Forgive me, for this is going to be a shorter article than usual.
That’s because the ‘Cats are playing the same game every time they step onto the field, or at least that’s what it feels like.
The personnel decisions are consistent, the tactics aren’t changing and the identity of the team has been established. Where Northwestern excels in each match isn’t a surprise, and where it struggles shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone either.
I’ve already raised my concerns with the game model Russell Payne is implementing in previous updates, but to not sound like a broken record, I won’t keep repeating them as the season goes on. Just know the sentiment is still there.
Expanding on that, if results start to falter and it turns out NU’s peak was reaching 13th in the United Soccer Coaches Top 25 in late September — which I fear it might be — you can bet it will be because of the issues I’ve covered.
Northwestern 2 (Achara Jr. 55’, Weiss 87’), UC Riverside 0
Friday, Sept. 15, (Evanston, Ill.)
This game bore quite a few similarities to the ‘Cats’ clash with UIC just a few days prior.
Despite being the home side and the presumptive favorite, especially when UC Riverside hadn’t won a match up to this point, Northwestern found itself out of possession for the majority of the contest.
On its face, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The visitors wanted to dictate the game with the ball, and, as we all know, NU is more than happy to play on the counter, so stylistically, this was just how the dynamics of the match were always going to be.
This is where territory becomes important. If the defending team can limit progression, even if it can’t win the ball back quickly via pressing, it’s not in a perilous position. For the most part, the ‘Cats were able to do just that.
The Highlanders, to an extent, put too much of an emphasis on possession. They were often able to keep hold of the ball in the middle third by overloading the front of Northwestern’s defensive structure (usual 4-2-3-1), but that came at the expense of having enough options further up the pitch to create chances.
This idea was best exemplified by the positioning of the “wingers” in the Highlanders’ 3-2-4-1, as they started so deep that the structure looked more like a 3-4-2-1. Often, one of the WCBs would make a line-breaking pass to one of the forwards, who’d look toward the touchline for an overlapping run from the wide man on that side, only for him to be 15 yards behind where he’d ideally be.
After UC Riverside failed to mount any considerable threat in the first period — for the reasons listed above — an Ugo Achara Jr. curler from outside the 18 gave NU the lead early in the second half.
As is the standard response to being 1-0 down with the clock ticking closer to the final whistle, the visiting side began pushing more numbers forward. In turn, more space opened up for the ‘Cats to exploit in transition. Eventually, Justin Weiss took advantage, icing the game in the final moments after getting in behind on the left flank, cutting inside on his favored right and bending the ball inside the far post.
Wisconsin 2 (Baldvinsson 75’, Bielic 87’), Northwestern 2 (Achara Jr. 54’, Obeid 71’)
Tuesday, Sept. 19, (Madison, Wisc.)
For those who have been keeping track, Northwestern is now 6-0-0 when wearing the all-gray uniforms and 0-2-0 when wearing anything else.
In their first test against Big Ten competition of the campaign, the ‘Cats broke out the all-blacks and proceeded to, in my estimation, fail the assessment.
The first question you should be asking is: had they managed to leave Madison with three points, would my opinion be any different? And the answer to that is yes, but only in the sense that I’d be once again criticizing a way of playing that yielded yet another win, as fortunate as I might’ve thought the result was.
Instead, NU came away with a draw that feels more like a loss, throwing away a two-goal lead — one it probably never should’ve had — in the last 15 minutes. The reason I said earlier I’m fearful this team has peaked is because of what it showed in this match, especially the second half. This unbeaten run has been built like a house of cards, and now is well and truly on the verge of collapsing.
It’s not just that Northwestern couldn’t convert a 2-0 lead late into a win, it’s the manner in which it found itself in that position and subsequently gave it away. Wisconsin missed at least three chances from point blank range before beating Jackson Weyman, which is lucky enough on its own, but then the goals the ‘Cats scored should be considered in the “How fortunate did they get?” calculation.
First, Achara Jr.’s opener. While it was a promising situation to begin with — NU had a 4v3 in transition — Weiss’ attempt to find Jayvin Van Deventer wide right getting deflected by a Badger right to the Wildcat CF certainly isn’t the cleanest way to capitalize. Then there’s Ibrahim Obeid getting an easy tap-in because a Wisconsin defender whiffed on a ball across the face of the goal.
Both of these goals also came while the ‘Cats had been completely pinned in their own half, while their opponents sent cross after cross into the box and forced Weyman into big save after big save. You’d honestly be forgiven for thinking this team was invincible after Obeid scored.
However, there’s no doubt now: Northwestern is far from invincible. The aura of impregnability has been lost, the luck might’ve run out and even worse, there’s a massive target on its back because it’s the highest-ranked team in the Big Ten. Opposing sides will give everything they have to get a result, and it’s simply going to come down to whether NU can handle the pressure.
Sunday, Sept. 24 at 1 p.m. CT vs. Ohio State (BTN)
Friday, Sept. 29 at 6 p.m. CT at Maryland (B1G+)
Tuesday, Oct. 3 at 6 p.m. CT vs. Green Bay (B1G+)