ideal.

Ohio State 2 (4.13 xG), Northwestern 1 (1.84 xG)

Wednesday, Oct. 16, (Columbus, Ohio)

Fortunately, van Deventer started this match after his injury scare against NIU. Unfortunately, Obeid didn’t feature at all, and with Northwestern already thin at full-back, it would be down to Cyrus to pick up the slack.

As you can probably guess, the ‘Cats deployed the same exact system against No. 15 Ohio State (7-1-4). The Buckeyes controlled the game with their 2-3-5 shape in possession but were never able to generate any sustained pressure on the NU defense.

It took some suspect defending early in the second half to allow a Buckeye to get through on goal, but Dudley pulled him down in the box to concede a penalty. Garner was able to stop the spot kick, but he parried it right to another Ohio State player who fired the ball into an empty net.

In general, Northwestern struggled to really get anything going in possession, but one of its best periods of the game came after the opening goal. For most of the match, the ‘Cats fed on scraps, looking to take advantage of any miscues in the Buckeye midfield and counter with speed, and while the mentality after conceding was slightly different, the events that led to their equalizer were quintessentially 2022 Northwestern men’s soccer.

Near the 70th minute, Nigel Prince hoofed a long ball — one of many this match — into the channel between Ohio State’s left back and left center back. It wasn’t properly dealt with, and eventually, Gajadhar found himself in position to claim the second ball. As a Buckeye header came down to him just outside of the box in the right half-space, he juggled it up to himself with his knee and then smashed it into the far corner of the net on the full volley with his wand of a right foot.

Why was this goal so characteristic of the team this season? If we go down the checklist of defining patterns NU has in possession, it ticks every box. Hopeful long balls from back to front because it doesn’t have a grasp of what to do in settled possession against teams that press? Check. The ball went to the right because this current system has a massive right-sided bias? Check. Needing a moment of brilliance from an individual, Gajadhar in this instance, for it to turn into anything? Check.

I don’t want to take anything away from No. 28 in purple because it was a fantastic goal, but it is becoming extremely apparent how the ‘Cats rely on any combination of these three things to put the ball in the net: transitions, solo efforts and the right side of the pitch. Against better teams, it’s typically all three, and ideally, in a couple of seasons, they won’t need any of these things to score.

Before moving on to how this match finished, let me explain why Northwestern has such a dependency on the right side of the field. In this current system, as you probably already know, Clagette typically overlaps down the right while the left back stays deeper. There are two reasons for this. First, Clagette provides dynamism in attack, and second, there’s a glaring lack of natural left-backs in the team. Senior Jack Ratterman is the closest to that profile, but he barely sees the field, so with two right-footed players — Obeid and Cyrus — playing there, overlapping isn’t a natural movement or and the passing angles aren’t favorable to their footedness.

So, they instead stay deeper, and Clagette becomes the main outlet, forcing the team to focus play down his side. That’s a tendency that really needs to be curbed in the future, because balance leads to unpredictability, and it makes progressing the ball, and in turn, scoring goals, much easier.

Anyways, back to the match, remember when I said Ratterman barely plays? Well, to give Cyrus a breather, he was on after the equalizer, and conceded, what can only be described as an unfortunate penalty. In the 80th minute, an Ohio State player kicked the ball at his outstretched arm inside the box and the referee awarded the Buckeyes their second penalty of the match. This time, it was scored on the first attempt.

They would hold on, picking up their eighth win of the year, while the ‘Cats remain at the bottom of the Big Ten table, with a lot of work to do in their final two conference matches to reach the Big Ten tournament.

Upcoming Schedule

Wednesday, Oct. 19 at 7 P.M. CST vs. Milwaukee (BIG+)

Sunday, Oct. 23 at 3 P.M. CST vs. Wisconsin

Sunday, Oct. 30 at 2 P.M. CST @ Michigan State