Welcome back to Rising Tactics Recap, a weekly column where I try to provide insight to Phoenix Rising fans by breaking down some strategic and tactical observations from Phoenix’s latest match.

After Saturday’s match against New Mexico United, Phoenix Rising FC Head Coach Rick Schantz said, “We know we can score goals. We know we can attack but we’re leaking goals right now.” With six goals scored in two games, Phoenix have shown that they can score enough to keep themselves in games. However, after back-to-back games where the opposition also scored three goals, Phoenix clearly have work to do defensively. Today, we are going to look at each of New Mexico’s goals and try to examine what happened in the buildup to each one.

As someone who likes to watch games to analyze tactical set ups and game plans, I typically do not label goals as “defensive mistakes”. I would much rather look at the validity of the defensive scheme or the positioning of the players involved in that scheme. All of that said, New Mexico’s first goal looks a lot like an unfortunate series of defensive events strung together. 

Phoenix’s defensive shape at the start of the sequence is good. They have a numerical superiority (more players than the opposition) on both wings and in the middle of the field. Regardless, things start to unravel. Defensive midfielder Javi Perez gets nutmegged and allows a pass to roll right in front of the back four, right back Mustapha Dumbuya can’t make the tackle inside the box, the ball hits a New Mexico player’s arm, and while Phoenix appeal for a handball no one steps to the ball. Seconds later, the ball is in the back of the net. You can appeal for a handball after the play is over. It is a mental mistake not to step to the ball and force New Mexico away from your goal.

Phoenix leveled the game at 1-1, but New Mexico struck again. 

In this sequence, the ball bounced back and forth between the two teams and eventually landed between Phoenix’s Perez and New Mexico’s David Estrada. Estrada won the 50/50 battle in midfield and poked the ball to Kevaughn Frater. Phoenix Rising’s backline dropped to contain the ball and ensure that Frater wouldn’t beat them by dribbling forward into the box. Instead of trying to dribble at Phoenix, Frater hit a shot from about 25 yards out and buried the ball in the back of the net. 

It’s hard to question the backline’s decision to drop and keep the ball in front of them: if I’m a center back defending a quick forward like Frater, I’m not going to risk getting beaten. I’m going to bet that my opponent isn’t going to hit the ball perfectly into the bottom corner of the goal. It is a piece of sound logic, but sound logic clearly doesn’t win soccer games. 

Once Phoenix had scored to tie the game for a second time, New Mexico came back and scored their third goal of the match, this time on a one-man counter attack. 

How was Santiago Moar able to dribble all the way down the field unimpeded? It looks like this goal boils down to poor timing and mental mistakes. Shaft Brewer, who came on at right back for Dumbuya at half time, tracked back to try and stop the counter attack, but stopped short of making a play on the ball. Perez also tracked back, but was a step too late to make a play on the ball. Tristian Blackmon, who had to momentarily track Frater’s run, stepped up to shepherd Moar to the side, but was also too late.

A well-timed foul outside the box would’ve been enough to stop this goal, but no foul was committed and Moar’s perfectly-struck shot landed in the back of the net.

It’s worth noting here that all three of New Mexico’s goals came from perfectly-placed shots and two of them came from outside the box. I would love to see the combined expected goals (a statistic that measures the likelihood of a shot going in from anywhere on the field) for New Mexico’s three goals, because it can’t be a large total.

Defensive issues manifested themselves in a much different way this week than they did last week. Last week against San Antonio, Phoenix struggled to track intricate movement from their opponents. This week, Phoenix broke down in specific moments and were punished for it. Neither week’s defensive issues are good, but I will take individual moments and mistakes over systematic deficiencies any day.  

Now that we have taken a stab at diagnosing some of Phoenix’s defensive issues against New Mexico United, it’s time for the closing segment of Rising Tactics RecapThe Final Third, a short, rapid fire section with a few of my scattered thoughts from the week’s game, plus a brief look at the week’s tactical term.

  • The Tristian Blackmon/A.J. Cochran center back pairing put in an excellent performance. Both players looked comfortable passing out of the back and forward into the attack. I would be surprised if Blackmon/Cochran isn’t Phoenix’s center back pairing against Colorado Springs.
  • Javi Perez is not a defensive monster (as we saw on New Mexico’s second and third goals), but he is uniquely comfortable conducting possession from deep in midfield. He has what many people call “la pausa” or “the pause”. The game almost seems to slow down when the ball is at Perez’s feet. Hopefully, Phoenix can figure out how to cover his lack of defense ability, because Perez is a joy to watch.
  • Shaft Brewer coming on for Mustapha Dumbuya at halftime seems like a sign of things to come. Dumbaya has struggled with his defensive positioning and his 1V1 defending in his first two games for Phoenix. Brewer may be more apt defensively.

This week’s tactical term is “counter pressing”. Counter pressing, or “re-pressing”, is a defensive tactic that teams use to win the ball back. When a team loses the ball, usually in the attacking half, and presses quickly to win it back by swarming the area around the opposition player with ball, they are counter pressing.

Thanks for reading this week’s edition of Rising Tactics Recap! Check back next week for more insight and analysis.

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