MLS New England Revolution

Tuesday Re-Watch: The Revolution, quite literally, gave away that match…

The Revolution suffered their first loss of 2021 on Saturday afternoon, 2-0 to host Nashville SC. There were many factors that aggravated supporters in this one, such as the formation, the lack of cohesion, too many sloppy giveaways, and lastly but not as important — at least in this typist’s view — a non-called late penalty which, if we’re being honest, would not have been enough to signal a momentum switch with only a few minutes remaining in the match.

Let’s break it down with our Tuesday Re-Watch.

The XI/Personnel

Bruce Arena made only one change to the starting lineup Saturday, with Gustavo Bou reclaiming his spot and forcing Brandon Bye to the bench. Tajon Buchanan, who has spent most of this season as a winger — as he has trained there since February — moved to right back in place of Bye.

Arena also elected to match Nashville’s 4-4-2 with a 4-4-2 of his own. DeJuan Jones, Henry Kessler, and Andrew Farrell joined Buchanan in the back line. The midfield consisted of Arnór Traustason, Maciel, Matt Polster, and Carles Gil from left to right, with Bou and Adam Buksa working in a two-striker system.

Matt Turner, who came into the match three saves shy of 250 in his Major League Soccer career, was in goal (and he surpassed 250 saves early in the second half).

For the first time this season, Arena used all five substitutes (minute entered in parenthesis):

Wilfrid Kaptoum for Maciel (64’)
Teal Bunbury for Traustason (64’)
Bye for Jones (64’)
Edward Kizza for Bou (76’)
Tommy McNamara for Polster (76’)

When Bye entered, the formation went to a more attacking 3-5-2, with Buchanan moving up to the left wing. The back line was then Bye, Farrell, and Kessler, from right to left.

Offense hampered by lack of movement, giveaways

One of the problems that affected the game for the Revolution was a lack of movement in the first half; there were a couple of times where the cameras showed Gil and Polster looking seemingly flustered by the fact that there were no passing options, and while we don’t know for sure since the camera angle was only focused on them instead of the players up the pitch, we have to hypothesize that Bou and Buksa and Traustason were not moving into space closer to the ball and making themselves available to receive a pass. We saw that in the 24th minute: Gil had retrieved the ball off a Farrell takeaway, looked for options before he passed back to Farrell and threw his hands into the air. In the broadcast, former Revolution striker Charlie Davies interpreted that reaction as Gil pleading to his attackers to, “Give me movement.” He soon got the ball back and sent a long ball over the top which went to Nashville’s Walker Zimmerman. Giveaway.

We feel you, Carles. We feel you. But while that hampered the offense and didn’t rectify itself until just after the half-hour mark when the Revs got into more of a flow and got the ball into the attacking third more, there was another reason New England had difficulty with the offense.

Suffice it to say, the Revolution were rather careless with the ball the entire game. And with just how sloppy we perceived their play was on first glance, I wanted to go a touch deeper in the Re-Watch and see just how bad it was. And it definitely was bad: New England coughed up the ball 32 times in the first half an hour, 43 in the first half, plus 30 times in the second half. That’s 73 giveaways.

But I wanted to go even further than that: I wanted to see just how much of a killer Nashville’s defending was, or see just how many of those giveaways came about by the Revs’ own sloppiness, i.e. bad passes, poor touches, long clearances to no one in blue, etc. Any time you’re giving away the ball, you’re just not helping your team.

This was, by our count, the Revs’ Takeaways, Giveaways, and whether they were forced by Nashville or unforced, i.e. of their own volition.

First Half (Takeaways/Giveaways/Forced/Unforced)

Jones — 2, 2, 1, 1
Kessler — 3, 2, 0, 2
Farrell — 9, 5, 0, 5
Buchanan — 2, 5, 2, 3
Maciel — 3, 2, 2, 0
Polster — 4, 1, 0, 1
Traustason — 2, 8, 2, 6
Gil — 2, 7, 2, 5
Bou — 1, 5, 3, 2
Buksa — 1, 4, 3, 1

Second Half

Jones — 0, 2, 1, 1
Kessler — 3, 0, 0, 0
Farrell — 4, 1, 0, 1
Buchanan — 2, 4, 1, 3
Maciel — 1, 1, 0, 1
Polster — 2, 2, 0, 2
Traustason — 1, 1, 1, 0
Gil — 1, 5, 2, 3
Bou — 0, 3, 1, 2
Buksa — 1, 2, 1, 1
Bunbury — 0, 2, 1, 1
Bye — 3, 3, 0, 3
Kaptoum — 0, 0, 0, 0
Kizza — 0, 0, 0, 0
McNamara — 2, 1, 0, 1

Adding all of that up, here’s the tally: 49 takeaways and 73 giveaways, along with four team giveaways. Of those 73, 23 were forced by Nashville getting a foot on the ball. That’s means that 45 were unforced, whether they be bad clearances that go to the other team in some way, shape, or form, or a bad pass or a loose touch that Nashville got to first.

I think the data, while not official like Opta, speaks for itself (it better; that’s three and a half hours of my life that I won’t get back, tabulating it all): That was a rather sloppy performance by New England.

Was the 4-4-2 formation a bad choice?

During his post-match presser, Arena was asked about the 4-4-2 formation’s effectiveness over that of a 4-2-3-1, the formation used in the weekend prior’s win over Atlanta United; in truth, it’s a formation a lot of MLS clubs utilize to varying degrees of success.

Arena said, “We’re better suited to play better soccer. If we’re not playing well, the formation doesn’t matter. Over time, we’ll see what’s the best formation for our team but the issues in the first 30 minutes of game had nothing to do with our formation, it had to do with our play.”

A big part of me agrees with him. If the Revolution did not play like adverse trash and had good movement off the ball and kept possession of the ball and didn’t casually give it away upward of 45 times, the formation could have worked.

You want to know what else would have worked? Counterattacks. Plenty of counterattacks. But I digress.

I can hypothesize a reason for Arena going with a 4-4-2: it matches Nashville’s in terms of set-up and looks to take away the attacks down the flanks, like we recognized in Soccer Weekend. And while the number of times New England took the ball away, 49, looks good on paper, the Revs were unable to generate anything resembling sustained possession until the last quarter hour of the first half. By then, they were already in a 1-nil hole.

Now, would there have been these problems in a 4-2-3-1? It’s an interesting thing to contemplate.

Here’s Saturday’s XI in a 4-2-3-1:

In that formation, you would see Buchanan and Jones moving up and down their respective flanks offensively and give Gil another passing option as well as overlap with Traustason and Bou, but not only that, they would move up to fill in alongside Maciel and Polster to effectively cut down the Nashville attack, with their midfielders moving over to supplement and close down; should they fail, they would have to recover and track back to help Kessler and Farrell.

Yet would it have worked when there’s no movement? I think that’s a bigger question to ask.

One of the things I found interesting in Nashville’s 4-4-2 that I didn’t see in New England’s? Its outside backs moved all the way to the front line late to give the Revs a different look. It essentially inverted the 4-4-2 formation and made the lines tougher to break.

It was Polster’s giveaway, not Turner’s positioning, at fault in Nashville’s second goal

Let’s look at this entire 17-second sequence in its entirety.

This started with Joe Willis’ punt following Buchanan’s off-balance shot from the top of the box. Seven seconds and a header later, Farrell comes up with the second ball. He takes three touches on this: the win, the first touch, and then the pass to Bye with Kessler shielding the defending. Kessler then moves back to be the last line of defense.

Bye then has an immediate pass to Polster, who then immediately swings the ball toward Kaptoum; the pass was offline and straight to Alex Muyl, who rushed and fired beyond Turner’s dive.

Turner may have been slightly out of position, but this comes down, really, to Polster’s giveaway, the aforementioned lack of movement, and the lack of passing options in this case. Polster had four yellow jerseys within 10 yards of him, with two behind him, and both relatively close. Farrell and Kessler were also potential options, with Farrell covered well. A negative backward pass toward him had the ability to be intercepted, and while Kessler was open, it, too, would have been a negative pass. A similar square pass back to Bye might have resulted in similar circumstances with a quick close-down by Nashville, given its proximity.

And when one thinks of the lack of power Polster put on the pass to Kaptoum, would he have done the same thing with a pass to Kessler? Would it have been caught in no man’s land, with Muyl the closest yellow shirt to it?

There were, from what I saw, two other options: Bunbury and Buchanan. Bunbury was behind Polster by a good 10-15 yards. While it would have been a positive pass, Polster had his back to him, and he would have had to get that through traffic. Buchanan was behind Kaptoum with Polster’s right shoulder turned away, and that would have required a volley he could control. Kaptoum really was the only option available.

In the pass, Kaptoum expected the ball to come to him, and instead it was a few feet away. Kaptoum could have easily recognized the bad pass and gone to the ball and beaten Muyl to it.

As it happened, that didn’t happen, and Muyl came up with the second goal to seal the three points as well as forcing New England to leave Tennessee with nothing.

Hodge Podge

— I am starting to abhor Farrell’s clearances, the deep ball over the top. All six of his giveaways Saturday were unforced, with a number of them — at least four — on clearances that met no one. A clearance, in theory, should be met at a teammate’s foot to keep the offense on the ball longer instead of giving way to a throw-in by the opposition or a re-start out of the back by the opposition. I’m sure I’m late to the party, but these Re-Watches are showing me this issue, and you can bet your bottom dollar this is a problem.

— Does that mean Farrell is a bad defender? Not at all. His IQ is sky high, and his passing on the ground is outstanding. If he were a No. 6 or a No. 8, Farrell would be beyond solid. In another life, I’d love to see Farrell the defensive midfielder rather than Farrell the central defender.

— Four days later, and I’m standing by my original assessment: Buksa made a mountain out of a molehill on that “penalty” shout. Buksa’s waist gets grabbed from behind… for nearly three seconds before he goes down. Not a penalty.

— The first Nashville goal, in my opinion, came about because Gustavo Bou did not start a counterattack instead of clearing the ball to midfield (it certainly would have been a good idea; better than gifting the ball back to Nashville), and because he did not close down hard enough on Daniel Lovitz. It’s the same thing that Polster did on the second Chicago goal in the season opener: if they close down fast enough and hard enough, do Chicago and Nashville get those volleys off? I don’t think so. And if they do, it’s a deflection.

— We had Gil with 12 giveaways on Saturday, with four of them forced. A lot of those giveaways were in the poor touch/long pass variety. It spoils the HOT listing we originally gave him, but at least he gave a damn.

— Bou’s touch numbers were obviously not good, and Davies called him a poacher in the moments leading up to Nashville’s first goal. And yes, he’s paid to score goals, and we’ve mentioned — bemoaned, really — how we want him to play more defense. I think on Saturday, he played better defense than we originally realized. He was all over the place in terms of pressing; his work rate was high. Now if he’d only move offensively…

Final Thought

I know that I’ve been rather bullish about the panic button, and no, I’m not ready to press it just yet, but this is now three matches against Nashville and four in 2021, and New England has yet to really kick it into high gear when it comes to the offense in either case. In three matches against Nashville, the Revs have 11 shots on frame with 38 total shots, with one goal scored. In four matches in 2021, 17 shots on frame, 45 total, with five goals. That’s obviously not going to cut it. It leads me to ask: Will this team get hot much like the weather does right around this time of the year? And will that hotness, if it comes to pass, last until August 4, the next time these two sides play each other? Time will, of course, tell the tale.

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