Three weeks into the 2017 season and there are still many unknowns for the San Jose Earthquakes. The Quakes dominated in a 1-0 season-opener victory over the Montreal Impact, then completed a spirited three-goal comeback to defeat the Vancouver Whitecaps 3-2, only to fall 2-1 to Sporting Kansas City in a disappointing first away match on Saturday night. Analyzing the tactical patterns from their last three games, however, offers clues as to what’s to come for the Quakes and how they might look to overcome the vulnerabilities that both SKC and Vancouver exploited.
Tactically, the story of Saturday’s defeat begins long before the Quakes touched down in Kansas, but two weeks earlier during the club’s season opener against Montreal.
The highlight of that night was the Quakes’ successful pressing system, which suffocated Montreal’s passing lanes and mitigated the danger of Montreal playmaker Ignacio Piatti, who was tightly marked by homegrown debutante Nick Lima.
It was not a distinctly high press, but a compact, more patient setup that didn’t pressure the ball, but, rather, clogged the passing lanes and isolated Montreal’s fullbacks. Either Chris Wondolowski or Marco Ureña would cut the support pass backward, the other dropping onto Montreal’s defensive midfielder, and with tight man-marking on the wide men, the opposing fullback had nowhere to turn. The trick worked like a charm in the buildup to Anibal Godoy’s game-winning chip, with Hassoun Camara making a wayward pass into the middle that Godoy picked off and drove towards goal.
Montreal, for their part, sat very deep off the ball, which eased the pressure on the home side’s back-line and allowed them to maintain a steady tempo and give them the time to find Simon Dawkins and Tommy Thompson out wide.
Last weekend’s 3-2 victory over Vancouver, however, could not have been more different in all regards but the result. If the Quakes had expected another tight, subdued affair, they were in for a rude awakening as the Canadian side pressed very high from the get-go, swarming the ball.
The Quakes, very simply, were ill-equipped to handle such overwhelming pressure. Vancouver’s intensity forced a defensive error out of Florian Jungwirth and David Bingham within the opening two minutes, and the early go-ahead goal only spurred them on further. The Quakes attempted to possess their way out of the pressure, but their lack of movement in the middle eliminated their options. More often than not, their possession would end in a dangerous turnover or one of many clearances from Bingham as Vancouver pushed forward in swathes.
The Quakes applied their own counter-press as well, but Vancouver moved the ball quickly and scattered the home side across the midfield. If anything, the Quakes’ pressure was to their own detriment, as was the case when Fatai Alashe lunged into a tackle and earned a yellow card early on.
The Quakes eventually began to settle into the game and found room to breathe in the few moments when Vancouver laid off the pressure, allowing the home side to incorporate the wide men more and, for example, break the Vancouver press in the twelfth minute, leading to the first of Chris Wondolowski’s two disallowed goals:
However, it would get worse before it got better for the Quakes, as Nicolás Mezquida capitalized on lackadaisical marking in the middle to double Vancouver’s lead. The diminutive midfielder shook his marker, Jungwirth, and received the ball from Erik Hurtado’s low cross with acres of space in the middle of the box to take a touch and poke the ball past Bingham. (Spare a thought for the Quakes goalkeeper, who hadn’t had to make a single save all season but let two goals in.)
Jungwirth again switched off shortly thereafter, nearly gifting Vancouver a third goal. Watch him drift away from Hurtado in the clip below, giving the forward room to pull off a quick shot:
Of course, a miraculous turn of events offered the Quakes a lifeline just as they appeared sunk, as David Ousted’s red card killed Vancouver’s momentum and forced them to collapse onto their own goal.
For seventy minutes, the Quakes dominated possession (78%-22%) and inundated the Vancouver box with shots, and the introduction of Jahmir Hyka at halftime was the key to unlocking Vancouver’s defensive. In his forty-five minutes on the pitch, Hyka was the most accurate passer, according to WhoScored data, and also had the most key passes. Certainly, Nick Lima’s equalizing goal early in the second period was of Hyka’s making, and the Albanian’s outstanding performance earned him a spot in the starting lineup the next weekend.
Other strong performers included Lima, who provided excellent service down the right, and Godoy, who controlled the midfield and had excellent distribution with nearly one-hundred-and-fifty-passes.
For all their success against ten men, however, their susceptibility to the high press in the first twenty-minutes was disturbing, laying the groundwork for Sporting Kansas City to seal a similar victory on Saturday night.
San Jose assistant coach John Spencer, who took over on the touchline in Dominic Kinnear’s absence due to illness, said the Quakes “planned all week and watched a couple of Kansas games” to prepare for the press. Unfortunately, their preparation wasn’t evident on the field.
SKC, as expected, incessantly pressed the ball from the opening whistle, targeting full-back Shaun Francis in particular. It worked. SKC cut his options back into the middle, funneling him down the wing and forcing him to run with the ball, the result being an abysmal passing chart for Francis in the first half.
The Quakes, once again, looked to pass their way out of pressure, but very quickly ran into a fundamental problem: they didn’t have the tools to do so. In possession-based systems, the bulk of the build-up work falls on the holding midfielders and fullbacks (look no further than Phillip Lahm’s reversion to fullback under Pep Guardiola), yet CDM Fatai Alashe, for all his defensive talents, has been lacking in terms of touch, and neither full-backs, Lima or Francis, have appeared particularly comfortable under pressure either.
The agility and creativity in the Quakes lineup is highly concentrated on the wings in Hyka, Thompson, Salinas and Dawkins, (a byproduct of Dom’s empty-bucket 4-4-2 formation) but due to SKC’s high press, those players rarely saw the ball while Francis, perhaps the most vulnerable Quakes player on all the ball, had more touches than almost any other player on the field.
Alternatively, SKC’s quick interplay easily evaded the pressure the Quakes applied, and the home side exploited huge gaps in the Quakes midfield with quick cross-field switches. Given Francis’ tendency to push high up the wing, SKC had acres of space to attack when they broke through the pressure, as seen below:
Chaos ensued for the visitors. The Quakes slowly began to drop off to avoid exposing themselves but were wholly disjointed in their efforts, which led to the bizarre circumstances in which Chris Wondolowski could be seen backtracking deeper than Francis. They lost what shape they had and, their gameplan having been so thoroughly dismantled, failed to settle on an alternative, leaving them in a tactical limbo of sorts.
The Quakes reorganized in the second half but were never truly comfortable in control of the ball and lacked penetration. SKC, for their part, wanted nothing to do with possession, contented to maintain their shape and attack on the break.
A more clinical team would surely have capitalized on the sloppiness of their opponents; nevertheless, SKC got the job done courtesy of Benny Feilhaber’s smashing strike and David Bingham’s uncharacteristic gaffe.
Though the match, and first half in particular, might read like a tactical disaster, it’s not quite that bleak. Despite their unsuccessful result, the Quakes kept themselves in the match until the very end, and if not for a crucial stop by Tim Melia in an extraordinary finish, the Quakes might have nipped a draw out of the game, however undeserved.
Knowing they’re now likely to be high-pressed by other opponents for the near future, Kinnear has twelve days to formulate an alternative strategy that emphasizes the side’s stronger points, rather than their weaknesses. And, given their offseason additions, the former still look to outnumber the latter.