With the 2012 season set to kick off for the Revs tomorrow I figured it would be a good time to quickly check back on last season and see what went so horribly wrong.
Tactics in soccer are something employed by a coach or manager in an attempt to give his team the best chance of winning. There is no one tactic that can trump all. There are things like the skill of the players, the weather, field conditions, the officials, and the motivation of the squads that can ultimately decide the direction that a match goes. The idea is, that with all things being equal, the coach who puts his squad in the best positions with the best direction will ultimately succeed.
The Revs of 2011 could not claim to be anyone’s equal. They had a severe problem in the player skill department and no matter how many times manager Steve Nicol or player czar Mike Burns tried to go to the well and fix this problem the results never really improved. French imports Didier Domi and Osmane Dabo were expected to make a major impact but neither made it until the end of the season. Injury ended Marko Perovic’s season (and subsequently his Revs career). And the Revs ended the season with a roster that had only five natural defenders. Expectations were never high.
That does not mean that the tactics employed by Nicol can not be examined. In general, the season can be split up into two halves. The way the Revs took the field was very different before and after midfielder Benny Feilhaber joined the club through the infamy of Major League Soccer’s allocation process.
Pre-Feilhaber (PF) – April 09, 2011 vs RSL
Above is how the Revs lined up when they took on Real Salt Lake on April 9, 2011. RSL trotted out their second string in this match after having taken on Saprissa in Costa Rica the previous Tuesday and still defeated the Revs 2-0. 7,090 apparently willing observers witnessed a Revs squad determined to sit deep when not in possession and look to bypass the midfield when the had the ball.
The line-up, featuring three defensive midfielders (Joseph, Phelan, and McCarthy) was as negative in practice as it is here in graphic form. Coupled with a forward who struggles to hold the ball and connect with teammates and full backs who’s ability to join the attack is inconsistent at best, the Revs rarely saw the ball.
Any line-up that sports three defensive midfielders protecting the back four deserves to be maligned but in reality, when considering the large talent discrepancy, the Revs had gotten results (four matches without a loss) with this formation. It can be argued that Nicol’s tactics were giving the Revs the best chance they could to win with the players they had.
The Benny Feilhaber Era begins
Thanks to Major League Soccer’s Allocation Process the Revs were able to add cultured US midfielder Benny Feilhaber into the fold. This move was well received in New England, and with good reason, Feilhaber is the rare player capable of something special.
With his addition, Nicol began to use a 4-4-2 formation in an attempt to get Shalrie Joseph and Feilhaber to partner in the middle and win the midfield battle. In theory, Feilhaber, a more creative player, partnered with Joseph, the more combative, should have led to increased possession of the ball and better results.
As seen above, when the Revs took on the Portland Timbers on September 16, 2011, the Revs came out in a 4-4-2, attempting to match the formation of their opponents and win the possession battle. Certainly, players like Feilhaber and Joseph are players you want in a possession oriented side, however, having a center back at left back in Barnes, a right back who struggles going forward in Alston, a striker who can’t play with back to goal in Lekic and the other striker limited in his mobility due to size and fitness, the Revs hardly had the recipe to go on the road, keep the ball, and win the match.
The Revs really struggled at holding the ball once they got it all season. Their strikers were often isolated. When the midfield and full backs would look to join the attack it was often too late, leaving them out of position and susceptible to the counter attack. With Joseph and Feilhaber looking to get forward and create goals the Revs midfield was often vacated. The space in front of the Revs backline was exploited constantly leaving players like Ryan Cochrane completely overwhelmed.
The Revs were certainly better to watch once Feilhaber joined the club (Zerka, Lekic, and Caraglio helped as well). They were not more effective though. In the six matches before Benny Feilhaber the Revs had a record of 1 win, 3 draws, and 2 losses. They allowed only one goal per game while earning one point per game. In the 28 matches after Feilhaber the team allowed 1.82 goals per game and only earned .79 points per game.
The Revs were never going to be successful due to a weak overall squad. Nicol’s hand was forced to play negative tactics in an attempt to get something out of every match. When the Revs attempted to match their opponents and out possess them they were caught out time and again.