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Men’s soccer: ‘Cats sit atop the Big Ten standings, extend unbeaten streak to 10 games

The Payne Train™️ can’t be stopped.

Chris Lyons

Well, maybe the doomsayers (me) that crawled out of the woodwork (I was always here) after Northwestern couldn’t convert a 2-0 lead late against Wisconsin into a win 13 days ago were wrong.

The luck — if implying it was involved at all wasn’t an inaccurate assertion to begin with — clearly hasn’t run out. It’s at the point where what I’m witnessing every time the ‘Cats step on the field is making me question everything about everything. And I mean everything.

They make strategic philosophies in this sport, like controlling the ball and territory, seem ill-informed. “Is the Cruyffian way dead?” has been a common refrain around the soccer world for the last decade, and the Wildcats would be right up there with José Mourinho’s Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid sides as the best examples for answering “yes” to that question.

NU’s general overperformance at both ends of the pitch in the Expected Goals (xG) metric also has me wondering whether the concepts I’ve learned about in statistics classes, such as regression to the mean and the Law of Large Numbers, are anything more than just theoretical.

The funniest potential explanation for all of this would be the ball being “affected” by “external factors.” And, to be fair, an abnormally high number of shots have kissed the metal posts and bar holding up the net of the goal behind Jackson Weyman.

However, I’ll put the tinfoil hat away and go with a more serious interpretation — one that’s grounded in statistical theory. An outlier relative to expectation doesn’t always mean overperformance, as the unlikeliness of an extreme outlier occurring under that expectation can be enough to prove the inaccuracy of said expectation.

After all, Occam’s Razor says the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is the best. So, maybe Northwestern is winning games simply because it is a good team.

Northwestern 4 (Gajadhar 26’, B. Mayer 34’, Clagette 48’, Volmar 73’), Ohio State 2 (Adedokun 24’, Wootton 68’)

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

NU remained unchanged tactically (3-2-5 IP, 4-2-3-1 OOP) in its first Big Ten encounter at home of the season. A crucial alteration was made in another department, though, as the ‘Cats reverted to the all-grays. To this point, their record in those uniforms stood at five wins, zero draws and zero losses.

Whether a result of the attire, Northwestern enjoyed a reasonably comfortable victory. As has been the case all season, the Wildcats took advantage of attacking transitions and set pieces with the ball, and did enough defensively to ensure they weren’t outscored at the other end.

One interesting tactical note involved Ohio State’s IP play — which Payne specifically addressed after the game — was how it manipulated NU’s FBs, especially in the first half. Usually, the Buckeyes were in a 4-2-4 structure, but then a FB would push forward and one of the DMs would shift wide and it got a bit messy.

Ultimately, shape isn’t all that important here, but there is one specific movement that is: a well-timed out-to-in arrival by a player starting wider on the ball side. Combined with having a Buckeye to the outside of that player, the Wildcat FB there would be forced into a dilemma. Either he follows the narrowing movement, leaving the width-holder free, or stays, and allows the OSU player moving centrally to find space between the lines, unmarked.

The clip below illustrates this well. The Ohio State LST starts wide, timing his movement extremely well relative to the line-breaking pass from the LCB, and then uses his first touch to find the free LW, as Bryant Mayer at RB had followed the initial run inside.

Mayer then goes to close down the Buckeye winger, but that opens up the return ball to the striker making an underlapping run. NU is fortunate his curling effort sails just wide of the far post here.

To combat this, paraphrasing what Payne discussed, the ‘Cats got less aggressive with their DMs jumping in these phases of play to provide more half-space coverage. Add a slightly tweaked pressing structure and a shift to a back five in the second period, and the Buckeyes’ attacking threat was drastically reduced in the latter stages of the match.

Maryland 0, Northwestern 2 (McCamy 43’, Thaggard 53’)

Friday, Sept. 29, (College Park, Md.)

Welcome to the Weyman show.

Before covering anything else, his efforts have to be appreciated. He’s now put in at least three monstrous performances between the sticks this season, and has been a consistently assured presence in the box. I honestly had to check multiple times to make sure it wasn’t Miha Miskovic in goal this match in particular, because the quality he displayed made it feel like he was.

Anyways, had you told me before the season started one of the teams would be coming into this one without a loss and the other would only have one win, I’d never in my wildest dreams have imagined Northwestern being the former and Maryland the latter.

Then, had I not known anything about either of these teams and watched the match, based on the flow of the game, I would’ve been far more likely to say the Terps were the unbeaten side.

This match was eerily similar for the Wildcats to their clash with Wisconsin. They were pinned in their own half, defending for their lives for large portions of the contest. Additionally, on another day, Maryland could’ve easily scored three or four, much like the Badgers were arguably unlucky to only breach the NU defense twice.

This time, though, Northwestern managed to hold on to its 2-0 lead, and for the first time in his tenure in Evanston, Payne overcame his alma mater without extra time or penalties.

One last note: Despite the levels of pressure they applied to the Wildcat back line, the most fight the Terrapins showed was when the clock was stopped. It’s pretty emblematic of their frustration to have an incident like this flare up in the final minutes because Weyman appeared to recreate the Allen Iverson-Tyronn Lue stepover after getting fouled coming for a cross.

A smaller confrontation appeared to occur after the final whistle, but exactly what happened isn’t clear based on the broadcast feed. What is clear, however, is it prompted the Northwestern GK to do a shushing motion before kissing the school logo on his jersey twice while leaving the field.

Never a dull moment with this team, is there?

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Tuesday, Oct. 3 at 6 p.m. CT vs. Green Bay (B1G+)

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