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Men’s soccer: No. 12 Northwestern stretches unbeaten start to 12 games

If the ‘Cats held on to that 2-0 lead at Wisconsin, they’d have 12 (instead of 10) points in the Big Ten and this number gimmick would have a third dimension, but alas.

Mary Grace Grabill/Northwestern Athletics

The introductions — and headlines, for that matter — for these updates have become rather formulaic.

I include the ‘Cats’ current spot in the United Soccer Coaches (USC) Top 25 (still No. 12) and how many games they’ve played without a loss (now 12) before spending a couple hundred words exploring the “validity” of those figures.

So guess what I’m going to do this week?

Yep, you guessed it (or maybe you didn’t): the same exact thing.

For the first time this season, and probably in my three years of covering this team as well, I looked at the NCAA RPI rankings. You can only imagine what went through my head when I saw No. 42 next to Northwestern, one of just seven outfits in the country to have maintained a zero in the loss column.

Even as someone who has been quick to criticize this team and put many of its achievements this year down to luck, 42nd still feels low. It feels even lower considering the ‘Cats extinguished the flames of UIC, ranked 34th, by a margin of four goals to one. On the other hand, without knowing what goes into the RPI formula, it’s hard to comment on its output.

However, there is also a reason RPI was replaced with NET for determining the tournament field in men’s basketball, but a more pertinent observation would be this: It’s just difficult to get a good read on where NU is truly at.

Maybe a showdown with Michigan State, No. 18 in RPI and No. 19 in the USC Top 25, next week will prove to be enlightening on that front.

Northwestern 0, Green Bay 0

Tuesday, Oct. 3, (Evanston, Ill.)

Well, this was an interesting game.

In what was Northwestern’s most dominant performance of the season, in my opinion, it failed to come away with all three points, which makes perfect sense given how things have gone this season.

As has been the case all year, and throughout Payne’s tenure, everything starts with the press, and it was once again effective (4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1 vs. Green Bay 4-2-4 IP).

However, it wasn’t perfect. There was a disconnect between how the back line responded to jumps from the wingers, particularly Justin Weiss on the left. Especially when both sides were shifted toward NU’s right touchline, Weiss was engaging the Phoenix RCB upon reception. Problem is, if the RB could be found, he had acres of space to work with and could manipulate the chaos created by the Wildcat block having to shift across the pitch.

The below clip illustrates this well, with Green Bay not taking full advantage.

I mentioned a disconnect, and that’s Fritz Volmar at LB not jumping to the Phoenix RB as soon as the RCB receives. Volmar is initially pinned deep, as the back line is man-to-man (4v4) with Green Bay’s forwards, meaning he can’t vacate that area without leaving a spare man that is also easily accessible. However, if, as he goes forward, his fellow defenders shift across to leave the LW free, it would take a remarkable cross-field pass for that numerical superiority to be punished.

Now, for once, the quality of Northwestern’s IP play (3-2-5 vs. Green Bay 4-2-3-1 block) matched its OOP play. While the inclination to go after every transition was still apparent, there was far less verticality from settled play. The ‘Cats seemed to be looking for optimal circumstances to “exit” deeper phases and move up the pitch, as opposed to the usual mentality of playing forward whenever it’s an option, even if it’s not a good one.

Take this sequence for example. NU’s 3+2 strings 10 passes together to draw Green Bay’s midfield forward. Once that happens, a sharp around-the-corner pass from Collin McCamy to a dropping Volmar, exploiting the 2v1 with the latter and Weiss against the defending FB, ignites a faux transition for Northwestern with favorable conditions both numerically and dynamically.

That WCB —> ball-side DM —> width-holder pattern wasn’t limited to the left side, with Bryant Mayer, Rom Brown and Brandon Clagette getting involved down the right minutes later. Although, in this instance, the second pass was a ball for Clagette to run onto, and not to feet, like Volmar received.

This next clip might be my favorite of not just the night, but of the season. I have never seen this team produce such pure soccer.

First, there’s the methodical buildup leading to incremental progression. Nigel Prince — who has been the ever-present anchor of the Northwestern defense this year — carrying forward at 0:20 and his subsequent torso deception to create a lane to a lateral movement from Brown is just exactly what you want to see.

Then there’s the brilliant last-line abandonments from first Ugo Achara Jr. and then Weiss after NU enters the attacking half, the second of which leads to multiple crossing opportunities from the left.

Unfortunately, the, at times, brilliant adverts for possession soccer would be overshadowed by two inconvenient matters. Northwestern failing to hit the back of the net was the first, and the second was, well, what’s about to follow.

Somehow the VAR “incident” regarding a Luis Díaz goal for Liverpool against Tottenham might not have been the biggest gaffe I’ve seen involving this sport and a video review in the past few weeks.

To start, here’s the on-field situation we’re concerned with. It’s the 79th minute, the score is still deadlocked at 0-0, and Weiss gets brought down near the edge of the 18-yard box after playing a nice one-two with Achara Jr.

The referee calls a foul, but by rule, can then go to the monitor to check whether it was inside the box, so to presumably be safe, gives a free kick. The replay in the above clip shows the foul occurred in the box, and after the game, Payne said their overhead camera also makes that extremely clear.

Unfortunately, the replay monitor shut down right at the moment the referee went over to look and would not turn back on. Since the rules dictate referees can only look at the broadcast feed, he couldn’t use the angle the NU bench had, and was forced to stick with his call on the field.

As frustrating as this sequence events was, putting the result all on this moment would be disingenuous. First of all, had the penalty been given, someone still would’ve had to step up and slot it away, and secondly, the ‘Cats had quite a few other missed opportunities.

Northwestern 2 (Achara Jr. 79’, Van Deventer 87’), Rutgers 0

Sunday, Oct. 8, (Evanston, Ill.)

Although it posed much more of a challenge to Northwestern than Green Bay, Rutgers left Martin Stadium with a worse result.

The main reason behind this was its defensive structure. The base shape was a 4-1-4-1, but against NU’s 3-2-5 with Volmar going forward from LB, the RW would drop while the LW moved into a LST-like position. This 5-1-2-2, featuring tight man-marking on the double pivot of McCamy and Brown, unsettled the ‘Cats a bit when they had the ball — although they still had solutions to this press.

Jackson Weyman getting involved and making passes was one of these strategies. After an attempted Rutgers press, which Prince was able to escape, the GK has time to find Ibrahim Obeid in space with a clipped ball. The RB was then able to drive forward, exploiting the lack of wide coverage in the Rutgers midfield, but his eventual cross let him down.

There were also moments where Northwestern could’ve done more. Reese Mayer at LCB is forced to carry forward down the left flank here and ultimately hits a ball over the top, which, on its face, might not appear to be terrible.

If you pause the above clip at 0:18, which is right before Mayer sends the ball forward, you should see the issue. Jason Gajadhar is running forward, anticipating that type of pass, instead of dropping into the massive gap formed by NU’s double pivot splitting and pulling its markers apart. If the sophomore midfielder receives in that area, there’s ample opportunity to circulate play to the right and take advantage of the space on that side.

To be clear, this isn’t any individual player’s fault. This is the result of trained and reinforced behaviors in practices, and the movements and passes that are encouraged in those settings are what will you’ll see during games. Expecting anything to the contrary is just insanity, so I’m being critical of how the players are being trained, not the players themselves.

Lastly, when the Scarlet Knight RW, who usually dropped off, jumped to Mayer, it created a 3v2 in NU’s favor, and that McCamy one-touch pass allowed the ‘Cats to access an unmarked Volmar. What follows in this clip is much less pleasing.

In the first half, Rutgers might’ve just edged the affair, but in the second, it was all Northwestern. The New Jersey-based side held on for as long as it could, but after getting a man sent off in the 76th minute, its resistance to increasing Wildcat pressure crumbled.

It took just over two minutes for the ‘Cats to breach the 10-man Scarlet Knight defense. The lead-up to the opener wasn’t anything fancy, but it’s a nice turn and carry from Jayvin Van Deventer to create the opportunity, and Weiss’ does well in the box to find Achara Jr. for a tap-in.

Despite being a man up, for the five minutes following the opener, you would be forgiven for thinking the team with the numerical advantage was Rutgers. The ‘Cats immediately dropped off, ceding territory and possession to protect the lead, which Payne was less than content with on the touchline.

Ultimately, that reaction to having a one-goal lead with 10 minutes to go, while suboptimal, proved to be inconsequential.

I’ll just end off by leaving the video of, in Payne’s words, “one of the most, if not the most, skilled players in the team,” to explain why.

Upcoming Schedule

Friday, Oct. 13 at 6 p.m. CT at Penn State (B1G+)

Friday, Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. CT vs. No. 19 Michigan State (B1G+)

Tuesday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. CT vs. Indiana (BTN)