Miguel Ángel Ramírez, a brief tactical postmortem.
Editor's note: I am ECSTATIC to have @Stillness_Speed joining the BBS site. For as long as he wants, he will be a regular contributor to the site.
While I can "fake it till I make it" with numbers, the tactical side of the game passes me by. I know a bit from watching (too much) soccer and a bit from playing video games (if you can count that), but I crashed out of rec league soccer. As such, having someone who can actually explain what is happening on the pitch is amazing and something, frankly, I can't do very well.
While I do think that Stillness and I have similar thoughts on a lot of things, he definitely challenges some of my notions and thinking about this club. My main goal with this blog has always been to encourage (friendly) discourse based on rational thinking and I truly believe he will add to the blog in a very meaningful way.
I have also always been an advocate for using numbers in conjunction with the eye test. Having someone who actually understands what their eyes are telling them is invaluable. I know his takes will help me understand this club and what the numbers are saying better.
If you haven't already given a follow to him on Twitter, please do. He's got a ton of interesting takes on not only Charlotte, but the wider fútbol world.
Over the last week or so, I have been working on a piece that focuses on Charlotte's shift from the maligned diamond formation to the 4-3-3 that the team has been using mostly for about the last 5/6 games. It was a piece focused on the principles of Miguel Ángel Ramírez's coaching and how the team had been impacted by the change in system. Obviously, in the last few hours the news has come out that Ramírez has been relieved of his duties as Head Coach, and there will be much debate about how that decision has come about. However, while he may not be in charge of the team anymore, I still hope that people enjoy this tactical breakdown of certain aspects of his work in Charlotte and potentially gain a better understanding of how he intended for the team to play...
Just after announcing that both Mikel Arteta and Jonas Eidevall had signed new contracts as head coaches of Arsenal's men and women respectively, the club account posted a video of a 3 minute football conversation between the two.
The entire interaction is fascinating, but I found one part particularly interesting. When discussing tactical planning, the idea of 'relying on principles' regardless of the shape of the team/countering the oppositions strengths and weaknesses was something that I felt was particularly relevant in that moment to Charlotte FC. At the time this clip was posted, Charlotte were coming off a defeat to Orlando City... Their 2nd defeat in 3 games - with the other result being a 0-0 draw against Colorado. It was at this point that the 'honeymoon period' seemed to end for Head Coach Miguel Angel Ramirez. The demands for the 4-3-3 formation that had been promised for so long were getting louder and louder, as opposed to the diamond that was currently being used. It was inevitable that this formation was going to be introduced; it's no secret that this is MAR's preferred set up. But the conversation between Arteta and Eidevall made me wonder what would change and what would stay the same once we eventually made the switch? Positionally how would we adjust, and what 'principles' would remain?
In Charlotte's next fixture against Inter Miami, the 4-3-3 was implemented, much to the delight of the fanbase. How much did this change the approach of the team?
Early in the game, here arises a familiar sight: Ben Bender operating in the half space. A better touch here and a good opportunity likely occurs, but how does the chance come about? Notice the run from Jóźwiak to draw away 2 defenders and create that space. In the new 4-3-3 system, this is a very basic way to free up your 8 in a threatening position, especially when the opposition are looking to play so deep but with a freelancing midfield. As mentioned, Bender in the half space is not a new experience for Charlotte fans, but the question is how was the team able to get him in these positions before the formation switch?
The clip above shows a passage from the game vs FC Cincinnati, where Bender is able to receive the ball and enter the half space unmarked, before delivering a cross for a fairly threatening opportunity. For this to take place, it requires many more moving parts, with each playing a vital role in the chance creation. As the early part of the clip builds up, watch Bender's head. He is constantly scanning to check 1) if the ball-facing players are occupying the ball carriers (they are) and 2) if the defender ahead of him is occupying an attacker (he is). The player that defender is occupying is Karol Świderski. Świderski is not only vital in making sure Bender can remain in this space by putting the defender in a 2-v-1 dilemma, but also times his run away perfectly as Bender receives the pass. This creates more jeopardy for the right back. The build up play is just patient enough to wait until Cincinnati are fully engaged, and then the ball behind is played perfectly, first time. These are two examples of opportunities brought about by the same player, playing roughly the same position. The main difference? The simplicity of how the first chance comes about, as well as how much more threatening an opportunity it was. This is why MAR prefers this set up. The principles remain:
Bender is most threatening when he is in THIS position, so what is the best way of getting him there regardless of the system we set up in?
How do we get the best out of our best players?
In a 4-1-3-2, these moments have to be set up, manufactured. In a 4-3-3, they will arise more naturally. The width that is given by the front 3 provides spacing, which allows the 8's (Bender and, most likely, Alcívar) to occupy those dangerous positions.
ALLOWING WIDTH DEFENSIVELY Early in Ramirez's reign, one thing was made very clear: Charlotte would be willing to sacrifice width defensively in order to contain teams more in the middle areas of the pitch. This is a common strategy that is also applied by many of football's great philosophers, notably Ralf Rangnick. Rangnick is a name that may not be that popular right now, but he is undoubtedly one of the most influential football thinkers of the past few decades.
Notice here how Joseph Mora, Charlotte's left back, positions himself as this ball is progressed. He is clearly happy to allow that ball to go out wide into a crossing position, deciding to engage with closing down the winger as soon as its clear the cross is the chosen action. Some defensive structures in football are based on trying to guide the opponent away from areas where they are most strong and into areas where they struggle. For Charlotte, they see it as an all encompassing philosophy that every team is weaker with the ball out wide. The centre of the field and the half spaces are where teams are most threatening, and that's why the team will overcommit to stopping the ball entering those areas at all costs. It's something determined by Charlotte's principles, not their shape, as demonstrated below.
Whilst it is fairly jarring to allow this much space to a player by overcommiting to a centralised defensive structure, as you can see, the play itself does not end in any real threat. The pass out wide is available to the right back as Charlotte see that as an un-threatening position, whilst a look to the centre of the field shows you that Charlotte have about 3 men accounting for each Montreal player. This leaves the ball carrier to opt for a very low xG attempt on goal. Having this numbers advantage is crucial to this system, but also demands a lot of it's players when in the 4-1-3-2 shape, as seen here:
This is the commitment inside that preceded New England opening the scoring in the away fixture against the Revolution, whilst Charlotte were in the diamond formation. Benders pulls over from the left side and the midfield is crowded to force the ball out wide, but in this instance, Charlotte do not have the numbers advantage. Four New England players are heading into the area with momentum, whilst Charlotte only have 3 defenders in that concentrated area. Unsurprising that a goal arose from this moment. In theory, the 4-3-3 should help to stop phases that look like this. The winger on the side where the ball is will play a part in cutting off the passes inside. The winger on the other side of the field will create some hesitancy for the full back they are playing directly against to overcommit forward. This should leave space on the counter. The logic of this strategy is pretty sound, and for the most part is effective in practice, but that does not mean it is flawless (as the below clip will demonstrate):
Between this clip and the earlier clip from the Charlotte vs Seattle game, the main difference is that in the earlier instance, Mora allows the space for the winger to receive the ball but always stays between him and the goal/the forwards in the box. Here you can see that an overcommitting on his part allows for the winger to play the ball into a really dangerous area, where the defenders have to play the ball whilst facing the goal. This is the most dangerous version of defending and the one teams try very hard to avoid. Whilst this is a personal error on his part and not a fault of the principles, what this demonstrates is how fine the margins are when playing this style of defence. All it takes is for one player to step out of their assignment and a dangerous action can arise. Seattle easily could've taken the lead.
ZONAL MIDFIELD VS MAN MARKING Now, this is where we start to see some of the differences that have arisen in the teams principles as a result of the formation change. In the 4-1-3-2, Charlotte favoured a more conservative approach with it's midfield. Brandt Bronico would play at the base, often operating between the two centre backs, whilst two wide 8's played either side of a 'false 10.' This set up meant that the midfield would almost always be playing with the game in front of them. Rarely would they be engaging with the ball with any intensity too high up the pitch, making sure they were occupying their zone within the midfield structure. This is the standard set up of a midfield, with only few exceptions among the elites. So, instead of dwelling on that structure for too long, take a look at this clip from Sunday's game against Seattle and notice the difference in our assignments.
The main focus here should be on Ben Bender's role. You would expect that in a standard 4-3-3 he would be on the left side of the field marshalling that space, as would normally happen in a zonal structure. However, we see Bender man marking the pivot-man, in an attempt to take build up away from him and into other areas, preferably As you can see, a sound theory in principle is quickly foiled. All it takes is for one of the opposition midfielders to drop in and engage the winger (Shinyashiki), before playing a quick 1-2. This leads to an outlet ball to the right back, leaving Shinyashiki chasing back into his wide area and freeing up space in the middle.
By this stage, it's clear to see what the issue is: Bender has been bypassed in the build up, and now Seattle have one player making a run into a dangerous area past the left back and another player dropping in to receive the ball. Brandt Bronico, the nearest midfielder to both, can be seen pretty much perfectly in between them. This does no good for Charlotte, as both players are as free as you could wish to be in a build up phase like this. The question some would ask is, why would Bender not work as hard as he can to get back and fill in this space? The answer is he is actually still fulfilling his man marking duty, as can be seen in the next frame.
As the ball is approaching the player about to make the pass--and the 3rd man run at this stage is completely obvious to all viewers--Bender is checking over his shoulder to make sure he is still fulfilling his assignment. Now, I have to make this point clear: I am certainly, 100% NOT blaming Bender for this. He is a young player being given an incredibly difficult assignment, and there are always going to be some tough moments along the way for any young player adapting to so many things at once. At the same time, I commend Miguel Ángel Ramírez for sticking to who he is and not shying away from introducing difficult concepts to such a young team, and it especially reflects his trust in Ben Bender to give him such an assignment The play continues, Charlotte manage to get away without conceding, and huge credit must go to Jordy Alcívar who makes a fantastic recovery run to make the chance much more difficult for the attacker. But, the point still stands. This was a very dangerous moment born out of an exposing of principle. Luckily it was check rather than checkmate.
SO...HOW MUCH HAS CHANGED? IS IT FOR THE BETTER? In terms of change, I think it is clear to see that the teams layout on the field is very different. The offerings for fullbacks in build up moments are very different, as too are they for our number 6 (Bronico).
However, the principles of the team I believe are very, very similar. We are still looking to attack teams in similar areas, and we are still opting to defend mostly central areas and force our opposition out wide.
All in all, I think that the change in formation had benefitted the team in 2 main ways:
It has allowed Ramírez to coach in a style he is much more familiar with.
It has allowed Ramírez to get his best players on the pitch without compromising those principles mentioned
So, why has the decision been made to fire Coach Ramírez? It doesn't take a genius to assume that this was a very political decision. Miguel has not been shy at voicing his thoughts at the state of the teams recruiting, and it's been strongly rumoured that his job was in jeopardy even before the season began after his infamous "we are *******' comments." What I do know for sure, though, is that Charlotte have given themselves a real hard task in terms of trying to replace him. The identification and appointment of Ramirez's was the smartest/best thing the club had done in it's very short history, and it is bitterly disappointing that things have ended like this.