Tactical Rehash: RSL 2-Tauro 0

A Champions League match is always an exciting thing: It affords an opportunity to see tactical approaches MLS coaches simply don't use. On Tuesday, Tauro rolled in with a defensively minded 3-5-2 lineup designed to win a point, but Real Salt Lake's tactical mindset was exactly what was needed for a refreshing win.

Building from possession

A consummate midfield performance allowed Real Salt Lake to really build attacks from effective spells of possession. The match was marked by strong efforts from Will Johnson (39/44 in passing), who was spread across the midfield; Ned Grabavoy (41/49 in passing, three key passes), who built on the right side and connected play expertly; Javier Morales (45/60, four key passes), who displayed that killer mentality and expert dribbling ability he's known for; and Kyle Beckerman (49/54), who, before his red, shunted a number of balls out left for Kenny Mansally, opening play and forcing the issue.

It was perhaps a little surprising that we lacked a real midfield presence on the left side of midfield. Will Johnson continued to play just in front of Kyle, closing down play, while Ned's positioning was almost entirely right-sided. It was a slightly lop-sided approach, but some balance was afforded in the bursting runs of defender Kenny Mansally, who filled the left side quite ably.

It was through sustained spells of possession that we kept the match on our side, but it was one good break that really set it alight. Paulo's evocative run into the box, showing the full height of his close control, and Saborio's instinctive finishing was exactly what we expect from the striker. The second goal came from possession, but it was a superb strike from distance, the box filling with players, that sealed matters for the evening.

Despite crafting chance after chance from midfield possession, the two that found the back of the net were found in other ways. It's a funny game, isn't it?

Compact without the ball

In the world stage, Barcelona stands above others when possession football is the goal. It is often said that their former manager, Pep Guardiola, enforced a strategic approach in which the side, when losing possession, would attempt to regain it within six seconds, and if they did not, they would form a very compact wall of players — often all 10 outfielders in an 18-yard bunch across the pitch — and contain play until they won the ball back through less grueling means.

We're no Barcelona. That much is obvious. But last night, we saw our side playing with that same mindset. Once we didn't immediately win the ball back — which did happen quite frequently — we simply dropped into wall just inside our half. This allowed us to prevent long balls from finding their targets through a concerted offside-line effort while keeping passing lanes awfully clogged.

Jason Kreis has often said that the goal is to be compact without the ball and expansive with, but last night, we saw that really ticking over. It's a tried-and-true strategy, and against a Tauro side that tried to hit us with midfield guile and craft, it was exactly what we needed. There's no better way to shut down a creative player than to afford them no space.

An affected red

Kyle Beckerman's red, thankfully, didn't change last night's result. The card, unlucky but perhaps deserved, gave Tauro the perfect opportunity to capitalize. It was a test for our defensive strength, but we passed with rather flying colors. They still had nary a real chance, which, all things considered, is a bit surprising. Some after-the-card stats — and keep in mind, these are all in about a 15-minute timespan:

  • 25/46 passing, about 54% accuracy (361/428, about 84%, before the card).
  • To contrast, Tauro was 107/127 passing after the red card, but only had one shot.
  • 6/8 tackles won (13/16 before)
  • 10 clearances (17 before)
  • Four fouls, none in particularly dangerous positions (14 fouls before, none of which were in incredibly dangerous positions)

Goals change games. That's the saying. But as we saw, cards do, too. It was through a cohesive midfield performance that we made it out with only a few minor scratches.

Along with contributing to RealSaltLake.com, Matt Montgomery runs the almost-daily RSL blog Under the Crossbar. Follow Matt on Twitter @TheCrossbarRSL.