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Four Tactical Questions I’m Watching in 2017

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With a successful offseason from a personnel perspective, but a raft of new players, the real challenge for 2017 becomes tactical. Here are four issues in particular I’ll be watching:

Lyndsay Radnedge, Center Line Soccer

I know how to stick to my lane as a sports journalist, and my lane is generally the personnel stuff: I can credibly speak to salary structures and the economics of the transfer market in a way that I can’t speak to the nuances of the on-field product that are better left to the professionals.

But going into this year, for the first time in my three years covering the club, personnel issues are not at the top of my concerns going into the season. San Jose brought in a staggering haul of five international transfers, all on large deals, that should each make an impact on the starting XI. They managed what I thought was a brilliant draft at the time, and after the preseason, I’m even more confident in that assessment. They have a DP slot wide open that they can put to use once they’ve seen this group come together a bit, plus take advantage of the more-favorable summer market for DPs. The roster isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough to be a playoff team if other things are sorted out.

So I thought I should speak to those “other things.” Coach Dom Kinnear’s tactics are the frequent subject of scrutiny for Quakes keyboard warriors, so I thought I’d highlight four tactical issues I think will be the most important barometers for the team’s success or failure in 2017, ranked in order of importance:

1. For the love of God, fix the set pieces

After being a fairly good set-piece team in 2015, the Quakes were an unmitigated, humiliating disaster in 2016. Kinnear would be the first person to admit that. And it was in all aspects: offense and defense, receiving and delivery. Not only is it generally important for teams to be strong on set pieces, it’s particularly important for reactive teams because it can have a major impact on “game state” (winning/losing/tied) even against the run of play. As I wrote all the way back at the beginning of last season, the Quakes had an unusually wide disparity between different game states: when ahead and allowed to play reactively, they’re at their best. When behind, they struggled mightily to proactively assert themselves. Set pieces are a good way to make sure that you spend more of your time in favorable game states.

Some of this is personnel. Losing Clarence Goodson, arguably San Jose’s most important player on set pieces (on both ends of the pitch) for his entire time in a Quakes uniform, hurts no matter what. Height matters. But it isn’t everything, or in fact, even the main thing: the Japanese and Korean national teams are famed set-piece specialists, but neither boast a particularly tall roster. Defensively, it’s all about knowing precisely what your responsibility is, and the coaching staff making sure that those responsibilities cover all (or at least most) plausible attacking angles. Offensively, even if you don’t have an ideal target to aim for, there are dozens of ways to create different angles and unexpected variety. Mixing short and long, using trickery, and working hard to develop “timing” plays comparable to the routes that wide receivers run in football, can all create openings even without aerial dominance. The Quakes have enough height they shouldn’t get killed in the air either, but the loss of Goodson is no excuse for how horrible they were last year. Kinnear has already identified this as a priority, and it’s one of the few things on the pitch a coach can influence directly. If they can’t right the ship this year, it’s on him.

The delivery aspect is a harder nut to crack because it’s more of a technical challenge than a tactical one, but it does require coaches to identify who their man is for every relevant situation, and to give them the right training and practice to maximize their opportunities. Simon Dawkins is a good striker of a dead ball, but not elite. No one else in the starting XI has shown much of a penchant for it, but Anibal Godoy (a left-footer) was starting to get some opportunities toward the end of last season. Jackson Yueill got a bunch of work on delivery during the pre-season, but doesn’t look likely to feature in the starting XI right away. Shea Salinas is a reliable option for service, but he’s also a bench player, and hasn’t shown much when it comes to shots on goal from a dead ball. Victor Bernardez can take some of those, but you’d never want him delivering into the box, partially from a lack of refinement, but primarily because his height is an asset on the receiving end. Kinnear will need to pick a primary right-footer and primary left-footer (of which Godoy is the only realistic option) and develop them technically while putting them in better positions tactically.

2. Develop a Center-back partnership to unlock everything else on the pitch

I’m a big believer that a center-back partnership is the very heart of a team, any team. Not only does it provide a massive security blanket that allows the two-way players (fullbacks and central midfielders, primarily) to get a bit more license to create offensively, it provides a level of security that permeates the whole team. Moreover, every team builds from the back, albeit in different styles, and having a shaky partnership means more hoof-and-hope and less well-considered development. In fact, long-ball teams in particular need a center-back who can distribute, such as Toby Alderweireld at Tottenham.

Marvell Wynne arguably played the best of any of the team’s defenders last year, yet I frequently argued he was expendable. My reasoning wasn’t based on how well he played, but rather how he played: he’s not particularly good on the ball, he isn’t a build-from-deep passer, and he’s undersized for a low-defensive-block team like the Quakes. If he was in a high-line system, I could actually see him being brilliant, especially with his elite covering speed. That’s just not San Jose. This year, partially with new acquisitions, and partially because of Marvell’s heart condition, they’ll look elsewhere. The first stop is Florian Jungwirth, who isn’t much taller than Marvell, but is seasoned at a much higher level playing at the position, and will provide a massive upgrade as a distributor from deep. He’ll also respond better to pressure on the ball. If he can complement Victor Bernardez, that will help improve on the aerial deficiencies of the 2016 squad, and set up better counter attacks going the other way.

If he isn’t the answer, hopefully it’s Harold Cummings, who isn’t nearly the on-the-ball player Jungwirth is, but is a pugilistic defender and force to be reckoned with in the air given his strength and positioning. If the partnership solidifies, bet on much improved performances from Anibal Godoy and Darwin Ceren, both of whom have real potential to be box-to-box studs, but both of whom also looked extremely average (or worse) down the stretch last season.

3. Develop different looks, for sure, but invest in the 4-4-2 first.

The “empty bucket” flat 4-4-2 is the subject of derision in some corners of the Quakes Twitterverse. I get it. It can look incredibly static when it’s not going well, and it feels like a bit of an anachronism compared to the “continental” game. However, it’s not a bad system. There is a reason it was once dominant, and why even some modern teams (such as Leicester last year and Atletico Madrid for Diego Simeone’s entire tenure) look fantastic while using it. Heck, Manchester United is on a 17 game unbeaten streak running it as a primary system.

The reason it can be so deadly is that a quality striking partnership, who know how to work with each other, can be a major handful to mark for just two center-backs. Last season, the Quakes never had more than one striker at a time posing such a threat, and the results were much like the sound of one hand clapping. The system also requires defensive solidity to allow for breakneck counters far up the pitch once the opportunities come to pass, which should at least partially addressed by the last topic. Finally, and most importantly, the players in the system have to be incredibly intentional about keeping their movement lively, playing the ball quickly once it comes to them, and interchanging constantly. The “natural” lines of the 4-4-2 can be very square and the passing predictable. The players have to overcome that with their individual quality and effort.

The reason I say focus on the 4-4-2 primarily is that it remains the best utilization of the team’s talents. Dawkins, Jahmir Hyka, and Tommy Thompson are still probably at their best from wide areas, even if they all like to cut into the middle. None of them (or anyone else on the roster) would be up to snuff as a #10 underneath a lone striker like other MLS stalwarts Diego Valeri, Mauro Diaz, and Nicolas Lodeiro. The additions of Danny Hoesen and Marco Ureña give San Jose striking options that actually could make the two-striker look potent. And the central midfielders, with the exception of Yueill, are all defensively oriented and shouldn’t be asked to mix it up in a 4-3-3. The system can absolutely work, as it did down the stretch in 2015. You need a plan A before you should worry about anything else.

However, the “everything else” is worth it too. There were some single-striker looks during preseason, and it’s nice to have those options when plan A isn’t working, or injuries/suspensions/international obligations limit your personnel choices. More importantly, there are plenty of players I’d like to see on the field more (like Tommy Thompson) that might benefit from a different role than what he could find in a 4-4-2. Few teams are successful with little-to-no deviation from their primary look, so they’ll need that. But even fewer are successful without a strong primary identity.

4. Get more two-way play from the wide players

There are plenty of times when a coach is faced with the decision of which weakness to cover up for that will give up on one side of the ball. What we know about Dominic Kinnear is that faced with that choice, he almost always chooses to shore up the defense. I vividly remember last year against FC Dallas, in the first half of the season, when Kinnear deployed Shea Salinas at right mid, where he’d be matched up against the lethal Fabian Castillo. Salinas had one of the worst offensive performances I have ever seen at the professional level, misplacing passes, coughing up the ball constantly, and providing no real threat in the final third. However, he did manage to put Castillo on his own version of “Revis Island” defensively, and that tradeoff was arguably worth it.

That’s a perfectly defensible principle, and if fans really thought it through, they’d much prefer it to the alternative. However, the real way out of that conundrum is to set yourself up in ways that don’t require the sacrifice of one half of the play.

I’ll admit I’m really worried about finding a way to do that with the current set of wide players. Speaking to the midfielders, Thompson, Hyka, and Dawkins are all creative offensive players who bring a real spark, but none of them are defensively stout, and asking them to track back too much would significantly limit their best attributes going forward or cutting in. Cordell Cato and Salinas are fantastic defensive options in those roles, but are somewhat limited for their offensive incisiveness, and are definitely a step down in all-around quality on that first trio. The fullbacks have a similar conundrum: Kofi Sarkodie and Shaun Francis are the most seasoned and secure defensively, but don’t offer much going forward other than pace. Nick Lima and Kip Colvey, on the other hand, have some genuine offensive talents and instincts, but neither is a seasoned defender, and are smaller than the alternative options.

I don’t know precisely how to solve it. Obviously, greater security in the center of the defense will alleviate some of the need for wide areas to do defensive work, so that’s part of the puzzle. Greater possession puts less pressure on the back line generally. But mostly it’s a question of selecting the right mix of four wide men, perhaps choosing defensively-oriented fullbacks to unlock the offensively-oriented wingers, but not necessarily. This will be Kinnear’s hardest job, but the one that most directly impacts whether or not the team can improve on its dismal 2016 goalscoring performance.