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Men’s soccer: Consistency, conference play and comebacks

Mercifully, the goose egg in the Big Ten points column has disappeared.

Twitter @NUMensSoccer

After experimenting with a variety of systems, tactics and personnel groupings, men’s soccer coach Russell Payne has settled on something he likes.

That, of course, is referring to the structure of his team, not his Kilwins order.

Payne said after the Penn State match on Sunday that injuries early in the year affected the choices he could make, and that it’s hard to know what the preferred XI in October will be at the start of the season.

Regardless of surrounding circumstances, Payne said his priorities are playing to the strengths of the players at his disposal and setting up in a way that allows them to stick to the team’s “principles.”

With this perspective from the man pulling the strings in mind, let’s get into the tactics, which have been remarkably consistent, the ‘Cats deployed over the past two weeks in their three tests against Big Ten opposition.

Northwestern 1 (0.56 xG), Michigan 3 (1.97 xG)

Friday, Sept. 23, (Evanston, Ill.)

Following a 4-1 loss at Rutgers to start conference play, Northwestern must have been determined to even things out with a positive result at home against Michigan (now 3-5-3), because the ‘Cats played like it.

A big part of that was the pressing displayed, especially early on, by NU. The Wolverines built up in a 3-4-3/3-2-5, and Northwestern defended high up the pitch with a 4-2-3-1.

When Michigan didn’t go long from goal kicks, which it did a good amount of the time, its build-up structure looked something like the above image. Per Wyscout, Northwestern averaged just over six passes per defensive action (PPDA), a season-high, and in English means its pressing was both intense and effective. Why was that the case?

Let’s take a situation like this: the central center back in the Wolverine back three is on the ball and faces an aggressive Wildcat press, like what’s shown in the above diagram. Who, or where, can he pass to get Michigan moving up the field? If we exclude the options that either result in a hopeful long ball or are too technically demanding to expect consistent success from a player at this level, there’s really only two places he can go — to the CB on both sides of him.

Unfortunately for him, this is exactly what Vicente Castro, at the front of NU’s defensive shape, wants to happen. As soon as the Wolverines commit to a side of the pitch with the ball, the ‘Cats can shift over, starting with Castro, and close down space, putting themselves in prime position to win the ball back.

In this instance, the ball is played to the right of the back three, and barring perfect one-touch passes from him, the right wingback and the right winger, Northwestern is going to pounce on the first mistake and win possession back.

However, as can probably be deduced from the score, it wasn’t all dominance from Payne’s side. This was mostly due to three individual errors — own goal, a misdirected header that put a Wolverine in on goal and a handball in the box — that led to all three Michigan goals, with two coming within the span of 60 seconds, but the team from Ann Arbor deserves some credit for its press as well.

Northwestern tried to build up in an asymmetric 2-3-5, where one fullback, usually Ibraheim Obeid on the left, stayed deeper while the other pushes up. Originally, Michigan combatted this with a 4-1-3-2, but very quickly switched to a man-to-man 5-3-2/5-2-3 that made it almost impossible for the ‘Cats to play out. Whether Garner plays to Deng Deng Kur or Ethan Dudley here is irrelevant; the Wolverines have numbers in place to constrict the space on the ball-side and eventually win it back.

Because of the difficulties both sides encountered trying to build up attacks, the game became one that would be decided in transitional moments and set pieces. Michigan got the upper hand in that regard. Whether the maize and blue deserved to is another question, but they left Martin Stadium with a 3-1 victory.

Indiana 4 (3.01 xG), Northwestern 1 (0.4 xG)

Tuesday, Sept. 27, (Bloomington, Ind.)

The Hoosiers (now 4-2-3), looked very similar to Rutgers when the Wildcats went to New Jersey. I mean that in terms of tactics, not the color of their kits.

Unsurprisingly, that level of tactical fluency and experience was difficult to handle for Northwestern. While it hung in there during the first half, Indiana always had control of the match. Following a great goal from Justin Weiss to start the second half, the Hoosiers seemed to take their game up to another gear in response, and NU was shellshocked.

Weiss scored in the 48th minute, and by the 52nd minute, Indiana was up 3-1. For the second match in a row, one conceded goal snowballed into two or three in a flash, completely altering the game state and destroying the ‘Cats’ chances of getting a draw, let alone a win.

To add insult to injury, Vicente Castro, who had been putting in a good shift at center forward in this 4-2-3-1 system, was forced off with an injury minutes later, which caused him to miss the Penn State game as well. However, Payne said it wasn’t anything major; he had been dealing with a similar issue earlier in the season, so it seems that Castro’s absence, while unfortunate, will be short-lived.

Overall, this is the type of match that can only be avoided in the future with experience and confidence. If the players know where they need to go and trust that getting there will create desired outcomes, then the team will always have a chance.

Northwestern 2 (0.88 xG), Penn State 2 (1.42 xG)

Sunday, Oct. 2, (Evanston, Ill.)

Of the three matches, this was by far the best performance Northwestern displayed. Given the quality of the opponent, the argument could be made that this was the best game of the season. Additionally, the match felt like a bit of a glimpse into the future with what this team could look like, and how it plays, in a couple of years.

Despite the goals conceded and expected goals conceded tallies, Northwestern was very strong defensively. That starts, as usual, with how NU pressed. Penn State (now 4-3-3) attacked with a 2-3-5 — something the ‘Cats are starting to see a lot of — and NU responded with its now standard 4-2-3-1.

As I’ve discussed before, while there is a 5-v-4 — 6-v-4 if you include the goalkeeper — at the top end of the pitch, the 3-1 press against a 2-3 in buildup allows you to force the opponent to one side and then go man-to-man on that side. Usually, that results into a hopeful ball lofted forward, and it’s down to the center backs and midfielders to recover possession.

This doesn’t happen every time, and no one is ever going to win every second ball, so the Nittany Lions were able to progress the ball at times and then get secure possession in the attacking half. When this occurred, PSU was set up in an asymmetric 2-3-5 while Northwestern defended in a very rigid 4-4-2.

PSU’s general goal was to take advantage of the extra man in the front five against Northwestern’s back four, so the Wildcat wingers would be responsible for helping keep the Nittany Lions occupying the wide spaces in check. That then means someone has to cover the space they vacate, and that someone ends up being Jason Gajadhar, who has become one of the first names on the team sheet in recent games. Gajadhar’s job is to act as a “plus-1,” which means he needs to prevent overloads, situations where Penn State has a man advantage in an area of the pitch, by evening out the numbers.

This defensive structure is important for both keeping the ball out of Northwestern’s net, but also putting it in the opponent’s goal as well. In order to break down a well-drilled block, a team has to commit numbers forward, but the more players go further forward, the more space left behind for the opponent to attack in transition. The ‘Cats certainly took advantage.

After winning the ball back, Northwestern looked to progress it to either Gajadhar or Weiss as quickly as possible and then get running at the Nittany Lion defense. Throughout the match, the Wildcats were able to get numbers out in transition, funnel the ball forward down the wing and then take advantage with underlaps and cutbacks.

This is a situation that NU was able to generate in the first few minutes. Bardia Kimiavi, with plenty of support, is able to leverage the 2-v-1 he has with Collin McCamy against the Penn State right back by playing the ball in behind the defense. McCamy can get on the end of it by underlapping, or making an in-to-out run.

After he gets the ball under control, and with the PSU back line discombobulated, he can play a cutback cross which Paul Son gets on the end of and puts a shot on target.

Penn State ended up getting the opener midway through the first half, but shortly after, the ‘Cats created another transition, this time with Dudley spraying a great diagonal into Kimiavi’s path, this time down the right flank.

While it’s effectively just a 4-v-4 this time, there’s still a 2-v-1 on the wing that can be exploited. Kimiavi ends up playing Brandon Clagette’s underlap; he eventually cuts it back to Weiss who, after a couple of touches to create separation, floats a shot inside the corner where the crossbar and far post meet to equalize.

All good teams know how to attack and utilize space, but only great ones know how to create space with the ball. Northwestern’s ability to take advantage in transitional opportunities is fine in the short-term, but Payne’s team has struggled massively to create against a team that sits back and says, “Try to break us down.”

It was admirable the way the ‘Cats came back from one-goal deficits twice in the match, especially after the capitulations they suffered in the previous two times out, but if they really want to be consistently great, they’re going to have to learn how to generate chances through possession. The ideas on what to do with the ball at the end of attacks seem to be drilled into the players’ minds, but everything before that still has to be developed.

Upcoming Schedule

Sunday, Oct. 9 at 12:00 P.M. CST vs. Maryland (B1G+)

Wednesday, Oct. 12 at 7:00 P.M. CST @ Northern Illinois (NIU All-Access)

Sunday, Oct. 16 at 1:00 P.M. CST @ Ohio State (B1G+)