Photo courtesy of Phoenix Rising FC.
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.
Phoenix Rising must have felt like they were looking in a mirror during their most recent game. Though Phoenix won Friday night’ match 4-2, Reno’s aggressive, attacking style gave Phoenix real trouble for long stretches of the game.
Aggressive, attacking style. Does that phrase sound familiar? It should. Those two adjectives describe Phoenix Rising’s style of play as well. In his post-match media availability, Mustapha Dumbuya honed in on the stylistic similarities between Reno and Phoenix.
“They’re a good side. They’re kind of similar to us,” Dumbuya observed. “They want to keep the ball, they want to play football the right way.”
Dumbuya wasn’t the only one to compliment Reno’s play on Friday night and compare them to Phoenix.
“If we weren’t in such good form, I’d like to say that that’s [Reno] the best team in the Western Conference,” Rick Schantz said after the game. “They were very good, very difficult to play against. Ian [Russell] is a good friend of mine and he’s doing a fantastic job.”
Schantz was right. Reno, led by head coach Ian Russell, came to Phoenix with a solid game plan, stuck to it, and made Phoenix look a bit shaky on dollar beer night. From the opening kickoff, it was clear that Friday night was going to be a much different game than the previous week against El Paso.
Instead of sitting deep in a low, compact block like a number of teams have chosen to do against Phoenix recently, Reno pushed their defensive shape higher up the field to disrupt their opponent’s play from the back.
Assistant coach Blair Gavin called it earlier in the week. “What they do that’s very challenging is they press and they pin you in on one side.”
Reno’s 4-4-2 diamond formation gives them unique flexibility to press. Unlike a standard flat midfield four in a 4-4-2, Reno’s diamond shape has a staggered midfield which allows them to cover a lot of space both vertically and horizontally. Below is a basic outline of Reno (the blue circles) pressing on a Phoenix Rising (the red circles) goal kick:
There are a lot of lines and shapes on the diagram, so here’s a breakdown of what you’re looking at. Before Zac Lubin took a goal kick on Friday…
- Reno’s two strikers pressured Phoenix’s two center backs.
- The top of Reno’s midfield diamond pressured Phoenix’s central defensive midfielder.
- Each of Reno’s outside central midfielders positioned himself between one of Phoenix’s central midfielders and one of their fullbacks.
- The base of Reno’s midfield diamond acted as the “free defender“, ready to help the backline win a long ball or step to an open Phoenix attacker.
Once Lubin took a goal kick, like Gavin said, Reno “pin you in on one side”. In this clip, Reno’s entire defensive shape shifted to the left and used the sideline as an extra defender to help disrupt Phoenix Rising’s buildup.
Doueugui Mala received the ball from Lubin but was met by an opposing striker. That striker’s body positioning cut off any potential passes to the middle of the field, which forced Mala to play the ball up the sideline. Mala looked down the line, but Reno were already marking Dumbuya, Kevon Lambert, Solomon Asante, and Adam Jahn, so the center back had no choice but to play a hopeful ball upfield.
Though Reno’s pressure was effective, Phoenix Rising’s buildup play wasn’t totally thwarted. There were moments when Phoenix successfully played from the back and moved through Reno’s extended pressure.
In this clip, Lubin passes the ball to AJ Cochran, who fires off a one-touch pass through the press to Jahn. Jahn holds up the ball well and gets the ball back to Cochran, who then hits Junior Flemmings on the left wing.
Making quick decisions is key to beating any high press, but especially a diamond press. If you wait too long with the ball, an opponent will pressure you and your passing options will be gone. Cochran’s quick passing was invaluable in the above sequence.
When Reno – or another opponent – force turnovers in Phoenix’s half, it makes it much more difficult for Phoenix to get back and defend their goal. If (when?) these two teams meet again in the postseason, the battle between Reno’s press and Phoenix Rising’s buildup is going to be one of the game’s biggest x-factors.
The Final Third:
1. With his two penalty kick goals over the weekend, Solomon Asante is now Phoenix Rising’s all-time leading goalscorer. When asked about his goalscoring prowess after the game, Solo said this: “I feel good. I feel great, fantastic. Breaking every record, that’s good. I will thank my teammates because without them I couldn’t get this far so I feel good.” Between his incredible skill and his strong leadership, Asante truly deserves to hold Phoenix’s goalscoring title.
2. LAFC loanee and Jamaica international Peter-Lee Vassell made his Phoenix Rising debut on Friday and looked perfectly comfortable playing in midfield. I was going to do a longer bit on him in this column, but I’m actually going to do an entirely separate piece on him later this week, so keep your eyes peeled for that. I will say this: having another high-quality depth option for Rick Schantz to either rotate into the starting lineup or to have come off the bench late in games is a real luxury for Phoenix. Against Reno, when José Aguinaga and PLV came on for Jon Bakero and James Musa, I couldn’t help but think of this Schantz quote from a few weeks ago: “[Our depth is] massive. I wouldn’t compare it to other teams, but I kinda think about like Pep Guardola and some of these managers that have a hundred million dollars on the bench at their disposal and you put these great players in to make a difference.” Just from Friday night’s bench alone, having PLV, Aguinaga, Joey Calistri, and Joey Farrell ready to come into the game and make an impact is a luxury that few (no?) other teams in USL have.
3. 14 wins in a row. 13 straight wins on $1 beer night. Broken goalscoring records. The number of different things that Phoenix Rising are accomplishing all at once is simply insane. “What can I say, this is unbelievable,” Schantz said after Friday’s game. “You’ve gotta pinch me because this feels like a dream.” Don’t worry coach: this is all very real.
Thanks for reading this week’s edition of Rising Tactics Recap! Check back later this week for more insight and analysis.