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Men’s soccer: A tactical analysis of the ‘Cats’ start to the season

Breaking down what we’ve seen strategically from Payne and co.

Northwestern Athletics

NOTE: Northwestern’s curtain-raiser against St. Thomas was moved indoors due to extreme heat in Evanston and, as a result, was not televised. Since I am currently situated a few thousand miles away from Ryan Fieldhouse, I was not in attendance, and thus, have no way of doing any in-depth work on that match. With that said, this article will focus on NU’s second contest of the season, a 1-0 win against NJIT.

Those of you who followed my articles on the ‘Cats last season will know what to expect with this piece (and, of course, thanks for the support). However, it has been a while since I’ve produced something on this site in this domain, and I’d like to think my analytical capacity and knowledge have improved a fair bit since then, so be prepared for me to be even more thorough this time around.

For those who are less familiar, my primary goal is to have both you, the reader, and my editors wondering “How can someone have so much to say about a game between two amateur American soccer teams?” Providing a high-quality, understandable strategic breakdown of whichever match(es) I’m covering is, obviously, far less of a priority.

As I’m only discussing one match today, I will separate this article into two sections: Northwestern in possession (IP) and out of possession (OOP) — get used to seeing those abbreviations, by the way. Within those sections, I’ll break things up into various talking points or situations, depending on what makes sense. And, at the end, I’ll have a few more general topics to touch on.

Northwestern OOP

I’m starting with the defensive stuff for two reasons. First, I like doing the positives before the negatives, and the Wildcats were at their best in this phase of the game. Secondly, the success they had against the ball fueled a good portion of their success with it.

General Structures

On the ball, the Highlanders set up in a 4-2-1-3/4-1-2-3, with the LCM (No. 6) often starting deeper than his right-sided counterpart (No. 10). When they got further up the pitch, No. 6 would move higher in the left half-space, but that happened so infrequently that it’s unimportant beyond a brief mention now.

NU lined up in a standard 4-2-3-1 mid/high block, with junior Collin McCamy, usually a deeper midfielder or even FB, at LW. And, as we’ll now get into, this structure proved to be an extremely effective foil to what NJIT was aiming to do attacking-wise.

Payne’s Potent Press

To put it simply: Northwestern’s press was stifling. The ‘Cats were clearly prepared for the mechanisms within NJIT’s IP structure, and responded to them intelligently when they occurred.

The best example of this was the Highlanders’ approach from goal kicks, where they insisted on trying to play out for the full 90 minutes. As the cliché goes, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” I have to imagine, then, that a picture of NJIT’s build-up patterns against Northwestern would be next to the dictionary entry for “insanity.”

The visitors’ strategy in these situations can be divided into two sensible groupings using one simple criterion: whether the goalkeeper’s (No. 1) first pass was to the RCB (No. 19) or the LCB (No. 4).

Before looking at those two permutations, here’s a general picture of what’s happening pre-restart. The Highlanders are in the (GK-)4-2-1-3 discussed earlier, but with an important difference — No. 6, the LCM, has moved into the area you’d expect the LB (No. 18) to be, and the LB has advanced slightly higher in the wide left channel. NU is still in a 4-2-3-1, waiting to apply the basic pressing principle of forcing the ball to either side of the pitch, and then going man-to-man to squeeze the opponent to the touchline and induce a turnover.

With that in mind, here’s what generally happened when the Highlander GK played to his left.

The Wildcats don’t react much initially, with the front four shifting slightly ball-side, but the moment No. 4 adjusts his orientation to play the next pass toward the touchline, they close down quickly. This features a “jump” by junior Ibrahim Obeid (RB, No. 3) from being man-oriented on NJIT’s No. 9 to No. 18, and sophomore CB Nigel Prince (No. 12) is responsible for “backing up” by shifting across and getting tight to the attacker Obeid left behind.

There should now be nowhere for the Highlanders to go, barring a moment of individual quality or a mistake from NU. In the video below, they get the latter, with sophomore Christopher Thaggard (RW, No. 9) continuing his pressing run to No. 4 after No. 6 plays back to him. It’s needless, as Justin Weiss (CF, No. 10) is already closing down No. 6, and it leaves Thaggard out of position to defend the No. 4 —> No. 18 —> No. 6 circuit.

From there, NJIT finds an out-ball and switches play to its right, where it has numbers in space due to the ‘Cats’ dramatic shift toward the left touchline in an attempt to win the ball back.

Other than that specific instance, Northwestern hardly put a foot wrong from a purely pressing perspective in these scenarios. Here, they force a “long” ball, but Rom Brown (RDM, No. 13) gives away a foul trying to win possession.

And here, Obeid intercepts a pass intended for the Highlander LB, leading to what could have been a promising transition for NU, if not for a foul. However, the Wildcats do get a little lucky that Thaggard’s pressing run isn’t punished again, with No 6. moving infield and eliminating the possibility of the same circuit occurring again.

Now, let’s go through what happens when the NJIT GK plays to the RCB from the outset.

It’s fairly similar to what we’ve seen before, except the CM (No. 10) is starting centrally and then dropping between the DM (No. 8) and the RB (No. 2). This makes it even simpler for Northwestern to go man-to-man locally, with the Hungarian freshman Peter Riesz (No. 16, LDM) just following that movement, and a jump from the fullback on this side, Fritz Volmar (No. 19, LB), isn’t needed. Once No. 19 passes to No. 2 — the only option besides going long — the press is triggered, and the Highlanders are trapped.

In this position, the only option for No. 2 is to go back to No. 19, who is left with no choice but to launch the ball up the field.

As mentioned previously, these situations had a very “by the book” feel. That made it even less likely NJIT would find a way out, as the Wildcats were surely comfortable executing pressing mechanisms they’ve certainly practiced quite a few times previously.

Just to emphasize the earlier point about insanity, here are four examples of the Highlanders trying the same exact thing within the first 20 minutes, and getting stymied each time.


And again.

And again.

And again.

To be fair, on the last one, the RCB going back to the GK was a little different, but that’s why the Wildcats wait until the CB —> FB pass to close down. If they go too early, there’s still scope for the opponents to use that momentum against them.

The two sides behaved similarly when the away team had the ball outside of the first phase as well, but, as I said before, that hardly happened, and that’s because of how strong Northwestern’s press was.

NJIT’s Attempted Adaptations

Now, I must admit, head coach Fernando Barboto and the Highlanders didn’t go the full match without experimenting with potential alternative routes through the ‘Cats’ defensive block.

The first of these alterations was to spread the CBs wider from goal kicks and bring the defensive midfielder into the box. The GK would then play to the DM instead of the CBs, but this didn’t have much of an impact.

No. 8 is forced to play to one of the CBs as a result of NU’s initially tight central coverage, and from there, NJIT is back to square one, just with an added pass at the beginning. Northwestern squeezes to the touchline like they’ve been doing, and an identical outcome is reached.

The other notable change was to have both CMs drift ball-side after the GK —> CB pass in an effort to generate numerical superiority in that area.

This pattern had varying success, with the video below an example of it working. The ball-far CM (No. 6 on the diagram) pulls the NU attacking midfielder (Jason Gajadhar in the diagram) away from No. 8, and it creates a lane for a FB —> DM ball.

To combat this pattern, Northwestern’s DM (Brown in the diagram) or ball-near CB should be responsible for getting tight to the CM coming across the center of the pitch while the AM (Gajadhar in the diagram) sticks to No. 8. NJIT would no longer have an overload, and, as usual, the RB would be forced to play back to the CB, who would then go long.

Ultimately, the ‘Cats kept a clean sheet, and were relatively unthreatened from open play — a direct result of a great implementation of an effective gameplan at the top of the pitch.

Northwestern IP

Just to be clear at the start — I was far less impressed by the Wildcats with the ball than without it. As we’ve come to expect from Payne’s teams in Evanston, this year’s group looks like it will be heavily reliant on transitions and set pieces to do damage. It’s a viable strategy, but not necessarily my preference, especially when there is plenty of room for improvement with the ball everywhere else.

General Structures

Northwestern, like NJIT, adopted a 4-2-1-3 shape IP, with the double pivot of Brown and Riesz offset to the left while Gajadhar started further forward in the right half-space. Unlike the ‘Cats OOP, the Highlanders went with a 4-3-1-2 defensive structure, and the pros and cons of that decision will be covered shortly.

Counter-Attacking ‘Cats

Before that, it would have been unfair for me to not bring some attention to the quality NU showed in offensive transitions. These were generated, as discussed in the OOP section, either as a result of the Wildcats’ excellent pressing or through stopping an attempted transition by the Highlanders and subsequently catching them in an awkward moment defensively.

The lone goal of the day was a good example of this. The NJIT goalkeeper tries to initiate a quick counter-attack with a long ball to No. 10 running in behind in the wide left channel, but Obeid wins it in the air and Brown recovers possession. From there, he’s given far too much time to pick a pass. That’s because NJIT’s AM was responsible for marking Brown, but is way out of position, and no one else picked him up immediately or tracked his run into the box.

There are also situations like this, where an innocuous throw-in from deep in its own half turns into transition for Northwestern because it wins a second ball. Some very lovely link-up between Thaggard and Gajadhar down the right as well, with the latter an especially dangerous threat with the ball at his feet and space to drive into.

Goal Kicks

Of all the different parts and phases of this match, this is the area where I was most disappointed with the ‘Cats’ efforts. They had three, very poor attempts at playing out at the beginning of the match, and went exclusively going long after. To me, there was a clear opportunity to do so, but the players seemed unaware of the solutions. There are a host of possible explanations for this, so I will refrain from blaming any group or individual in particular.

What I will do, however, is explain what happened on those three attempts, and then I will offer up some ideas of my own as to how this very exploitable press could’ve been broken.

Attempt One:

In this sequence, Owen Noverr (LCB, No. 15) starts with the ball on the left edge of the six-yard box, and plays across to Jackson Weyman (GK, No. 1). This triggers the RST (No. 24) in NJIT’s 4-3-1-2 to close down Weyman, while the AM (No. 10) shifts across to block the lane from the NU GK to Brown.

Now, the important bit here is Weyman’s orientation. As can be seen in the clip, the GK keeps himself facing directly forward for a second, even taking another touch before seeing the pressure. In that moment, Weyman takes his third touch to his right and, with the Highlander LCM (No. 6) and DM (No. 8) jumping to Obeid and Gajadhar, respectively, he resorts to sending the ball up to Thaggard.

Attempt Two:

This time, Weyman starts with the ball and plays to Novarr, triggering a jump from No. 24 to the LCB.

The freshman CB immediately sends the ball on its way to Volmar at LB, which, let me tell you now, is exactly the pass NJIT wants him to make. A 4-3-1-2 press feasts on FB reception, as the ball-near WCM (No. 7, here) jumps to the FB, and everyone else on that side goes man-to-man.

Attempt Three:

The final and least imaginative of the three, Weyman clips a ball directly to Obeid at RB. Remember what I just said about a 4-3-1-2 press feasting on FB reception? Well, this is a prime example of that. As the ball floats in the air, the ball near WCM (No. 6) jumps to the FB, and then it’s man-to-man with that FB receiving in a position of almost no hope.

Potential Solutions

Right now, you might be thinking, “I can see why they decided to stop trying to play short from goal kicks,” and to that I say, “Nonsense!”

Why? Because there is a much finer level of detail and precision involved in how things go on the pitch than what can be displayed on a tactics board. Timing and distances play a massive role, and the Highlanders were far from perfect in either regard. Additionally, NU hardly gave itself a chance with how little movement there was off the ball.

So, let’s explore how the ‘Cats could’ve done better in breaking this press using two of my favorite IP actions: well-timed arrivals and wall passes. For the sake of this exercise, I’m going to leave Northwestern’s starting structure unchanged, but best believe that could be improved too given what NJIT is doing.

Let’s go back to Attempt One, where the first pass was Noverr —> Weyman.

When I introduced this sequence, I made sure to emphasize Weyman’s orientation when he receives the ball, as well as the time he has until No. 24 can get to him. Additionally, I depicted one important detail on the board: the terrible angle of No. 24’s pressing run. He moves directly at the Wildcat GK, which, when combined with the distance he has to cover, means the pass back to Noverr is so, so, so open.

Weyman just needs to have some courage and let the NJIT ST get close before sending the ball back to the LCB at the last possible moment. Noverr should also move wider to lengthen the distance between him and No. 24 when he receives.

This gives Noverr the ball in space, with an overload in front of him. At the very minimum, Northwestern should be able to exit the first phase and establish possession 30 or 40 yards up the pitch, but just for fun, let’s go through how the potency of this situation could be maximized.

Once Noverr receives, Riesz should drop towards him (pulling No. 7 with), while Volmar simultaneously drops to ensure he stays level with or deeper than the midfielder. Noverr then fires a ball into Riesz’s feet, and with his first touch, the Hungarian lays the ball off for the LB (a “wall pass”).

From here, Volmar just needs to drive infield — on his favored right foot, which is a bonus — and the Wildcats have generated a “faux transition.”

Something similar can happen with Attempt Two (first pass Weyman —> Novarr).

Once again, the pressing run from No. 24 leaves a lot available to Novarr. The CB needs to not commit to the pass to Volmar so quickly, instead waiting to draw No. 24. in closer, and then, with no one closing down Weyman, he should play back to the GK.

Presumably, No. 24 will continue his run toward Weyman, meaning Noverr becomes the free man, and, as such, Northwestern needs to find a way to access him. My favored method here is to utilize another Riesz arrival, wall pass to Noverr, who then plays to Volmar with room to once again carry forward.

There are a lot of other possible solutions, including alternatives within the options I presented, as well as ways for the Highlanders to counter these ideas, but for the sake of maintaining some brevity in this article, I’ll stop here. The bottom line: well-timed, off-the-ball movement is the key, and currently, there isn’t much of it.

The Go-To Patterns

Lastly, as far as IP stuff goes, I wanted to highlight two things, that go hand-in-hand (somewhat), Northwestern did well to manipulate NJIT’s block.

One of those is horizontally decompacting the Highlanders’ midfield three. As has been covered, the WCMs in a 4-3-1-2 are responsible for jumping to the opposition FBs when they receive. That leaves a lot of space centrally for the DM to cover, so baiting that jump (when temporally and spatially feasible, usually following a switch of play) to then play back inside can be very profitable for the IP team.

The above video illustrates this well. The ball starts with Noverr on the left side of the pitch and gets quickly moved out to the right wing where Obeid has time before No. 6 (LCM) is on him. With NJIT’s midfield still shifting ball-side, the RB is able to find Gajadhar inside, who nearly gets an ambitious ball in behind to Thaggard to come off.

This is where the second card NU had up its sleeve comes into play.

When Obeid received, Thaggard would usually drop toward the ball, pulling his marker, the LB (No. 18), with. As a result, space opened up behind the LB for Gajadhar to move into, forcing either the LCB (No. 4) or DM (No. 8) to cover that run.

If No. 8 went to follow, NJIT’s midfield presence completely disappeared, giving Obeid plenty of space inside to carry into. His decision to pass with his weaker left here does let him down though.

Here, Obeid is able to receive deeper and finds Thaggard down the line, who can then play to Gajadhar moving into the channel behind the LB. The AM performs a nice backheel to get the ball to Brown, running forward, but he fails to do anything with it.

Finally, exploiting the space behind the Highlander FBs was not limited to the right side of the pitch.

In this instance, a careless jump by the NJIT CF allows Noverr to receive and carry forward enough for Volmar to get the ball beyond the reach of the RCM. This, in turn, forces the RB to jump, allowing Jayvin van Deventer (in at AM) to run into the vacated space and receive from the freshman LB.

Other Comments and Notes

  • Dueling was underwhelming this match, but I can’t see that continuing with the literal bodies that have been added to the squad. Noverr (6-foot-4) and Riesz (6-foot-3) are both big, long-legged guys, and Kai Reis (6-foot-2) a freshman forward who got some minutes off the bench, is another with a massive frame.
  • Brown’s DM play was strong. His performance will be remembered for the goal, but he performed well as a connector and facilitator. The senior’s scanning frequency has to be one of the, if not the highest on the team, the benefits of which are reflected in his awareness and decision-making.
  • NU did not sustain pressure in NJIT’s half at all, opting to play vertically as soon as it got past the halfway line. Even if the team’s ethos is going to be transition-based, the entire 90 minutes shouldn’t be spent exclusively looking for forward passes — rest with the ball every once in a while.
  • One of the few good things I will say about the ‘Cats’ intent with the ball is it fits the profiles in the attack. Weiss’ game is built around constantly being a threat on the last shoulder of opposing back lines, and, in space, Gajadhar is just a different level than everybody else out there as a ball carrier and creator. If those two are productive, NU will have its best season under Payne yet.