In soccer, there is the field of play and there are the players upon that field. How those players approach their movement — whether on offense or defense — determines how the pitch gets divided up and where space is created. And space, as Sun Ra pointed out, is the place. It is what makes the game fundamentally possible, and how teams manipulate space is what gives them an identity.
The majority of teams in MLS defend territory before they defend individual players. Of course, from week to week you might see a player like Ike Opara dedicated more or less to staying within arm’s length of a threat like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but generally speaking attackers are passed off from defender to defender as they move across the pitch.
That’s not how it goes for Matias Almeyda’s San Jose Earthquakes, though, and last night, Minnesota United put on a clinic on how to break down the Quakes’ man-marking scheme.
In Almeyda’s system — which the coach used to great effect en route to titles at River Plate and Banfield in Argentina and Guadalajara in Liga MX — each player is tasked with following a specific opposing player everywhere on the pitch. Although the Quakes struggled initially with the system this season, they came into Wednesday’s game at Allianz Field on a six-game winning streak. When it works, it’s a suffocating approach, demanding quick thinking and even quicker passing from the opposing team to break it down.
“We knew the one-two touch and give-and-go would probably help us,” said Miguel Ibarra. “For the wide guys, me staying out wide gave a lot of space for the centerbacks to go in because [my defender] wouldn’t leave me alone.”
A few times, Ibarra and his fellow winger on the right side, Ethan Finlay, ended up on opposite sides of the pitch. Although it might have looked tactical given San Jose’s defense, it was actually happenstance based on Minnesota’s own defense. Regardless of the intent, it exposed a weakness of San Jose’s system.
“That’s kind of how we ended up defensively,” said Ibarra. “They probably thought that was a gameplan thing, so it gets them kind of confused and they already have man-marks, so they’re probably going to try and figure out what to do now. Kind of play with their heads there.”
Aside from one-two passes and changes of field, there are other ways to take advantage of a man-marking system. San Jose played the game in a 4-2-3-1 formation, mirroring MNUFC. That meant that the Quakes forward Chris Wondolowski had double defensive duties on centerbacks Ike Opara and Michael Boxall.
“We’ve just got the one striker, sort of between me and Ike,” said Boxall. “We just have to be patient, pick our times and if we move the ball quickly and once we move past them, we know there’s a lot of space and whoever cuts off the man to you, leaves their man free so you just give it to them.”
Several times in the game, both Opara and Boxall got free runs almost the length of the pitch because of this mismatch and Boxall managed to make the Quakes pay in the 52nd minute with the definition of an opportunistic goal.
“I got way too high and the air is a lot thinner out there so I wanted to give it to someone who is better on the ball than me and that’s just about everyone on our team,” laughed Boxall. His attempted pass to Darwin Quintero bounced off the foot of San Jose defender Judson and directly back to the centerback.
“I’m not sure what I was thinking when I was carrying on the run,” he added. “I think when I’m running at that speed, it takes a little while for me to slow down.”
The reward for his inertia was a strike more or less through the hands of goalkeeper Daniel Vega. While attackers like Quintero might have an array of celebrations in mind, defenders like Boxall rarely go into a game planning to score, so his celebration was spontaneous — and nearly involved a bit of its own close and unintentional man-marking.
“I scored and then I ran along the goal line and I remember seeing all the guys in the bibs warming up so I was like ‘Let’s celebrate with them,’” he said. “But then I was like ‘That’s the other team,’ so probably not a good idea.”