In his first two seasons, Russell Payne spent August and much of September cycling through a variety of strategies and setups, but this year has been anything but that. Northwestern has a clear identity, and while there are still questions over its efficacy, especially in conference play, it’s hard to argue with three wins and a draw in four contests.
This is not to suggest consistency in ideas has led to better results. In fact, much of what comprises “tactics” in any match is opponent-dependent, meaning (appropriate) change from one game to the next is a vital component of winning. The stability in approach and positive outcomes just happen to be the two primary themes of the ‘Cats’ opening four games.
One additional benefit of NU’s unchanging strategy is I’ve already laid out the general components of it in my piece from last week, so I can focus on match-specific adaptations and more minute details. Provided Payne doesn’t completely switch things up, this should lead to more brevity in articles going forward without sacrificing clarity.
Anyway, here’s what the Wildcats got up to in their first two away matches of the campaign:
Milwaukee 1 (O’Garro 10’), Northwestern 2 (Weiss 18’, McCamy 67’)
Friday, Sept. 1, (Milwaukee, Wis.)
Even if I didn’t add the caveat about trying to keep the word count on these updates in check, I would not be writing much about this affair.
Milwaukee, first of all, was extremely rudimentary in possession (IP). The Panthers’ primary attacking strategy was to hit long balls up to their striker and take advantage of the chaos that formed when he was able to knock the ball down to a teammate. Otherwise, they hardly got close to scoring from open play, relying on set pieces as the alternative method of chance creation — their lone goal came from a corner.
Now, to be fair to the Horizon League side, simple doesn’t equate to bad, especially when said center forward was winning all of his duels, but there’s just not much more to say on the matter.
Only when a Collin McCamy free kick gave the ‘Cats the lead midway through the second period did Milwaukee start prioritizing possession of the ball more. Northwestern held firm in its 4-4-1-1/4-4-2 midblock, and the few chances that did fall to the home side weren’t converted.
NU’s IP was nearly just as uninspiring, with much of what I previously discussed (unsurprisingly) still applicable. Getting quality opportunities to score from settled play is this team’s biggest weakness.
Having said that, when they had the ball, the Wildcats did display some interesting movements and patterns to play through the Panthers’ defensive structure.
The wide positioning of the Northwestern CBs isn’t a mistake, nor is Jackson Weyman being that far out of his own net. Against Milwaukee’s very passive 4-1-4-1, this alignment created a 3v1 against the CF (No. 9) and offered simple circulation routes around any attempted pressing from him.
Additionally, the Panthers went man-to-man in the midfield, but only to a certain limit. If Rom Brown shuttled to the touchline, the LCM (No. 22) would pass him on to the LW (No. 20), but this is where the problems began.
In response to Brown’s movement, the RB (Ibrahim Obeid at the start of the match) would push higher. Initially, Milwaukee had a response to this, with No. 22 moving deeper to block access to Brandon Clagette, while No. 20 would press Brown in-to-out. This would force the senior midfielder back to Nigel Prince at RCB, and the Wildcats would presumably have to restart their attack.
However, this restart gave NU an opportunity. After Brown passes to Prince, the Atlanta native goes “back” (more like sideways) to his goalkeeper, evading the half-hearted press from No. 9 and, more importantly, initiating a reset in Milwaukee’s block. While the Panthers’ left side reorganized, Brown stayed exactly where he was. Two passes later, he’s receiving with far more space as No. 20’s recovery distance has increased, and can now look forward to the overload down the line.
The clip below is a prime example, and while nothing comes of it in this particular instance, the intent is what’s important.
Later on — primarily in the second half, when NU had the ball on one side — the Panthers would have the winger on the opposite side narrow onto the ball-far DM. Then, the Milwaukee ball-far CM would move across to mark
Here, Reese Mayer is in possession down Northwestern’s left, so the LW (now No. 10) moves infield to mark Brown (RDM) and No. 22 goes to McCamy (now LDM).
As previously covered, Weyman’s connectivity between the two CBs enables easy circulation around No. 9, and the ‘Cats can access the far-side without much trouble. In this situation, when Reese Mayer gets the ball to Prince via the GK, a farther pass to Bryant Mayer at RB will create some problems for the Panthers.
That specific pass necessitates a jump by No. 10 from Brown to Bryant Mayer, or else the freshman can just carry forward. In turn, that defensive action frees Brown, unless No. 19 (DM) jumps to him from his shielding position; but then, that opens space centrally, which Jason Gajadhar can arrive in.
This exact situation led to Clagette getting a good look at goal following a one-two with Justin Weiss, and, in my opinion, was the best sequence Northwestern conjured all game.
DePaul 1 (Mackey 50’), Northwestern 1 (Bryant Mayer 84’)
Monday, Sept. 4, (Chicago, Ill.)
You know what didn’t stay consistent? The uniforms.
After playing all three of its previous games in the new, all-gray strips, Northwestern went back to the standard all-purples and failed to win for the first time this season.
If there wasn’t much to say on the ‘Cats’ clash with Milwaukee, there really isn’t much to say on their first clash of the year with another Chicago-based school. The game gave off the effect of a training session, with the same exact sequences being drilled over and over again, but yielding little success.
Both sides struggled to play through the press presented to them by their opponents — NU’s standard 4-2-3-1 press against DePaul’s 4-1-2-3 buildup, DePaul’s 4-4-2 press against NU’s usual 4-2-1-3 buildup. As a result, long balls from defenders became quite a common occurrence, and winning second balls in the midfield was the only reliable progression method for either team.
Naturally, set pieces played a massive part in determining the outcome of this match. Following a bombardment of the Wildcat box early in the second period, a corner fell to a Blue Demon at the edge of the box, and he volleyed it into the top corner to break the deadlock.
The home side had opportunities to put the game away while the ‘Cats chased an equalizer, but couldn’t beat Weyman for a second time. By nodding home a McCamy corner in the 84th minute, Bryant Mayer made the Blue Demons pay for their lack of clinical edge and preserved Northwestern’s unbeaten record.
To be honest, after DePaul scored, NU looked especially poor, and it really didn’t do enough to warrant getting a draw out of this fixture.
In an effort to improve Northwestern’s play in deeper phases, Payne switched from the 4-2-1-3 to a 3-1-2-4 by pushing the RB high in the wide right channel and narrowing the RW. The impact was minimal, with the only real benefit being the 3v2 it created against DePaul’s front two. This led to the ‘Cats having a bit more (unthreatening) possession, but the transition defense was severely weakened, and they had even greater struggles entering the final third. In fact, the corner that resulted in the goal came from a rare foray into that part of the pitch.
While this might sound pretty doom and gloom, especially for a team that’s 3-1-0, it wasn’t all bad. Ugo Achara Jr. made his much-anticipated second debut for the Wildcats, entering the game in the 28th minute. Within 10 minutes, he had already picked up a yellow for attempting a bicycle kick, but making contact with a nearby defender’s cheek instead of the ball.
Additionally, first-year Fritz Volmar deserves a mention. He’s come in and made the left back position his own, and it’s not hard to see why. The Peoria native is physically gifted — he’s quick and has a massive tackling/dueling radius due to his long legs. His technical level is equally as good, and the defensive fundamentals are there as well.
Friday, Sept. 8 at 7 p.m. CST vs. Northern Illinois (B1G+)
Monday, Sept. 11 at 7 p.m. CST vs. UIC (B1G+)
Friday, Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. CST vs. UC Riverside (B1G+)