From the earliest days of watching Louisville City under James O’Connor, Brian Davis and I have agreed that the thing we’d most like to see out of Louisville City is an alternative to the 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 hybrid that City plays in. That system does not always work, especially at home. The problem is that when the system fails, City most often did not change course.
Then, starting with the U.S. Open Cup match earlier this season against Tartan Devils FC Oak Avalon, we saw City experiment with a three man back line and play, more or less, a 3-4-3. The idea was to get some more width without giving up the middle of the field. We saw it again against FC Cincinnati in the USOC loss a couple weeks ago, though it wasn’t as effective. I, for one, shrugged the experiment off as just that, an experiment. Surely we wouldn’t see it in a league match.
And I was sort of right – City came out with the standard system and shape against Charlotte, and we came out with a win. I more or less expected the same on Sunday afternoon against Montclair Red Bulls. But then I saw this lineup card:
And I laughed and laughed! Ol’ Jonathan Lintner with the misdirection!
It looks like a 4-1-4-1, but it’s a 3-4-3 with Paco Craig playing the middle centerback position rather than tasking a holding mid to fill that space. Any one of those three could play any one of the three roles, but this was the right way to do it. Paco did a very good job with seven clearances and four interceptions, and he completed all but three of his passes in the match. Tarek does well playing left fullback so this wasn’t a huge departure from him, and Sean Totsch is basically a defensive Swiss Army Knife on the right. You could have put Reynolds in the middle and he probably would have done just as well (we’ll get to that).
Moving on, Oscar and Kyle Smith would play as wingbacks, Cam would play high up the field and Brian Ownby and Cuatro Davis would either sit back to stop the Red Bulls counter attack or go high and attack space vertically if we could get the ball turned over in midfield.
New York’s system is designed to keep the ball. In the past, O’Connor first tried to combat this by trying to win the possession battle, which failed. City is a team that likes to keep the ball, but New York is probably the best passing and possession team in the league. It showed in this match – NYRBII won the possession battle by a landslide, almost 60-40%. And I think O’Connor probably expected that. In the Eastern Conference Finals last fall, when City last met the Red Bulls II, they played a very defensive 4-4-2, almost a 4-5-1, with an emphasis not on keeping the ball, but frustrating New York’s vertical attack. It almost worked, too! So this shape we rolled out in this game was just a variation on a theme, that theme being “gum up the Red Bulls and hit them on a counter.”
And that’s basically what happened. You wouldn’t know it watching the game, but somehow Louisville City won the overall duels matchup 52-48%. That said, I think this “put a bunch of dudes in the midfield when we’re defending” approach was designed to keep the Sugar Frees from exploiting a talent gap. While it seemed like City players were getting killed individually on 1v1 situations, it didn’t matter much because there was always another guy behind the one that got beat to either slow down the Red Bulls attackers, or take the ball away.
Kyle Smith is my man of the match for that reason. He played his wide midfield role well, got back on counters, and did a great job in supporting defense when Guy Abend, Brian Ownby, or Paolo DelPiccolo were stuck in 1v1 or (often) 2 or 3v1 defensive situations. He was 7 for 12 in duels, which is a lot for a wingback, and had four tackles. Kyle also scored the opener, assisted Richie Ballard’s late goal to salt the game away, and generally put in a really, really good shift.
Cam Lancaster didn’t score, but he kept the Red Bulls line deeper than they’d probably like because of his runs, which meant that New York couldn’t link its defense with its midfield as easily as they wanted. He basically stayed in the Red Bulls’ half the whole game just so they couldn’t throw numbers forward, and it worked.
The central defenders, Abend and DelPiccolo, quietly had a very good game. Guy passed at a nearly 90% clip, 88% in the red half of the field. Paolo was 7 for 12 in duels, and created two scoring chances including an assist on Ownby’s goal in the 56th minute.
Also, for all my complaints about inefficiency against Charlotte last Wednesday, this was a clinical offensive performance from our boys in purple. Three shots on target, three goals. It doesn’t get much better than that (and it makes City’s conversion percentage start looking like something approaching respectable – 14%, up from 9% a week ago).
A quick word about subs: They were all more or less like-for-like, though Speedy Williams coming on for Cuatro surprised me a bit. He played higher up the field than Davis did, completed all 12 of his passes, created a scoring chance, won a foul, and won two of his three duels. I want to see more of him. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Richie Ballard’s second goal in as many games, and that was awesome.
This was a really good team performance; the best since the home match against Tampa Bay back in April. I don’t know if this is a system we’re going to see more often, especially against lesser teams, but it sure is one I wouldn’t mind seeing again soon.