No doubt about it, this is a team in transition.
Unfortunately, progress is not linear, and it’s not always upward trending either — as shown by NU’s results in the first month of the season.
Fortunately, this was to be expected and it’s a natural part of any rebuild. Although it’s Russell Payne’s second season at the helm, it’s really his first in the sense that he can now start making meaningful alterations to the long-term trajectory of this program.
Most importantly, this is in regard to the players he fills his squad with and the system he has them playing in. When you have a transitioning team, it’s paramount that the future is not sacrificed for immediate results.
As I’ll get into in this article, the pragmatic back five needs to be abandoned. If the long-term aim is to be playing a variation of a 4-3-3, the talent that has been brought to Evanston needs to have experience playing in that system. If the tactics have almost no impact on the outcomes of matches right now, start playing the way you want to play in the future. Let the players get a feel for what is expected and needed from them in order to win, and allow them to make mistakes so they can learn and grow from them.
Villanova 4, Northwestern 0
Monday, Sep. 5 (Villanova, Pa.)
I’m somewhat thankful the production quality of this match’s broadcast was so horrible (thanks, Big East) because if I had the opportunity to look any more closely at the result, it might not have been so pretty. This also means Wyscout doesn’t have expected goal numbers for this game, which might also be a blessing in disguise.
This match was complete and utter domination from Villanova (now 2-2-2), and NU didn’t really give itself any chance of success with the tactics. Here’s why:
This was a typical look from a Northwestern goal kick for the majority of the match. NU attempted to build up in a 3-3-4 while Villanova pressed in a 4-2-3-1, as shown in the diagram below.
Christian Garner’s first pass would always go to Ethan Dudley, which triggered the Villanova press. The opposing striker would close him down and force the pass to Andrew Stevens, who, with Villanova closing down space and converging on Northwestern’s left side, only has one way of getting the team out of this situation — a lobbed pass across the face of the goal to Nigel Prince, now in acres of space.
While Stevens was able to pull this pass off once, most of the time he wouldn’t have the time to find his fellow center back. Instead, he’d either play a pass to Collin McCamy, who would get closed down immediately, or he’d go long, with either Justin Weiss or Bardia Kimiavi ending up trying to win aerial duels against defenders much bigger than them, which rarely worked.
So, Northwestern just continuously invited pressure on itself, letting Villanova pin it in its defensive third, and the Big East team took advantage. Multiple times.
Shortly after the fourth goal midway through the second half, Payne did make some positive changes, reverting to a 4-3-3, but it was far too little too late, and Labor Day ended up being much more laborious for his side than he would’ve hoped.
Northwestern 0 (0.43 xG), Western Michigan 3 (2.53 xG)
Friday, Sep. 9 (Evanston, Ill.)
Despite the 4-0 dismantling a few days prior, Payne elected to roll out the back five once again versus Western Michigan (now 5-1-0).
There were no major tactical tweaks from the Villanova match, so, as you might expect, with the Broncos deploying a very similar defensive and pressing structure, the ‘Cats struggled mightily to get into the match. After winning the ball back, the MAC side maintained a high tempo, quickly working the ball up the pitch and into dangerous areas.
On brand with its style of play, Western Michigan didn’t take long to make its superiority count, scoring three times in the first 36 minutes, and based on the stats and the structures of the two sides, you can’t say it wasn’t deserved.
Payne was quicker this match with his adjustments, moving the team to a 4-4-2 in the second period, but the Broncos stayed disciplined. Although Northwestern looked more potent following the change in structure, it was much more open at the back, leaving WMU plenty of space to attack in transition. In a tied or one-goal game, maybe you take that tradeoff, but it was nowhere near enough for the ‘Cats to claw back from a three-goal deficit.
To cut Northwestern some slack, this was the Broncos’ third win against Big Ten opposition in as many attempts this season, but adjustments came too-little-too-late for the ‘Cats to have a realistic chance yet again.
Northwestern 2 (3.15 xG), Houston Baptist 1 (0.9 xG)
Monday, Sep. 12, (Evanston, Ill.)
After a couple of very tough defeats, especially where the defense was so easily breached despite the defensive setup, Payne decided to go in the complete opposite direction. Against the Huskies (now 2-3-2), the ‘Cats came out with a much better structure.
With the ball, Northwestern initially built out in a 2-4-1-3, which Houston Baptist was able to negate pretty easily with a 4-1-4-1, but there are still a couple of things to point out before covering NU’s tweaks later in the match.
First, this was Clagette’s first start as a right back in a back four. While he is no slouch defensively, he’s on the team for what he can do with the ball, and putting such an attacking player at fullback was a signal of intent from the manager.
Second, there’s much more creativity in the center of the pitch. Jason Gajadhar, one of the ‘Cats’ big gets in the most recent recruiting cycle, made his first start, while Vicente Castro started as a lone striker, playing in a role that allows him to drop into midfield and get on the ball.
Following some initial struggles to gain control of the match, Northwestern switched to a 2-3-5, which retained a lot of the aims of the initial shape, but provided better conditions to get the ball into the attacking third. Castro and Gajadhar have a lot of freedom to move around, and Jayvin Van Deventer is able to cover the space Clagette vacates by overlapping down the right. Interestingly, the Huskies responded by defending in a 4-4-2, which made it very easy for the ‘Cats to play through the press, as there’s a 4v2 with the goalkeeper, two center backs and a defensive midfielder against the two opposing strikers.
It also helped that Northwestern was able to score off of a corner within the first 10 minutes — Stevens got his first goal in purple — as Houston Baptist had to be more aggressive in order to get an equalizer, leaving itself more vulnerable at the back. The ‘Cats weren’t able to capitalize in the first half, but just after the break, when a great Castro through ball was played into Clagette, who reached the byline and fired a low cross into the path of Gajadhar, and the freshman found the back of the net.
There were some nervy moments in the last 20 minutes after a great individual effort from a Husky cut the deficit in half, but overall, the Wildcats put out a very commanding and convincing display.
Rutgers 4 (3.18 xG), Northwestern 2 (1.78 xG)
Saturday, Sep 17, (Piscataway, N.J.)
From a neutral’s perspective, with the number of goals and attacking intent from both sides, this was an enthralling match.
From the perspective of a Northwestern fan, this was an encouraging, but also sobering affair.
The ‘Cats and Scarlet Knights (now 4-1-2) lined up as mirror images of each other, and any time that happens in this sport the game comes down to which team is more talented. At this moment in time, Rutgers is just faster, stronger, better technically and more experienced. So, while both sides pressed and defended the opposition’s 2-3-5 with a 4-2-3-1, the Scarlet Knights had control of the match.
They were fast and technically secure enough to make the Wildcats’ press a non-factor and were also able to pose problems with their ability to cover space and win duels when Northwestern was building up. Based on this description, it would seem like Payne and co. got steamrolled, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Even with a talent disadvantage, the ‘Cats were able to win the ball high up the pitch sometimes and also string together a cohesive attack with almost all 11 players touching the ball in a sequence. Why? Because the structure is so good.
Yes, there is still a lot for Northwestern to work on when it comes to this shape, but that’s the point. Every player on the team needs to know how they fit into that system, and that’s not something that will be learned overnight. And, who knows, maybe the ‘Cats pick up a couple of wins while going through this process, but we will never know unless that process is committed to.
So, the reason I said this was an encouraging and sobering game was because even when Rutgers had gone up 4-1 in the second half, the commitment to this style of play didn’t falter, and the ‘Cats were rewarded with a consolation goal late. There’s a long way to go, but the road to get there is clear, provided there are no more unnecessary detours or stops.
Friday, Sep. 23 at 7:00 P.M. CST vs. Michigan (B1G+)
Tuesday, Sep. 27 at 6:00 P.M. CST @ Indiana
Sunday, Oct. 2 at 3:00 P.M. CST vs. Penn State