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Lattanzio has finally found his system... What does it entail and will it stick around?

The jump from Assistant to Head Coach has been a mixed bag for Christian Lattanzio. No doubt a popular man in the Charlotte locker room, Lattanzio has had to lead a very strange run of results in which Charlotte have offered out some big defeats to other teams, whilst taking some crushing ones themselves. It was on Wednesday night though, that I believe he delivered his best Coaching display yet. The main reason I say this is that for weeks it has seemed there have been conflicting ideas on how Lattanzio would like to see the team play. Certain principles had been on show but were not always working in a cohesive way. Against DC, it seemed like Lattanzio had finally cracked the code, so lets loom at the 2 main principles that I saw changed and what adjustments they entailed.

 

Ball Denial Out of Possession

(with system and pressing changes) One of the strong criticisms you can make against Lattanzio's Charlotte is that teams have found it too comfortable to be able to move the ball through the middle phases with little to no resistance. As most have come to see so far this season, Charlotte is not a team that deploys a very intense press - however, in their updated set up they do have certain rules that are relied upon to help deny the opposition build up opportunities and sometimes create strong opportunities for themselves in transition. The main responsibility here being that Charlotte will always look to have 3 players accounting for DC's 3 deep central men (2 centre backs and the deep midfielder) with the most important element being Bender's control of the pivot player.

 


Though clearly not an intense phase, there are a couple of important things to note here. First, see how consistent Bender is in his defensive scanning of where the pivot player is. This makes it clear what his responsibility is and is also a testament to such a young player that there is an understanding of how to most effectively play the role. Also, note that Reyna is standing off of DC centre back Steve Birnbaum and only starts to approach him closely once the ball is on it's way to him. This is a triggered press and will usually be done to a player who the opposition are most comfortable having the ball; basically the player who is least threatening with the ball and/or the least press resistant.

 

See again in this moment the same principles at work. Whether man marked or denying the passing lane from him to the ball carrier, the pivot man is always accounted for by Bender; meanwhile Reyna is still allowing space to Birnbaum. As you can see, in both instances this results in a long ball up the field which is easily dealt with. A long ball towards a pair of large Central Defenders is a good result in itself, but it is improved further when considering the other adjustment made, namely, a 'double pivot' out of possession between Brandt Bronico and Quinn McNeill. With the added support of 2 deep midfielders, Charlotte stand a much better chance of latching onto the 2nd ball that likely comes from a headed clearance, however controlled that header may be. Particularly in the 2nd clip, despite the fact the header bypasses both Bronico and McNeill, you can see how the system gives the team the best chance of maintaining possession should that header occur under stress. The double pivot not only helps cover ground in this instance, though. It is clear that with the extra man in that area, it is much easier to deny threatening passing lanes into the forwards, as can be seen here.

 


With the original bank of pressure from the forwards being beaten (the triggered press by Reyna resulting in the goalkeeper playing the ball directly to the vacated wide area) the double pivot shows its value. In what would've been a threatening transition moment in a system with a lone 6, the awareness of both Bronico and McNeill to heavily cover the pathways to the forwards means that the ball very swiftly returns back to DC's back-line. This was a common occurrence in the game where seemingly threatening moments were neutralised with strong inside coverage to deny the ball going to threatening areas. Now, with any system adjustment, there is obviously going to be some give and take. In this case, the ability to cover central areas is going to come at the expense of coverage out wide, given that the wide 8's will not be present like they were in a off-ball 4-3-3. Having said that, it has been established for a while that this Charlotte side has principles whereby they are happy to allow the ball to funnel outside rather than in the half spaces and generally closer to the goal. Speaking of the wide areas, that'll bring us to the next adjustment.

 

Tailored roles for each wide attacker

The winger spot is one that has brought about much debate with Charlotte fans as to who should get the start for the team. A lot of investment was put into Polish International Kamil Jóźwiak, while Andre Shinyashiki has become a real fan favourite due to his exciting style of play and regular goal contributions. Against DC, however, the jersey's were given to Yordy Reyna and McKinzie Gaines. Reyna has shown moments of individual brilliance during what has been an up and down season, whilst Gaines has become a channel of frustration for many fans, who feel that despite his high work rate, the final ball has just been lacking far to much to consistently produce. As you can gather from that assessment, these may not be the two first choice wide-men that many would go for; yet in this system, devices have been put in place to bring the best out of them both. What I want to get at here, is that even though both players are very different in terms of how they must be deployed to get the best out of them, that does not mean they can't coexist in the same lineup. A strong off-ball to on-ball structure can allow both these players to succeed, as we'll see here.

 

Passing Network provided by MLSSoccer


The two obvious takeaways here: - Reyna is playing a little more central with more surrounding players in support - Gaines is playing much more isolated, no player within a range of him where Reyna has 4 players This is deliberate. Reyna is a player who wants to operate in tight areas, dragging defenders out of position while using the surrounding options to manipulate the opposition and not make himself too predictable as an inverted winger. Gaines is much better at playing in larger areas. His main strength is his pace and the ability to be very direct in his actions, gaining plenty of yards on full backs making his way into the box. For Reyna, his qualities were evident in both passages for Charlotte's first two goals in the game. Lets first take a look at the own goal that opened the scoring on the night.

 


Take note of Reyna's positioning. His centrality is not the only reason why Mora is able to progress the ball so far on the sideline (with Reyna attracting added attention inside) but look at the how the players react one the ball comes into him. With how central the opposition are playing him inside, Reyna knows that a quick lifted pass with his first touch won't even have to be perfect to give Mora a great crossing opportunity with plenty of time to gather himself to deliver.

 

Also interesting to note is this passage from just before the opening goal.


Put in a similar instance, Reyna once again occupies a central space, although a little later in progression in this passage. This movement puts two defenders in jeopardy to where neither can deny the passing lane to Świderski nor stay with Reyna to mark him for a cross inside. This is an example of how this centrality can harm the opposition in multiple ways, here without Reyna even touching the ball in the build up. Lets now take a look at the 2nd goal.

 


Clip is played unto the McNeill tackle, as we all know what happens next... Here, Reyna's passage is simple in as much as it's a short carry of the ball and a quick advanced pass, but it's important to take note of his positioning and the positioning of those around him. Reyna comes a little deeper this time to receive the ball, giving him that area to drive forward with the ball. More importantly, look at how many players surround him to give options and cause conflict for the defense. This, is how we will get the best out of Yordy Reyna.


Now, let's now take a look at how McKinzie Gaines was deployed.

 


Many of Gaines' detractors would use this passage as an example of the lack of final ball quality that is so frustrating, and there is no doubt that even McKinzie would want himself to do better there. Yet, the threat is still evident. The willingness to stretch the field is a nightmare for opposition setups, especially when the opposite side of the field is often requiring so much help in terms of numbers. The moments of isolation drives that this creates for Gaines is a tremendous 1-2 punch that makes it such an intriguing partnership of wingers. Transitional moments will also play well into Gaines' hands in this setup. as seen here in the next clip.

 


Once it is clear that the pass is short and will be falling comfortably to Afful, there is zero doubt in Gaines mind that the next move is to attack the space at full speed, with Afful doing a good job of recognising this and playing a great ball through. The idea of Gaines wanting to work in isolation is also important here. Though this is a transitional moment, it is still obvious that he is most comfortable working in direct moments, rather than linking with other players as we saw with Reyna earlier. Due to the fact that this passage does also end with a lack of end product, I think it's only fair to note that Gaines did a great job with the 3rd goal. On this goal, he combines smart positioning with a great ball that was much harder than he made it look

 



So... Can we expect these adjustments to stick around? When contemplating whether these changes will remain as part of Charlotte's setup, I think it all revolves around the news that came through in the last couple days. Not long after the rumoured interest came out, it was confirmed that Charlotte had signed attacking midfielder Nuno Santos from Portuguese powerhouse Benfica. The player spent last season on loan at Paços Ferreira, and after proving himself with a steady season in Portugal's highest division, you have to imagine he came to Charlotte with ambitions and likely assurances from the board of a starting place. This certainly makes it a lot more likely that the 4-2-3-1 setup will be sticking around in some capacity. The 4-3-3 has given plenty of traditional 10's problems in the past as they work between finding themselves at either the wide 8 or wide forward role, more often than not underwhelming in both areas. But with a double pivot sat behind him, we would likely be getting the best version of Santos.


What it would mean for Ben Bender is a little trickier, as he has proven himself a very impressive midfielder who can perform a lot of the roles required by the more attack minded of the pivot pair, which he would be if he were starting alongside the undroppable Brandt Bronico. Another question could be whether Santos will be as effective as Bender as being a part of that 3 man press. This is something that although I can't comment on at this time with certainty, as my knowledge of the Paços system is something that is a work in progress currently, much like my knowledge of the player himself. What it means for the roles of the wide players is a little trickier to answer. Some would say Reyna's role would be disruptive for a Santos type player (i.e., that being a winger that wants to look to occupy the space inside) These are the very areas Santos would look to create from. Yet, at the same time, it's easy to see how a couple of technically strong players would be able to make this work and produce some special moments in link-up play. For Gaines, the fit makes much more sense on paper. A direct, conventional winger who would provide better spacing for a number 10 in terms of the passing angles that would disrupt the defence, as well as generally allowing him to work in larger spaces. But as we know, Gaines has been in and out of the team throughout the whole season, so it may just come down to a situational decision for Lattanzio. Whether we see these changes stick around or not, it is a large credit to Lattanzio that he was able to get these ideas together into one matchplan and I am very happy for him that he was able to do so. With Charlotte right in the thick of the Play Off race, Lattanzio might be putting together the qualities of a strong Head Coach at just the right time. To do that by only his 10th game as a HC is all the more impressive!

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