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Men’s soccer: A mixed bag to start the year

There’s some promising signs, but some not-so-promising ones as well.

Twitter @NUMensSoccer

Soccer is a simple sport, right? You have to put the ball in your opponent’s net while preventing them from putting the ball in yours, and whoever scores more wins — that’s all you need to know, right?

Well, no, not really.

Soccer is many things, but simple is not one of them.

This season, I’d like to apply this idea to my coverage of the men’s soccer team. My personal goal is to not just tell you, dear reader, what happened in each match, but what really happened through statistical and tactical insight.

Armed with the power of Wyscout and time to analyze every minute of Northwestern soccer, I will provide a nuanced, in-depth, but most importantly, accurate view on what happens every time Russell Payne’s team steps on the pitch.

With my philosophy out of the way, let’s dive into NU’s first three matches.

Northwestern 3 (2.26 xG), Chicago State 3 (0.51 xG)

Thursday, August 25, in Evanston, Ill.

On the topic of what soccer is, it certainly is not predictable.

Northwestern could not have had a more eventful season opener. A six-goal affair, at face value, is crazy, but this game truly had everything: Penalties, free kick brilliance, red cards, an hour and a half lightning delay, and that’s just the first half.

While the general narrative around this match is that the ‘Cats needed a last-minute goal to scrape a draw with a team that had been playing with 10 men since the 37th minute, the balance of play and stats point to an entirely different conclusion.

For the first half hour, the two teams were pretty much equals. Chicago State had a slight edge in possession and Passes per Defensive Action (PPDA), a metric that measures pressing intensity and effectiveness, but both teams had found the back of the net, and tactically, NU was starting to take control of the match. In other words, the red card was not as big of a break for the Wildcats as it may have seemed.

To explain this, we have to look at how both teams defended and attacked.

When Northwestern had the ball, they played out from the back, building up in a 2-3-5 while Chicago State pressed in a 4-2-4. Here’s a diagram using the ‘Cats starting lineup:

Before I get into how these shapes match up, there’s a couple of things to take note of. First, look at how the Wildcats’ front three is positioned. Paul Son and Brandon Clagette are high and wide, which, especially against a back four, puts the opposition’s defense into a bit of a pickle. Either the fullbacks get tight to the wingers, leaving exploitable gaps in the back line, or they hold their positions, giving the wingers plenty of space to receive the ball. Chicago State, like most teams, opts for the latter, because the wings are generally the least threatening areas to have the ball.

Second, notice where Rom Brown and Vicente Castro are, and how they’re being defended. They’re occupying the half-spaces, which, for those of you who are newer to the tactics of this sport, you can visualize them by drawing four imaginary lines the length of the pitch from the edges of the six-yard and 18-yard boxes. The areas outside of the half-spaces are the wide spaces, and the area between them is the central space.

This begs the question, what makes the half-spaces special? I’ll simplify the full technical answer by saying that being in the half-space provides you with a greater view of the field and, as a result, more passing angles than the other areas of the pitch, making it an advantageous zone to attack from.

Because of the potential threat Brown and Castro, playing as the “interiors” in this system, are creating through their positioning, Chicago State has its two midfielders marking them tightly to deny them from receiving the ball. While this form of defending, called man-marking, can put the opposition under tremendous pressure, it also has its drawbacks. Northwestern’s interiors can now leverage the Cougars’ defensive shape through their movement, as the Chicago State midfielders will follow them all over the pitch, and create openings for other players to attack.

Structurally, the ‘Cats have a massive advantage here. In the first phase of buildup, which in this diagram is all of the players in NU’s half, they have a 5v4 or a 6v4 if Christian Garner gets involved. While it’s always possible for an outnumbered defense to press successfully, in this specific case, that won’t happen.

The two Cougar strikers are responsible for putting Northwestern’s two center backs, Ethan Dudley and Deng Deng Kur, and defensive midfielder, Andrew Stevens, under pressure, which means the ‘Cats will always have a free man. Depending on the press, the free player can either play a pass to the fullback on his side, or go more direct and pick out Clagette or Justin Weiss making runs in behind the Chicago State back line. Bottom line, Northwestern was able to negate the Cougar press through its shape, and that’s a big step toward exerting control in a match.

The other part of controlling a match is what you do when the opposition has the ball. Chicago State also played out of the back, building up in a 2-4-4 while Northwestern pressed in a 4-1-4-1.

Just like they did with the ball, the ‘Cats had the advantage structurally without the ball. The diagram illustrates a scenario that was fairly common throughout the first 30 minutes. The Chicago State keeper really has just two options available to him here — he can either go short to one of his center backs or try to find one of the front four. If he went long, Northwestern typically regained possession, and if he went short, the end result was usually the same. Here’s why:

Let’s say he passes to the right center back. By curving his run, Weiss will press in a way that prevents him from playing it across to his partner, and forces him to pass to the right side of the pitch, where Northwestern has every possible option covered.

The best chance the Cougars have of retaining possession here is the pass to the right winger, but at this level, there’s not many center backs who can play a good enough ball under pressure, so more often than not, Northwestern got the ball back.

I can imagine you’re now wondering how Chicago State managed to score three goals, given they were structurally outclassed and had 11 men on the pitch for less than half the game. There’s two reasons for this that go hand in hand: sloppiness from Northwestern and clinical finishing from the Cougars.

In the 29th minute, the ‘Cats failed to deal with a set piece properly and the ball fell to a Chicago State player just outside the box who fired a left footed strike into the bottom right corner. Then, just a couple of minutes later, a needless foul given away just outside of the box led to a free kick which froze Garner and put the Cougars ahead 2-1.

The third goal was perhaps the most impressive, but the most frustrating from a tactical perspective. With the game tied 2-2 early in the second half, Northwestern got far too aggressive, especially given the amount of control it had over the match being a man up.

Chicago State had settled into a compact 4-4-1 deep block, trying to be as tough to break down as possible by limiting space around the box. The ‘Cats responded by having the fullbacks overlap when either Clagette or Paul Son got the ball, which, in theory, provides an overload and could cause problems, but in practice the execution was poor and it sacrificed defensive cover.

This is a diagram of where the ball was right before Chicago State’s third. The Cougar winger doesn’t follow Collin McCamy on the overlap, which initially is a good thing, but the ‘Cats give the ball away to the right back who quickly finds that winger with acres of space in front of him. He then goes three-quarters of the pitch and beats Garner at his far post.

The left-sided midfielder, Brown in the diagram, but Danh Tran in this specific moment in the game, needs to recognize the movement of the fullback and rotate to cover the vacated space. If he does that, the Chicago State winger likely doesn’t even get the ball and this doesn’t turn into a goal, but hindsight is 20/20, and this can only be improved going forward.

After switching to a back three later in the half to better attack the Cougars’ shape, the ‘Cats, and Tran himself, were eventually able to redeem themselves as the sophomore from Oregon scored an equalizer in the 85th minute. But, in a game where they were statistically and tactically dominant, a draw is a disappointing result.

Florida Gulf Coast 1, Northwestern 0

Sunday, August 28, in Fort Myers, Fla.

For the second time in two games, the ‘Cats had to deal with a weather delay, but this one came before the start of the match. When the ball finally got rolling an hour later than scheduled, they deployed a similar system to the one that was so dominant in their opener. True freshman Nigel Prince started over Kur after a shaky display against Chicago State and Tran was given the nod ahead of Brown.

Unfortunately for them, Florida Gulf Coast (0-0-1), was a much more difficult proposition, and Northwestern deserved this result much more than the draw to start the season

In possession, Northwestern used the same 2-3-5 shape, but FGCU pressed in a 4-1-3-2, a shape that the ‘Cats could’ve exploited, but just didn’t have the technical quality to do so.

In the diagram, you can see that the Eagles went man-to-man with the 2-3 in Northwestern’s first phase of buildup, eliminating the possibility of Garner going short. Instead, his options were to play directly to the interiors in space or all the way up to the front three and have them try to win aerial duels, but similarly to how the ‘Cats pressed Chicago State, FGCU took advantage of Garner’s inability to play a difficult ball consistently.

Florida Gulf Coast also placed a lot of trust in its defensive midfielder, because he had to cover a lot of space in the center of the park on his own, and if Garner was able to find Tran or Castro, it’s down to him to prevent them from creating something promising. This didn’t happen often, so he remained relatively untested.

Northwestern also attempted to press high up the pitch with the 4-1-4-1 again, but FGCU was also prepared for this and didn’t struggle whatsoever to play through the pressure and create openings for its attackers to take advantage using a 2-3-5.

In the Eagles’ buildup, the right back would push up into the attack, leaving the first phase in an asymmetric 2-3. This gives the right-sided center-back space to push into when he receives the ball, evading Weiss’ pressure and also gives him the ability to play back to the goalkeeper.

This movement and pass back to the keeper enables a passing pattern like the in the diagram above. The FGCU attacking midfielder drops into space, and Stevens can’t follow until he receives the ball without shirking other responsibilities. That gives the 10 the time to turn and pick the right pass, which he did a lot. A variation on this is if Clagette presses the left-sided center back, which would cause the goalkeeper to pass to the left back instead, and he can progress the ball as well, so it’s a lose-lose scenario for Northwestern.

After being dominated for the first 20 minutes, Russell Payne switched systems, opting for a back three, but the flow of the match didn’t change. The Eagles eventually found the breakthrough minutes later from a poorly dealt with corner and the match quickly got to a point where the ‘Cats either could press, leaving themselves open and vulnerable because they were structurally outmatched, or could sit back and leave FGCU in complete control.

While the result was obviously disappointing, Payne’s willingness to go back to a more pragmatic back three system, as opposed to being more tactically aggressive and innovative in the back four, was the worst part of this match. If he wasn’t comfortable trying to go man-to-man with a mid-major team when chasing a goal, what’s going to happen when the team gets to conference play?

Northwestern 0 (0.4 xG), Loyola Chicago 0 (1.5 xG)

Friday, September 2, in Evanston, Ill.

After seeing FGCU completely tear his back four system to pieces, Payne decided to stick with the back three against the second local opponent of the season — Loyola Chicago (2-0-0). This led to a much tighter match, which was a complete 180 from a week before. While the ‘Cats looked better than they did against FGCU, the Ramblers still generated greater quality and a higher quantity of chances than them.

Northwestern’s starting XI featured two changes from the trip to Fort Myers, with graduate Bardia Kimiavi coming in for sophomore Ibraheim Obeid and Brown replacing the other fullback, McCamy. When they had the ball, the Wildcats attacked in a 3-2-2-3 while Loyola started the match pressing in a 4-1-4-1.

Initially, Northwestern found success in this area of the game. While Loyola matches up well in the first phase of buildup in the diagram, the ‘Cats found a way to play through the press quickly by slightly altering the positioning of the holding midfielders, Tran and Brown, relative to the back three.

The movement of the midfielders into the same vertical channels as Dudley and one of the wide center backs, usually Stevens on the left, opened up a passing move where Prince could find Clagette in space down the right. This created some opportunities for the ‘Cats very early on, but Loyola quickly reacted, moving to a 4-4-2 and settling down their press.

This midblock from the Ramblers made it extremely difficult for Northwestern to progress the ball beyond the back three without going long, as the passing lanes into the defensive midfielders, interiors and wingbacks were all blocked or extremely squeezed. Then, around the 25th minute, Loyola re-engaged their high press, with a slight tweak.

When one of the wide center backs for Northwestern received the ball, this would trigger the Loyola press. The ball-side Rambler fullback would get tight to that NU wingback, the Rambler defensive midfielder would get tight to the ball-side NU interior and the non-ball side Loyola fullback would invert into the midfield, getting tight to the non-ball-side NU interior. By ignoring the player furthest away from the ball, the Ramblers eliminated all possible passing lanes, and Prince, in this case, would have to hit a hopeful long ball up the pitch.

Loyola wasn’t the only team to cause the other problems with their pressing, as Northwestern also employed some interesting tactics with its press depending on the side of the pitch the ball was on. While the ‘Cats' shape was a 5-2-3 in settled play, they employed a press that looked like a 4-2-3-1 against the Ramblers’ 2-3-5.

This illustration shows an example of what happens when the keeper passes to the left center back, but everything here is applicable in reverse if he goes to the right. Castro, the non-ball-side interior closes down the fullback on his side, Kimiavi, the ball-side interior, gets tight to the defensive midfielder and Clagette pushes up from right wingback to close down the ball-side fullback, who more often than not, will receive the next pass. Behind them, the remaining four defenders shift to create a temporary back four, and Loyola is stuck.

Eventually, the Ramblers figured out that the center back on the ball needs to carry it forward to break the initial press. After one of these runs where the right center back carried it from box to box, played a one-two and put a ball across the face of the goal which led to a shot from close range that Garner saved, Northwestern’s press became a little more cautious, and Loyola was able to pass their way up the pitch.

When Loyola did get into the final third, the movement of its front five was really good, with players making all sorts of different runs and enjoying positional freedom. This caused the ‘Cats problems in certain moments, but they didn’t concede, mainly thanks to Garner’s goalkeeping, which looked much improved from the first two matches.

The two teams were evenly matched for the most part, Northwestern held the slight edge in possession and Loyola was slightly better in PPDA. The biggest difference was the play around the 18-yard box, which wasn’t decisive this game, but in the future it could be. It was by no means a perfect performance from the ‘Cats, but they weren’t horrible either.

Other Notes

Brandon Clagette has been a revelation on the right wing

This is just as much of a victory for me as it is for Payne and everyone else on the team. The sophomore transfer from Pitt has proven himself as one of the most important players on the team in the first week of competitive matches. He is absolutely the fastest player in this squad and has been utilizing it to devastating effect. Even more importantly, he’s committed both with and without the ball, and, for better or worse, his versatility has made it even easier for Payne to modify his tactics in the middle of games. I was excited for him to join the program before the season started, and now I can’t wait to watch him for the next three years.

Newcomers are making an impact

If you didn’t already know, the ‘Cats brought in a top five recruiting class according to TopDrawerSoccer, and some of the guys in there have already carved out roles for themselves in the team, including the aforementioned Clagette.

Ethan Dudley, a graduate transfer from FGCU, has taken on the captaincy and is the only outfield player to have played every single minute so far. His ball-playing ability from center back has been impressive, and he’s shown great decision-making both in and out of possession.

Nigel Prince, Jayvin van Deventer and Christopher Thaggard have been the only three true freshmen to make their collegiate debuts, but all have shown they have the talent to become key contributors in the years to come. Prince has formed a great partnership with Dudley in defense and has also been steady in possession. Van Deventer has played just 30 percent of the team’s total minutes, but has shown remarkable calmness with the ball given his age, and does not lose it easily, which is a great attribute for a midfielder in the modern game. Of the three, Thaggard has been the most underwhelming, but he’s hardly had a chance to get on the ball. However, it seems he’s already earned the backup role to Weiss and physically he has all of the traits, which leads me to believe he’ll eventually start asserting himself more, and that’s just going to take time.

Andrew Stevens and Danh Tran are standouts in the midfield

Despite the struggles the team has had building up and retaining possession at times, these two have been the biggest reasons for success in that regard. Stevens has impressed me with his passing range and intelligence with the ball, and is the perfect man to anchor the midfield. It was surprising to see him deployed on the left of the back three against Loyola, as his role within that system didn’t play to his strengths whatsoever, and hopefully he returns to his best position in the coming matches.

Tran has been a pleasant surprise in his second year in Evanston. He’s looked like the ‘Cats' best interior, and his slick dribbling and vision to create Northwestern’s second goal are proof of that. His positioning relative to the movement of his teammates isn’t quite there yet, but he’s been a massive net positive regardless.

Upcoming Schedule

At Villanova (0-1-1), match in progress

Friday, September 9: vs. Western Michigan (1-1-0)

Monday, September 12: vs. Houston Baptist (0-1-2)

Saturday, September 17: at Rutgers (1-1-1)