Monday, August 27, 2012

The MLS Grinder: Full Impact

Back in March, when the MLS season was still in its primordial stage, I wrote this about Montreal's well-attended, spirited home opener. It was something to behold, a star being born in the inky darkness from a spasm of pure energy. It was an incredibly encouraging thing. And, for most MLS fans, it was more or less a sign that they could stop paying attention to the Impact. After this burst of popularity, this raggedy MLS expansion side would surely fade into background noise as had the Whitecaps before them and the Timbers before them and so on. It was the place of expansion sides to simply slip back into the void once the summer began and do so quietly, please and thank you.

The Impact have not listened. After a 3-0 trucking of DC on Saturday, Montreal won its fourth in a row and made a convincing claim that they're in this thing for the duration. A quick glimpse at the standings confirms that the Impact are very much alive in the East, and it would be foolish to write them out of it now. But why? Safe to say that this has caught nearly all of us with our pants down.

First we have to take in the numbers. Here's a league table from Tempo Free Soccer which charts a number of relatively important metrics and formulates its own rankings based on these. This is through Aug. 23.

What's important to note first, and what is most eye-catching, is not what Montreal does well but rather what they do poorly. This is where we must start, and there are a few things that bear mentioning. It is reasonable to expect the Impact to be poor away from home, and they are (2-10-1). But the possession numbers are lacking by league standards. Montreal possesses the ball 125 times per game, which is worse than all but two teams in the league (ironically NYRB is 18th, ahead of only offensively snakebitten Chivas). In each of its last four games, Montreal has managed to significantly out-pass its opponents just once, and the Impact rarely spend much time in the opponent's third. The defense has been equally as inadequate. Montreal is allowing roughly 10 attempts per game (17th), 3.4 shots per game (13th) and is 16th in expected goals against at 1.07.

But the trend-bucking bit here is something very interesting to behold. Despite cutting out its own central midfield arguably more than any team in MLS, Montreal is somehow peppering opponents' keepers with abandon. Despite a porous defense that struggles horribly to undergird possessions and an inadequate midfield that has trouble providing a direct spark, Montreal is still scoring and winning. How does that work?

The next thing I'd like to do is point out a few heat maps, and the first belongs to central defender Alessandro Nesta after Montreal's most 3-0 win Saturday. Nesta has been lining up in right central defense roughly behind defensive midfielder Patrice Bernier in a 4-2-3-1, which is how it looked on Saturday. The XI itself is interesting because it represents Jesse Marsch at his most resourceful. With the exception of Felipe's lightly freckled heat map, not a single one of Montreal's five midfielders showed much of a predilection for getting forward and staying there. Wingback Jeb Brovsky and wide man Lamar Neagle spent very little time consistently stationed in the attacking third, while Marco Di Vaio was forced to be an opportunist. And yet Montreal has profited from this formula in the goals column. Nesta is one of two major reasons why.

Nesta is only nominally a defender for the Impact. Yes, he performs those functions too, but his primary utility has come from his ability to spread counters and spur build-ups with a calm patience. Since joining on July 5, he's been incredibly handy this year. Against DC he completed a game-high 56 passes, few of which were check-down square or back passes. More telling, his heat map has a blood-red mass in the advanced space just before half field. The man Nesta tied with for passes that day? Midfielder Patrice Bernier, our other key cog to Montreal's success. Bernier, you'll remember, is a holding midfielder who threw down his anchor directly in front of Nesta in the original team sheet. The natural evolution of games have worn this down, however. As games press on, he'll gradually shift his sphere of influence to the left as Nesta slowly steps up to pair with him in the deep-set midfield. It is from here, from these two spaces, that the foundational architecture of Montreal's offense is poured.

With no real attacking midfield threat in the center of the park, this of course pushes the genesis of Montreal's offense backward and limits the opportunity for traditional build-up play. It also opens up space at the back for exploitation from enterprising attacks. But, with two thrifty "midfielders" linking together play, it does allow for plenty of chances, and Montreal has been surprisingly efficient at using those to its advantage.

The bottom-line here is that Impact are thriving at chance creation in a relatively unorthodox setup. They are fourth in attempts on goal per game, 10th in shots on goal and seventh in expected goals. From a team with little in the way of possession metrics, this is surprising to say the least. Saturday served as a perfect illustration for Montreal's ability to use blank canvases well. The first goal came off a throw-in restart, and Bernier, playing on his favored left side, unlocked DC's defense with this beautifully weighted ball that wrong-footed Brandon McDonald. Di Vaio finished beautifully.

Bernier converted a penalty kick for the second goal, and I'd like to take a look at Montreal's third — Bernier's second — because I think it's instructive. First off, look where Bernier's mazy run starts. Right in his wheelhouse, that upper left corridor, where he breaks off DeRo's charge and then is off into cavernous space for a run that yielded a goal.

After a fierce run down that channel, Bernier went far post and finished a chance that began with Nesta and didn't involve a single midfield pass. It was quite a day for Bernier, but he's been crazy effective all year. And he knows as well as anybody how Montreal's offense operates best. Had he deposited a pass into Montreal's midfield at any point in that run, Bernier is playing against the odds. In this offense, better to drop your head, bull forward and create a chance for others through your own guile. This is how Montreal's offense is set up to work, and through an odd sort of cohesion it does its job. I wouldn't suggest it to many teams, but expansion sides have to work with what they've got. It is here where I tip my cap to Marsch's utilitarianism.

Here are the facts. Montreal is a well below-average team in possession, is more or less poor defensively, and yet because they pour on attacks indiscriminately, they are climbing the ladder. It is a shining example of the old adage that you can't win the raffle if you don't buy a ticket. My thesis is that efficiency is important but volume is paramount. A fully blind offense merely snapping off shots without intelligent design is just as destined for failure as is one that plays a beautifully showy build-up and yet does little in the box. As Montreal is proving, shots are a precious commodity in this game. If you can take them, do it. Few are living that maxim better.

- Will Parchman

1 comment:

Malcolm said...

Really like the analysis here of how Montreal is scoring goals. Quality stuff. Marsch is really coming on as one of the young coaches to watch in East (along with Olsen and Klopas).

One quibble with Montreal's playoff push. They have played 2 and sometimes 3 more games than the teams in front of them. This push may not be enough. To make the playoffs they will need to continue their blistering pace. Getting 15 points out of the last 5 games is damn amazing. Any draw and or loss right now is going to seriously hamper them down the stretch.

I think Columbus is a bit more dangerous in the East to catch someone (4 games in hand to Montreal and at the minimum a game in hand against each team currently occupying a playoff spot).

Anyways should be fun to watch.