Talking tactics ... something we struggled with before

Even the big coaching brains around MLS have sometimes found it difficult to properly dissect the chaos of league matches. BUT ... it's getting easier.

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with former L.A. Galaxy coach Ruud Gullit. We were discussing David Beckham’s role on the field, which had been altered for the evening – and to devastating effect. It was a temporary tactical tweak that worked exactly as it was supposed to, unbalancing a defense that didn’t know how to deal with Beckham in the positions where he was popping up.

So Gullit was in a good mood. For once, a tactical shift had been fruitful for the Dutch coach. But as we talked, something more revealing came tumbling out.

 

He essentially said that Major League Soccer was this wildly unpredictable beast. Tactical planning at a higher level was a crapshoot because games were so predictably unpredictable. Subpar or small fields, physical play, inconsistent refereeing, players who could vary wildly in form and travel that wore down the troops …it all added up to games that were difficult to get your arms around from tactical standpoint.

He didn’t say all that, exactly. Mostly, he made a funny face, threw his arms out wide and kind of laughed while he said something like, “In this league, who knows? Who can tell what’s going to happen? Nobody can!”

And he had a point. Gullit never really wanted to be here, and that’s why his tenure was so epically failed at L.A., even if he was a smart egg.  But even if Gullit's heart was in it, he wouldn’t have been able to import the tactical sophistication to MLS as he may have wanted. He was always a shrewd player, and he probably thought he could layer some of his experience and wile into the Galaxy enterprise. But he got here and found that scouting an opponent on a Wednesday may not help much in sussing out how they’ll play on a Saturday.

That was just three years ago. Even this year, Hans Backe took the New York Red Bulls’ helm and soon assessed that MLS matches tended to be “chaotic.” His word, not mine. But a very astute observation.

I have a theory, however, that it’s changing. As the collective quality gets better and better, you can actually engage in conversations about what’s likely to transpire. You can look back at certain tactical arrangements and sort out why this one worked or why that one didn’t.

 

Previously, you could break down individual matchups, of course. And you could certainly compare styles of play. But going much deeper into the little tactical conundrums was tricky at best, and sometimes just plain impossible.

I write a weekly column for Major League Soccer’s web site on tactics. I’ll let you in on a little insider secret: the brains behind the MLS web site have tried through the years to include a weekly column of this sort. But it never really stuck, eve though some pretty smart patootties were in charge of it.

For a couple of years I wrote something of a tactical piece. But it was really more about individuals and lineup choices. You could always sort that out; who was better when partnered with whom, what basic formation people where playing, which roles best suited which players, tactical substitutions, etc.

But what you couldn’t do was a deeper tactical analysis, the kind Jonathan Wilson does so well. Or the sophisticated material that the terrific site Zonal Marking does so well. Reason – it’s simple: The product just wasn’t reliably consistent.

How could you write about certain players’ movements relative to one another when the players often weren’t good enough to control the ball reliably, where the game too quickly spun into the chaotic series of turnovers as Backe talked about?

The latest tactical columns I’ve done for the MLS site includes a breakdown of this Friday’s biggie: The New York Red Bulls at Los Angeles (I'll link to it as soon as they post it.)  Here's one on the emergence of the deep-lying playmaker in MLS.  And here's one on Thierry  Henry's role with Red Bull. And finally here's one where I profess my desire to see a little more love for the 4-2-3-1 aound MLS.

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