Rodriguez FCD
Mike Fiechtner

Analysis: Breaking down the Sounders' buildout play and tactics in possession

In Handwalla Bwana’s post-match interview after the Portland friendly, the Homegrown midfielder made an intriguing comment about the team’s tactical game plan.

“The new system that we are playing is really good for the wingers because they get isolated 1v1,” he said, “and that’s what I’m good at.”

Throughout the preseason, players and coaches said the team was focusing heavily on building from the back and attacking combinations that unbalance the opposition’s defensive shape. Under Head Coach Brian Schmetzer, the key principles of the Sounders’ game model have centered on building from the back and sustaining possession in the opponent’s half to pull defenders out of position.

While the pillars remain the same, the three preseason friendlies revealed that certain game cues, triggers, progression patterns and rotations have changed.

Added midfielder Cristian Roldan ahead of the FC Dallas match: “We’ve been implementing some tactics and a slightly different formation than what we’ve been accustomed to.”

TEAM SHAPE

The Sounders game model in possession is broken into three stages: progression, unbalancing, and finishing.

In the progression phase, the key is to create numerical advantages in the build-up as the team looks to dissect the press. When the Rave Green squared off against FC Dallas, they utilized two fluid, interchangeable shapes – though the exact location of certain players differed based upon midfield rotations – to play through pressure.

“If you divide the field into lanes, we never want to have two players in the same lane,” said Schmetzer. “It’s always one here, one here, one here, so the spacing is good… So, really, [the system] is about all of our players and putting them in the best positions we can so that they can be successful.”

Since Dallas led its press with two players, the Sounders consistently built out through three, with Gustav Svensson’s positioning being the key differentiating factor between the two shapes. This flexibility provided some moments of magic, as the intricate possession sequences led to 5-6 high-quality scoring chances in the first half alone.

MIDFIELD ROTATIONS

In seasons past, Seattle has utilized a double-pivot to establish superior numbers in midfield, plug gaps and recycle possession. But in preseason, they opted for a single pivot at times, empowering Roldan and Nicolás Lodeiro to do what they do best: find space off the ball. Both players are elite at interpreting and creating space, as they repeatedly swap positions in midfield. On Saturday, their movement and counter-movement consistently pulled apart Dallas’ defensive shape.

Last year, the Sounders typically progressed possession down the flanks. But if the three preseason matches are any indication of their tactical plans in 2019, look for the Rave Green to mount attacks centrally, forcing the opponent to collapse inward, and then release the wingers and outside backs.

Each of Seattle’s three central midfielders brings different traits to the single-pivot role. Svensson likes to circulate possession and set the tempo. Conversely, Roldan’s lung-busting runs – both on and off the ball – act like a battering ram to the high-press. When Lodeiro drops deep and picks up possession off the center backs, he operates like an old-school regista, carving opponents apart with slide-rule passes and through-balls.

In the above clip, Roldan and Svensson take up positions higher up the pitch, which creates a passing lane for Lodeiro to thread an inch-perfect through-ball.

One last thing: in Kim Kee-hee and Chad Marshall, the Sounders have two high-quality, ball-playing defenders. When the team runs out a single pivot, the advanced midfielders can drag players a bit wider, creating lanes for the center backs to play line-breaking passes to the wide midfielders in the half-spaces.

CREATING NUMERICAL OVERLOADS

Within the Sounders’ game model, the creation of numerical overloads is critical to the unbalancing phase. Against FC Dallas, they oscillated between two different attacking strategies: wide and central overloads.

In the above clip, the central space is occupied by Kelvin Leerdam, Jordan Morris, Raúl Ruidíaz, Rodríguez and Lodeiro. With Ruidíaz isolated 1-v-1 against a Dallas center back, he’s able to ghost past man and fire off a dangerous shot.

One of the triggers on display against Dallas involved the movement of the outside backs. Time after time, as soon as Rodríguez received a pass in the half-space, it instigated an overlapping run from Brad Smith. With the Spanish midfielder driving inside, the Australian’s penetrating run forced the opponent’s left back to choose between tracking the run or defending Rodríguez.

When creating an overload in the wide areas, one of Lodeiro or Roldan would slide across to assist the wide midfielder and outside back, while the other camped out centrally, acting as a release valve in possession.

Throughout preseason, the team routinely initiated possession one side of the pitch, forcing the opponent shift over, and then promptly played a long diagonal for the weakside winger to attack 1-v-1. This sequence leaves guys like Bwana, Morris and Rodríguez isolated against an outside back, a tantalizing prospect for fans of attacking soccer.

TACTICAL WRINKLES

Here are a few other takeaways on the team’s tactical diversity.

  • Lined up as a right midfielder, Morris routinely tucked inside, occupying one of the center backs. This left Ruidíaz 1-v-1 with the other central defender. With the Peruvian’s elite movement inside the box, this will lead to plenty of chances for El Nuevo Nueve.
  • When Roldan lined up as a No. 10 for the Sounders last season, he didn’t dissect opponents with seeing-eye passes. Rather, he shattered their shape with off-the-ball runs behind the back four. When Lodeiro dropped deep alongside Svensson on Saturday, Roldan took up more advanced positions and supplied secondary runs that complimented Ruidíaz.
  • Some of Seattle’s best attacking sequences came when Rodríguez drifted inside and combined with Lodeiro and Ruidíaz. With three highly technical, intelligent players in close quarters, this pattern will yield some thrilling goals.
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