In just about every sport that involves attacking and defending, it’s only a little bit of oversimplification to say that tactics come down to forcing the opponent to make decisions over and over again until they make a mistake. In soccer, this often means trying to stretch the defense, which involves moving the ball across the pitch in an attempt to get defenders to either overcommit or slip up as they shift. In the normal run of play, this is just one tactic among many, including playing direct, counterattacking, pressing with the ball, etc. But when the opponent goes a man down — as the San Jose Earthquakes did last night against Minnesota United following Nathan’s red card for a studs up tackle on Bakaye Dibassy in the 21st minute — it can be the best way to exploit the numbers mismatch. According to Head Coach Adrian Heath, there wasn’t enough of it in the second half.
“I actually thought we played well the first half when they went down the man,” he said after the game. “Played more horizontal. Tried to switch the point of attack and spread them out a little bit. I thought second half we were too vertical and didn’t really make the man advantage pay enough.”
If you play vertical, you’re looking for passes up the field, aiming to catch the other team pushing too many people up while leaving gaps. This is most obvious when a team defends in a low block — packing defenders and defensive midfielders near their own box — and then relying on the speed of their attackers to let them spring the counterattack. The Portland Timbers are a good example of a team that has often relied on this approach, and plenty of teams will play a bit more like this on the road, where it’s harder to hold the ball. Those of you with long memories will recall this working particularly well for MNUFC against LAFC at Banc of California Stadium late in 2019 where they played a 5-3-2 formation and unleashed Mason Toye’s speed up top to secure a 2-0 victory.
If you play horizontal, you play more deliberately and patiently, moving the ball across the pitch from side to side. A fullback might push up with the ball before sending it backwards to a centerback, who sends it up to a holding midfielder, who sends it over to the other fullback, who sends it back to the middle. During these stretches of play, a team that’s playing horizontally will have attacking midfielders and forwards looking for spaces between the lines or off to the side. Here’s an example of Minnesota doing this successfully early in the second half:
After mounting one attack that saw the ball move from one side of the pitch to the other in the final third, the Loons regained possession and sent it out wide to the left as Reynoso drifted out wide to the right. You can see that as the Quakes seek to re-establish their defensive shape, Reynoso is left wide open on the right to take the pass and drive towards the goal. The play ended with midfielder Ethan Finlay stumbling in front of goal and forward Adrien Hunou’s shot blocked from close range and back into his arm for a handball, but you can nevertheless see how widening the attack can upend the defense when they’re down a man.
But as midfielder Wil Trapp attested, it’s not just about getting guys into wide areas. While the team’s captain shrugged off the idea of fatigue from Saturday’s game against the Galaxy playing a factor, it was clear that as the game wore on, players were struggling to consistently stay spaced out in a way that could make them dangerous.
“Our spacing was also too far apart,” he said. “We allowed them to isolate players. If you think about [Eric] Remedi getting tackles on [Emanuel Reynoso], that’s a byproduct of us being too far apart. You want to try and create numerical advantages by combining close at times and then springing players wide, springing Ethan [Finlay] wide or Justin [McMaster] when he came in to create more dangerous opportunities.”
And that’s really the vexing and glorious thing about soccer, because at the same time you’re trying to force your opponent to make decisions over and over again until they slip up, you also have to make decisions again and again. Fatigue doesn’t just affect you physically, either — it affects your decision making and there’s precious little way around it when you’re playing for the second time in four days. The spacing and tempo collapse and the game devolves into a series of Herculean efforts to get the ball up the pitch and just put it on frame. Sometimes, soccer can work like this, with one team just overwhelming the other with volume, but more often, it’s about tilting the field one way and then the other as you look for a seam to exploit before they can find the same kind of opening to use against you.