Tactics in MLS (And/Or The Supplemental Nature Of OptaStats)


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I tend to consider tactics and Major League Soccer like an unabridged dictionary in a fourth grade classroom. While the study and employment of tactics within MLS happens, there is less tactical sophistication in MLS than in the more established leagues of the world.

One thing is clear about tactics: the biggest key to their successful use is that an advantage or disadvantage must be identified by a manager in order for that to be exploited or minimized. In my opinion, the talent level in MLS is relatively flat. There aren’t many “game changers” in MLS. 10 years ago Thierry Henry was a game changer in any league. At this point, he is a game changer in MLS. Those players can be difficult to find (and/or afford) in MLS. Across the board, players are pretty evenly matched. There are definitely some differences, but they tend to be subtle. That’s one reason why, in my opinion, MLS tends to have a higher prevalence of results that are dictated by chance (set piece, penalty call, outright mistake) rather than upon strategy.

Having said all of that, it is changing. Most of the clubs still play a version of the 4-4-2 or 4-4-2 diamond. Formation is only one small piece of the tactical puzzle though. Everything from direction of attack, to tempo, to players playing out of position can factor into the strategic decisions of a manager on the field. As better players and more sophisticated managers enter the picture, I think we’ll find meaningful tactical shifts more prevalent.

So to Opta. The statistics information provide by Opta cannot alone allow you to discover a team’s strategy. It’s very difficult to sit down after a match, grab the Chalkboard, and go. Opta’s information is best used as a supplement. With all of the observations you make, you can formulate your hypotheses for how a team coped or dominated. At this point, Opta becomes very helpful. You can then take your hard work and scrutinize it against the hard stats, and find out whether they jibe with your argument.

Here would be an example. I know you are probably sick of analysis of the Philadelphia/Chivas match this week, but as I pointed out there was an interesting substitution at halftime. Jordan Harvey, the team’s starting left fullback, was removed for Keon Daniel, who is a left midfielder by trade. Why do I feel that Nowak made this substitution? My initial hypothesis was that it was because Daniel, being a midfielder, would be more likely to get forward with better pace and width. I was able to speak with Keon, and all he indicated was that he believes Nowak hasn’t put him in training to play that position. Let’s examine this in these Opta chalkboards, analyzing approximately the final third for the entire timeframe of the match (this works because they were exchanged):

Harvey's Final Third

Daniel's Final Third

It may be difficult to read in this picture, but the difference between Harvey and Daniel in the final third is quite interesting. Harvey played more passes in the final third in his 45 minutes, and they played the same number of crosses. So the question begs: does this ruin my hypothesis?

The complicating factor is the score. The Union were behind for 20+ minutes while Harvey was on, while they were ahead for a similar amount of time while Daniel was on the pitch. If you look further at Daniel’s numbers, you see his runs forward subsided slightly after the 68th minute, when Ruiz broke the tie. The number of Harvey’s runs were similar before and after the opening Chivas goal at the 28th minute, but given that there was less time after the goal than before, the rate would be higher upon falling behind.

This is hand-waving of course, and to the best of my ability I’d say that my argument is plausible, that Nowak had expected Daniel to give more width, forward push, and linkup with LeToux on the left side. Of course in football you can never predict if and when your efforts will prove fruitful, and in this case a Veljko Paunovic goal three minutes after the break changed the urgency for the fullbacks to surge.

To reiterate my point, I don’t believe you can independently use OptaStats to dig into a manager’s brain without a knowledge of the match itself. I’m sure there are cases where it’s possible, but it is a great tool for verifying and supplementing your visual analysis of the match. If you have your own analysis you’d like to provide for MLS matches on this site, feel free to contact the Gaffer or myself, or leave a comment below.

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