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Curtin's Tactics: Should the Union be proactive or reactive in 2015?

According to this analysis, Curtin made a significant tactical change toward the end of the 2014 season. It didn't work. What does this mean about his direction for 2015?

John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

I was reading an old Jonathan Wilson article that got me thinking about soccer clubs that play proactively versus reactively and how that might impact their record. Let me explain that a bit. Wilson is most notably the author of the soccer epic Inverting the Pyramid, and in 2012 he wrote a piece called "The question: Position or Possession?" for the Guardian. In it he supposes there are two styles of play in the extremes. There are first the teams that covet possession. They tend to press high on defense in an effort to get the ball back and they use short passes to maintain possession and ultimately breakdown the defense. Your Arsenals, Barcelonas and Pep's Bayern Munich all profess that this is the ideal style. At the other extreme are the teams that value position. These are your counterattacking teams that sit deeper and hold their defensive position as long as possible only to then spring on the counterattack into the open space ahead of them. There are many teams who play this way and they tend to be technically inferior sides, who recognize they can not win a battle of possession against a stronger opponent. There is no shame in playing this way, in fact, playing a position focused game is one of the great talent neutralizing tactics in soccer. This style of play gives David a fighting chance against Goliath. Still, many talented clubs choose to play reactively as well.

In the article, Jonathan Wilson calls the possession focused teams like Arsenal the proactive teams. And he calls the position focused teams reactive. You can envision how this works looking at the following chart. On the horizontal axis is how direct a team passes the ball. Possession teams tend to pass the ball indirectly, choosing to make short diagonal passes to work the ball up the field. Counterattacking teams will pass the ball more vertically or directly up the field. The vertical axis displays how high up the field a team presses when without the ball. The blue bar shows how the extreme styles of play tend to play out. On the one extreme are proactive teams who tend to pass indirectly and press higher up the pitch in an effort to re-acquire possession. Reactive teams on the other hand pass directly and keep a compact shape as long as possible.

strategic intent

I was intrigued enough by the simplicity and elegance of this thinking to try to describe this type of play with numbers. You can read the details behind the score I devised on American Soccer Analysis. Essentially I created a score that goes between 1 and 7, where 1 is a very reactive team and 7 is a very proactive team. I scored every game for every team in the 2014 MLS season.

The questions I want to examine today are twofold: Were the Union proactive or reactive last year? And what should we expect in 2015?

Here is a graph that charts the Union's most recent season with the proactivity score (referred to as PScore as well).

Union Pscore 2014

To make it a little easier to read I boxed three distinct sections of the Union's season. The first box and the blue lines represent the Hackworth 2014 era. It was well documented that Hackworth wanted to build a possession oriented team. He favored a 4-3-3 formation, which is a popular formation for that style of play because of all of the diagonal passing lanes it naturally creates.

Under Hackworth the Union averaged a PScore of 4.1 which would have ranked them 6th in the league if they had continued at that pace all season. They also averaged a 0.9 higher PScore than their opponents. Unfortunately, they also averaged just 0.8 actual points per game over that stretch (indicated inside the red circle). The five MLS teams that had a PScore greater than 4.1 averaged 1.65 points per game. Something clearly wasn't working.

Enter Curtin who changed things quite dramatically. The second boxed section highlights the first twelve games of the Curtin era. From the New England game to the extremely wet New York Red Bulls game, Curtin employed much more reactive tactics. The Union PScore dropped to 2.5 and their opponents PScore was 2.7 points higher. For context, that 2.5 score would make them the most reactive team in the league. As we know, the Union turned their season around during this stretch, averaging 1.8 points per game and making a run to the US Open Cup Finals. The Union were very productive as a reactive team.

However, something went very wrong after the Red Bulls game (and the US Open Cup Final it should be noted) as the team averaged just 0.8 points the rest of the campaign. Take a look at the third box highlighted in the chart. Starting with the Houston game at PPL Park, Curtin's team became much more proactive. The PScore over the final 6 games was 4.2, a half a point higher than their opponent. The Union became very Hackworthian.

It needs to be asked. What happened? Did Curtin panic and get more aggressive in a search for points to make the playoffs? Did other teams make adjustments thereby forcing his hand to change tactics?

Take a look at the formation of two very different games played by the Union. The game on the left in the chart below shows the average field position of the stating players in Curtin first MLS game as coach, a 3-1 win at New England. The chart on the right side shows the 0-0 draw against the Dynamo. The Union are pushing to the left side of the left chart and to the right side of the right chart.

Union position starting curtin

A quick glance shows that a number of the Union players were playing further up field against Houston. There are six players whose average position was in the offensive half of the field against Houston, and just four against New England. The eight position was much more aggressive against Houston, in that case Noguiera. Sheanon Williams was also playing more forward as the right fullback. Casey and Le Toux also played notably higher against Houston. Based on my measure and this chart comparison, the Union were more aggressive against Houston.

Now let's take a look at the formations of those two opponents. New England is on the left and Houston is on the right.

average position opponents

A couple of observations jump out. The first is that Houston formation was more compact than New England's, as they sat just a little further back. This is not necessarily a surpised given Houston was the road team and New England was at home. The second is that the fullbacks for New England were much more aggressive. This is part of what gave Le Toux and Cruz the space to score three goals from the wings in that game. Notice Houston's fullbacks are much further back. So while both opponents were playing proactively, Houston keeping their fullbacks more on defense limited the effectiveness of Le Toux and Wenger on the wings.

The question that remains is did Houston make a change to their style of play to force Curtin to make a change? The answer to that question appears to be "no."

Take a look at the Houston road game prior to the Union game. The average formation against Sporting KC was nearly identical to the one against the Union. The fullbacks are back in roughly the same spot. If anything Houston appears to be a little more proactive against the Union, perhaps because the game was a draw the entire time.

houston positions

So the Dynamo didn't do anything out of the normal course of play against the Union during their 0-0 draw. Yet Curtin clearly brings the team out of its effective shell, and he continues the practice to the end of the season. The results did not work out as before and Union fans know how this sad chapter ends.

The question remains: why did he change something that was working so well?  Did he panic?  One answer that comes to mind is the health of both Casey and Le Toux. But they both started the Houston game, so the injuries to those players had not impacted the team as of yet.

And another big question is what will Curtin do in 2015? Will he continue to build a more proactive team or will he return to the reactive / counterattacking squad that helped him secure his job? In his press conference he said "we'll build a strong defense." He also talked about not being able to sign a $7 million Designated Player and used that as a reason to say that the Union "have to build from the back." That sounds a lot like a man who knows he needs to employ a disciplined reactive style. We shall see.

But I still can't get out of my head what happened those last six games and what was happening. I'm going to leave you with one more startling graph. This is the Union's points per game by Pscore, and it indicates the Union were FAR more productive when playing reactively, home or away.

union 2014 proactive score

I guess the Union's approach to being proactive or reactive is one more thing to watch for as the Union take the field in just under two months.