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.

Well that was…less dramatic than usual. 

After back-to-back-to-back goal-filled draws to start the season, Phoenix Rising’s 0-0 draw with Fresno FC was much more defensive than any game we’ve seen from Coach Rick Schantz’s team so far this year. For the first time in 2019, it wasn’t Phoenix’s attack that kept them in the game: it was their defense.

Phoenix defended in a 4-2-3-1, like they did last week against Colorado Springs, but Schantz switched out his midfield personnel to give his team more defensive bite. In place of Javi Pérez and James Musa, Collin Fernandez and Kevon Lambert played as the double pivot in front of the back four and did an excellent job covering ground, rotating with the backline, and forcing Fresno to play backwards. 

Let’s look at two defensive sequences, one that illustrates Lambert’s impact and one that illustrates Fernandez’s impact.

We’ll start with Lambert.

Amadou Dia steps into midfield to pressure the ball and leaves a huge gap on the left side of the back four. Fresno recognize that Dia is out of position and send a runner into his vacated space. Lambert spots the runner and sprints to cover for Dia. He catches up to the ball and forces the Fresno player to pass backwards, eliminating the attacking threat.

Now, Fernandez.

To start this play, Phoenix Rising are back defending in their 4-2-3-1 shape and Fernandez is watching the movement of a Fresno attacker on his left. As Fresno throw the ball in, Fernandez baits Seth Moses into a passing turnover by shading ever-so-slightly to the left, making it look like there is a passing lane open, before sliding over to intercept the ball.

Lambert and Fernandez brought a level of defensive solidity that we haven’t seen from Phoenix’s midfield this season. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine Pérez or Musa covering ground like Lambert or quickly intercepting a pass like Fernandez. 

Also, notice that both of the above defensive examples are taken from the eleven-v-eleven portion of the game: Phoenix Rising’s defensive unit was performing well even before Fresno FC went down to ten men. 

As refreshingly solid as Phoenix’s defense was, part of the joy that comes from securing a clean sheet was lost due to the team’s lack of offensive production. Phoenix created a handful of dangerous chances early on in the game by using a very particular pattern of play. In the first half, Phoenix Rising built many of their attacks on the left side of the field, drawing Fresno defenders over to that side before switching play to the right side.

Look at how Dia, Fernandez, Lambert, Junior Flemmings, Jon Bakero, and Adam Jahn are all on the left half of the field, demanding attention from the opposing defense.

Because Fresno is forced to commit so many bodies to defend Phoenix’s left side, Solomon Asante is isolated on the right side of the field. Asante is in space, receives the left-to-right switch from Flemmings, and plays a perfect ball into the box.

After about 15 minutes into the second half, Phoenix started to struggle to create chances for long stretches, largely because they stopped focusing on shifting Fresno from side-to-side. 

Coach Schantz told the media in his post-match media session, “We went away in the first half of hitting the long diagonals to find our wingers and getting them 1v1 and trying to play into the middle a little too much.”

This sequence is a visual illustration of Schantz’s comment:

Both Phoenix and Fresno have numbers stacked on the far side of the field, but instead of immediately recognizing that there is space open on the near side, Tristan Blackmon tries to force a pass into a heavily-defended area. A Fresno player pounces on the loose ball and draws a foul.

Phoenix Rising’s inconsistent attacking play caused their inability to break down Fresno FC’s compact lines of four. Breaking through a low defensive block is difficult – even some of the best teams in the world occasionally struggle against teams that defend deep – but Phoenix will want to look back at this game and find better ways to create chances and capitalize on those chances in the final third.

Speaking of The Final Third

  • Tristan Blackmon continues to impress me (and his teammates) as a defensive right back. A.J. Cochran had some very complementary things to say about Blackmon after Saturday’s game: “He is extremely athletic, he can pass a good ball, he’s good in the air, and he’s strong in the tackle. He’s got every attribute that you want in a right back.” If Blackmon can continue to develop the offensive side of his game, he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.
  • Jon Bakero had a quieter game against Fresno than he did against Colorado Springs. One reason for that could be Javi Pérez’s absence from the lineup. Last week, Pérez and Bakero combined and created in the middle of the field, but this week, Bakero missed having another player in the middle of the field with him who could control the ball in tight spaces. We saw glimpses of Asante tucking inside and combining with Bakero, but even Solo couldn’t replace Pérez as an attacking partner.
  • I’m not much for predicting lineups (especially because I’m not inside the locker room or watching training every day), but I would be very surprised if we didn’t see the same Blackmon/Farrell/Cochran/Dia/Lambert/Fernandez defensive spine next week against El Paso. That group defended like a unit.

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

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