MLS 2020/2021: DC United vs Montreal Impact – tactical analysis

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The final matchday of the regular season in MLS brought about various storylines to the fore. With teams fending off each other for a playoff spot, Montreal Impact visited the nation’s capital to take on DC United.

Both sides looked to book their place in the Eastern Conference playoffs on the decision day. Coming into the game, United were 13th in the Conference but were not out yet. They needed a win and favorable results elsewhere to secure a top ten place. However, after three wins on the bounce, they entered the match on the back of a loss.

Impact meanwhile were sitting comfortably on ninth, and a positive result would see them advance to the next stage. Thierry Henry’s side, though, suffered from horrendous form, winning a meager two out of their past 12 matches. To register a win, both teams then needed to revert fortunes.

The Sunday night blockbuster ultimately ended as a goal-fest, with Montreal clinching a 3-2 win. This tactical analysis piece dives into the match and its result.

Lineups

DC United kicked off with a 3-5-2 formation that had midfielder Russell Canouse play as a makeshift center-back. Moses Nyeman made his first start in four matches in the center of the park alongside Junior Moreno and Yamil Asad. Erik Sorga was the preferred option up top with Gelmin Rivas, the latter of whom got replaced by Ola Kamara after an injury in the very first minute. The biggest news for manager Ben Olsen was the availability of long term absentee Paul Arriola on the bench.

Henry went for a 4-3-1-2 look, with ex-Barcelona man Bojan Krkić playing behind Romell Quioto and Anthony Jackson-Hamel. The former is Montreal’s most proficient goal-provider, notching eight goals and five assists in the span of 20 outings. Amar Sedjic and captain Samuel Piette played on either side of ex-Tottenham star Victor Wanyama in midfield, with Clément Diop in goal.

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Montreal succumb to set-pieces

The primary section of this analysis concerns the defensive ailments of the Montreal Impact. Henry’s side have been feeble in defending set-pieces throughout the tournament. In 2020, the ex-Arsenal legend has seen his side ship ten opposition goals through set-pieces, second-worst in the entire league. The trend continued in this match as well, as both United goals resulted from bad defending in corners.

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The picture portrays the scenes which led to the opening goal of the game. In a setup with zone-defense, most of the opposition players camped on the near post, leaving Quioto to deal with defender Donovan Pines. Shrugging the forward off, Pines ultimately had abundant space in the far post, promptly picked out by Julian Gressel.

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With only a few minutes on the clock after Montreal’s equalizer, they found themselves defending another corner. Two factors determined the outcome of the sequence shown above. Firstly, Kamara created a gap between him and his marker, which left the opponent trailing the forward, presented by the red line. He was instantly in a good position to attack the set-piece. Secondly, anticipating a similar delivery as in the first goal, the keeper positioned himself near the far post, as depicted by the yellow lines. His command over the penalty box hence drifted away, as a routine keeper-claim unusually found its way to the target, who prodded the ball in.

DC United’s change of plans

Olsen had his side start frantically. They needed to gain a win at any cost and set about doing it in the right tone.

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Beginning in a symmetrical 3-4-1-2 set up allowed them to press on the opposition with three players at all times. Asad, the “1” was the key to such a system. If the ball reached the Impact left-back, he was accompanied by Kamara and Gressel in the press, while Sorga and Edison Flores performed it on the other flank. The three-men press also extended to all parts of the ground. It enabled them to apply duress on the opposition at all times and had them pegged back in the initial proceedings.

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However, returning from half-time with a 2-1 lead, Olsen opted for a more conservative approach. The black line corresponds to this fact, showing a decline in their pressing intensity as the game went by. The 3-4-1-2 turned into a 5-3-2 setup, wherein the midfielders stayed behind as wingbacks and Asad dropped back deeper as the match progressed. While it is conventional to adopt a pragmatic approach while leading, the trend continued as Impact went on to equalize. United were required to respond with vigor but lacked any conviction in their counter-attacks to threaten Impact’s goal.

Montreal’s offensive transformation

Henry and company did not involve in any significant build-up play during the initial offerings of the duel. Bojan was mostly a spectator, as Impact operated directly. The attack also functioned a lot through the left-hand side. Left-back Jorge Corrales went on many mazy dribbles or laid the ball to Sedjic, who tried to feed Hamel’s well-timed runs.

The second half, though, brought about a change in tactics. Zachary Guillard, their right-back, became more involved in the game, combining well with the forwards. The introduction of Mason Toye also gave pace and impetus to the lineup, giving Guillard many chances to use him as an outlet. His speed proved to be useful in the game-clinching goal, providing the assist to Quioto’s winner.

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The mentioned statistics on key-passes and crosses by the Impact players paint the perfect picture of their progression. During the first half, both stats show trajectories starting in the left. The second half photos, although, depict favoritism to the right side.

Conclusion

With this close yet vital victory, Montreal Impact confirmed their spot in the playoffs, eliminating DC United in the process. The conclusion of the decision day brought about many surprises as we enter into the knockout stages of the tournament.

United will look back on the season and reflect on what could have been as Montreal battle for a spot in the final series.

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