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The Revolution’s attempt to play possession-based soccer hasn’t worked so far

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The Revs have resorted to direct play after attempting the possession game.

MLS: New England Revolution at Toronto FC Gerry Angus-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Revolution are three games into their 2019 campaign. Let’s take a look at the games they’ve played so far.

The 1-1 tie vs Dallas:

Luchi Gonzales was selected as the new FC Dallas head coach last December. Before this appointment, he was in charge of the Dallas youth development program for several years. I assume this program involved the installation and indoctrination of his own favored style of play into youth academies, camps, and clinics. From the Rev game, it sure appeared, first, that as FC Dallas head coach he has continued on a similar instructional path and, second, that his favored style of play is the possession game. Dallas had 68% ball possession for the whole game against the Revs, much of it achieved by Dallas’s unwavering penchant for playing from the back. The Dallas keeper, Jesse Gonzalez, rolled the ball repeatedly to one of his backs (especially at the beginning of the game), who then passed the ball around in their own defensive third of the field, sometimes seemingly forever. I don’t remember when Gonzalez punted or kicked the ball past midfield. Even though the Revs’ high press occasionally broke this passing offense, no Rev goals resulted.

Gonzales clearly likes the possession game, then, and it appears that he coached it very hard in pre-season. This style is in direct contrast to Friedel’s reliance on long kicks from the keeper, the high press, and hustle to create scoring opportunities. I have nothing against the high press – in fact, I like it – especially when you’re the weaker team (as when Wigan beat Manchester City in a cup game last spring) – but it should never be a team’s primary approach to the professional game. The possession game and all it entails (accurate passing, good player positioning, technical expertise) should be the primary emphasis in pre-season training. Friedel has stated that wants his team to be more possession-oriented in the new year, but this strategy hasn’t produced results so far.

The 2-0 loss to Columbus:

Columbus, like Dallas, was perfectly content to pass the ball around for long periods – neither team seemingly concerned to get the ball up the field in a hurry. Three times in the first half the Crew strung together more than 20 passes in a row, mostly in their defensive half. The first two sequences ended (productively) in Crew corners, the third in a direct kick occasioned by a Zahibo yellow card. Once, in the second half, the Crew connected for 28 passes.

In contrast to both their opponents, the Revs strove to spend as little time as possible in their defensive half of the field. Brad Knighton’s evident push for the long goal kick or punt in preference to a short roll to spread-out fullbacks was mirrored by the NE field players’ chronic choice of the direct long ball over short, controlled passes. Rarely did they put 10 passes together in a row in a positive sense. I imagine they’re figuring that getting the ball into their offensive half will create more scoring chances – but, as it was, they got notably few. Basically, the Crew recognized the Rev plan and were waiting for them.

The possession game stresses a lot of skill – ball control and the ability to pass the ball accurately over short and long distances. Above all, it demands a high level of vision. The consequences of improved skill and vision will be better field awareness and a better ability to make correct tactical decisions. Players have to be deceive to make the possession game work. When holding the possession, the Revs weren’t quick enough.

If a team has the ability to change its approach in style as a game goes on – from a direct (the long ball) to a more indirect (ball possession) style and back – they also have an advantage over a team which basically doesn’t. This had a lot to do with Columbus’s win. A one-dimensional approach will work only if your team has the talent.

The 3-2 loss to Toronto:

The pattern held into the third game, with the Revs sticking to the direct style, while Toronto went back and forth between direct and indirect styles. Throughout the game Michael Bradley orchestrated the Toronto possession offense; he also made the critical direct pass that led to Toronto’s winning goal late in the game.

If the Revs want to develop a reasonable possession game (which they say they do), a player with Bradley’s skill is what they need. Years ago, Jones and Nguyen formed the nucleus of an effective Rev possession attack. A combination of Carles Gil and a defensive midfielder like Bradley or Jones could make this happen again.

Conclusion:

Being able (and willing) to establish a possession game in your defensive third of the field is important because that is the easiest area to do it – basically, the farther the ball gets up the field, the more difficult it becomes. Stroking the ball back and forth among a spread-out back four plus two midfielders promotes vision, skill, and teamwork. You always have the keeper to bail you out if the opposition high-presses.

I used to tell my players to think of it like this: you bide your time, stringing together multiple multi-directional short passes (sideways, forward, back) to basically mesmerize your opposition. Then, when you see your opportunity, you strike like a snake.

Teams like Manchester City, obviously an experienced team, rarely have their keeper, Ederson, punt the ball, even though he is one of the best kickers in in the game. They almost always bring the ball up the field from the back.

A two-pronged approach (direct and indirect) is needed to keep the opposition guessing and off-balance. The Revs’ dependence on the direct style leaves them too predictable and exposes them to the fast break. Toronto’s winning goal is an example.

Instead of obsessing about things they can’t control, like the refereeing, the Revs should focus on things that they can, like a more a varied attack.