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

Frustration was evident following Phoenix Rising’s 2-2 draw with the Colorado Springs Switchbacks on Saturday. Coach Rick Schantz was frustrated. The players were frustrated. The fans were frustrated.

After three difficult draws to start the season, any and all frustration is justified. Still, despite another disappointing result, there are plenty of tactical and strategic takeaways from this past weekend’s game against the Switchbacks. Some of those tactical items are positive, others are negative, and some are a little of both.

One of those “little of both” tactical things was Phoenix’s defensive midfield pairing. Instead of playing out of a 4-1-4-1 formation that has a lone defensive midfielder playing in front of the defense, Rick Schantz changed his team’s setup to a 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 shape with a two-man defensive midfield pairing.

The idea behind adding another defensive midfielder into the mix was to better protect the backline and to lessen the amount of central attacking chances allowed.

Now, the reason why Phoenix’s switch to defensive midfield duo is in the “little of both” category is because while the idea was strategically sound, the execution was not. Phoenix still struggled to defend the area right in front of their own box, even with the added midfielder. This problem was especially clear on Colorado Springs’ first goal.

There are a few negatives from the midfield pair to point out on this goal. First, as the ball is switched over to the right side of Phoenix’s defense, both defensive midfielders, James Musa and Javi Pérez, start to walk into the box. They are caught flat-footed and make little attempt to mark any of the Switchbacks’ attackers. Pérez eventually steps to mark a late-arriving attacker, which leaves a massive gap in the middle of the box for an opposing player to receive the ball and fire off a shot. While all of this is happening, Musa doesn’t move.

You cannot expect to defend well as a team and limit the opposition’s chances if the core of your defense is struggling. Musa and Pérez’s lack of defensive intensity and poor defensive positioning detracted from a positive tactical scheme.

Another area where Phoenix struggled defensively was with their counter pressing. Last week, we discussed that when teams try to press and win the ball after they lose it in the attacking half, they are “counter pressing”. Phoenix had a few positive moments using this defensive tactic, but they struggled to consistently thwart opposing attacks with their pressure.

Let’s break down this counter pressing sequence:

Phoenix Rising lose the ball on the left wing. Notice how even though there are a number of Phoenix players high up the field in the attack, Jason Johnson is the only player who attempts to put any real pressure on the ball. Musa takes a sort of half-step towards the ball-carrier, but doesn’t do enough to disrupt the opposing dribbler. It’s far too easy for Colorado Springs to counter attack from this position. When Phoenix give up these opportunities to good teams or quality individual attackers they will get punished.

If, as a team, you are going to commit numbers forward into the attack, you have to be committed to using those advanced attacking players to apply cohesive pressure to the ball after you lose it or to sprinting back into your defensive shape. It’s hard to succeed by doing anything in between those two defensive tactics.

There were positive examples of Phoenix’s counter press forcing the Switchbacks to concede possession, but right now, inconsistency is hurting Phoenix and they are giving up too many counter attacking chances.

We’ve looked at enough negative and in-between takeaways. There was at least one thing that Phoenix did unquestionably well on Saturday. They created chances in the attack. Pérez and Jon Bakero were especially impressive and formed a skillful central spine in the attack.

If Pérez and Bakero continue to start for Phoenix Rising this season, there is every reason to expect to see plays like this one in each game:

They look so comfortable passing with each other and passing through opposing defenders. Being able to combine in the middle of the field, bypass defenders, and create centrally before playing the ball out wide to either Johnson or Solomon Asante could be the bread and butter of Phoenix’s attack this season.

The Final Third:

  • With no Mustapha Dumbuya or Shaft Brewer on the game day roster, Tristan Blackmon slid over to play right back and I thought he did an admirable job. Blackmon doesn’t provide much going forward into the attack, but frankly with the amount of attacking talent and creativity already present among Phoenix’s midfielders and forwards, I don’t think that matters. It is far more important to have a solid defensive right back than a surplus attacker.
  • Kevon Lambert brought good defensive energy off the bench. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him start as part of a defensive midfield duo next week.
  • I’d like to present this Jon Bakero pass with only one comment: “Wow.”

This week’s tactical term is “a pivot”. A pivot is the player who is positioned in between the defense and the attack and whose job is to shield the backline and initiate attacks with forward passes. A “double pivot” is when two of those players line up next to each other. With Musa and Pérez positioned as dual defensive midfielders against Colorado Springs, we saw Phoenix Rising play with a double pivot this weekend.

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

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