Yes, that headline is correct. Northwestern, who most in preseason expected to be one of the conference bottom-feeders, is 90 minutes away from securing at least a share of the Big Ten regular season title.
Currently, the Wildcats sit joint-first with Penn State and Michigan State — all on 13 points. However, the Spartans have played all eight conference games, while NU and PSU still have one match left. Indiana, 11 points, and Rutgers, 10 points — who play each other Sunday —both have an outside shot at finishing top, but will need quite a bit of help (as well as a win).
Fortunately, the math is quite simple for Payne and co. To win the title outright and claim the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament, they need a better result at Michigan than the Nittany Lions get at Wisconsin. Match Penn State’s result and they’ll get a share, but PSU’s 2-1 win against the ‘Cats would hand it the top seed in the tournament.
There are some caveats to this, especially pertaining to seeding with three-way ties, which, truth be told, I have no idea how those get broken, but a win in Ann Arbor for NU makes them all for naught.
From a Wildcat perspective, it is obviously nice to be concerned with the calculus at this end of the standings. After the past two years required wins on the final day of the season to just not finish last and qualify for the Big Ten tournament, the stakes are still high, but for much different reasons. That, in itself, is a testament to how far this program has come in three seasons under Payne, and getting a tangible reward for that development would be a perfect way to send the ‘Cats into the postseason.
Northwestern 1 (Achara 52’), Michigan State 2 (Kerrigan 32’ (p), Ludwig 42’)
Friday, Oct. 20, (Evanston, Ill.)
In the toughest test of the season to date for the ‘Cats (if NCAA’s RPI rankings are anything to go off of), everything that could’ve gone wrong went wrong. My completely rational theory is NU picked up some bad karma after honoring the seniors at a time other than right before the final home match of the year.
All jokes aside, Michigan State was just an extremely strong, traditional 4-4-2 team. After the match, Payne described the Spartans as “committed,” and that, to me, was an apt label. Every player works for his 10 teammates on the pitch and they stick to their strategy, executing it at a high level, even though it’s not particularly complex or revolutionary.
The ‘Cats’ ability to cope with MSU’s quality certainly wasn’t helped by Justin Weiss being forced off midway through the first half after picking up an apparent hamstring injury. He would give it another go in the second half, but after 10 minutes or so, it was evident he couldn’t carry on. During that period between Weiss initially getting injured and halftime, the Wildcat attack looked the worst it had all year. Compounded with Michigan State tallying two cheap goals in that time — the first resulting from a questionable handball call in the box and the second from a complete defensive snafu — things couldn’t possibly have looked more bleak for Northwestern at the break.
However, NU hadn’t given the game up yet, and a slight tweak in the in-possession structure revitalized what had been a lifeless attack. Instead of the standard 3-2-1-4 with an AM behind two strikers, the ‘Cats came out in a 3-2-5 with three strikers — Ugo Achara through the middle with Christopher Thaggard to his right and Paul Son to his left.
In post-game interviews throughout the year, Payne has emphasized his belief in the importance of being a team that can both play in front of and over the top of the opponent’s back line, and a similar explanation followed when asked about this switch. He said his team didn’t threaten in behind anywhere near enough in the first half, and the change in shape was to fix that.
In practice, that front three was able to pin Michigan State’s back line deeper, opening up space between the two banks of four in MSU’s 4-4-2 — decompacting the block — to then be exploited through arrivals. The clip below illustrates this idea well, with Northwestern’s 3+2 first manipulating the Spartan press to access Son’s last-line abandonment in the left half-space, and then the junior attacker looking to stretch the back line.
Son did a phenomenal job with his role within this new structure, but so did his right-sided counterpart. Here, after Fritz Volmar arrives in the left half-space (positional rotation between him and Son), Thaggard makes a great lateral movement between the lines to receive before a mazy run opens up a crossing opportunity on the left.
On the topic of Volmar, who was recently listed No 7. in TopDrawerSoccer’s Top 100 Freshmen rankings, the below sequence is a magnificent example of the dynamism he adds to NU’s attack, as well as the potency the ‘Cats showed at the start of the second period. A brilliant carry and run coupled with a lovely pass from Jason Gajadhar gets him clean through on goal, but he just can’t finish.
After quite a few opportunities for a Wildcat equalizer came and went, the Spartans shifted to a 4-5-1 with 20 minutes to go and set their line of engagement lower, limiting Northwestern’s ability to access the center of the pitch. As a result, NU struggled to create much outside of set pieces and hopeful crosses, and couldn’t complete the comeback.
Northwestern 1 (Prince 25’), Indiana 0
Tuesday, Oct. 24, (Evanston, Ill.)
While there were a lot of interesting aspects of Northwestern’s encounter with Michigan State, its next match against Indiana was quite the opposite. And, honestly, the less that is said about this one, the better.
I usually don’t like relying on the box score stats to tell the story of a game, because they do lack a lot of context, but the Hoosiers registering 21 shots to NU’s four does a good job boiling this contest down to one figure. However, Jackson Weyman only needing to save three of those 21 attempts to keep a clean sheet says a lot as well.
Regardless, Indiana was in control of the game throughout, and a Nigel Prince goal in the 25th minute off a Reese Mayer long throw (that may or may not have been a foul throw) was the textbook definition of “against the run of play.” The Hoosiers’ dominance only grew in the second half, and Payne eventually responded to the one-way traffic in the direction of NU’s goal with a shift to a 5-4-1 from the 4-4-2 block it started the game with.
Ultimately, the concession of territory and the ball combined with some well-timed blocks kept the red tide out of Weyman’s goal, and, as a result, the ‘Cats picked up a crucial three points in their quest for their first Big Ten title since 2012.
Sunday, Oct. 29 at 12 p.m. at Michigan (B1G+)
Friday, Nov. 3 to Sunday, Nov. 12: Big Ten Tournament