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Scratching the Chalkboard: Carlos Gruezo gives FC Dallas midfield advantage

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A small tactical change from Oscar Pareja pays off mightily.

MLS: Seattle Sounders at FC Dallas Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

It may have taken a red card, courtesy of Clint Dempsey, to get things rolling again for FC Dallas - but that may have just been what this team needed. Up to this point, Dallas showed signs that they were ready to compete in 2018, but this was the complete performance that the fans have wanted to see.

Unsung Hero

Most everyone was dazzled by what looks to be an almost in-form, Mauro Diaz. Diaz wasn’t able to execute every flick, nutmeg or pass, but the vision and confidence from his 2016 form seem to be returning. And that’s not surprising. When Diaz is on, he’s one of the most entertaining players to watch in this league.

But the player that really took it up to MVP type levels? Carlos Gruezo.

Gruezo’s defensive actions. Orange - recovery. Blue - interception. Red - failed tackle.

This is actually a pretty low chart for Gruezo, in terms of the number of defensive actions and it’s unusual that he didn’t have a successful tackle but the focus here isn’t quantity but location. As you can see, Gruezo put in three recoveries inside the Seattle Sounder’s half. Those three recoveries were huge as they all came while Seattle was trying to transition out of their end to launch a counter.

Each of those recoveries came with 1-3 passes after Dallas conceded a turnover, meaning they came quickly and they came where Dallas already had numbers forward. Here’s a snapshot of how quick Gruezo was to react to any loose ball:

(Fascinatingly enough, this tackle/interception/recovery whatever, doesn’t show up as a defensive action.)

That short little burst captured Gruezo’s game for much of the afternoon. Credit to Oscar Pareja for making the shift between the Gruezo and Jacori Hayes partnership for this one. Rather than having Hayes play link up in a more or less #8, Pareja opted to flip their roles and had Hayes stay back more and let Gruezo loose. The results were excellent.

Gruezo’s passing chart vs SEA. Green - successful pass. Red - unsuccessful pass.

Gruezo generally has a very high success passing rate on a whole, but again, it’s not so much the quantity, but the location. Gruezo’s strength with his passing comes from his ability to spray the ball out wide to the wings and to switch the point of attack quickly. Usually this comes closer to the halfway line where there’s less defensive pressure and he’s afforded an extra half second to pick out his target. But as you can see, given the license to take his defensive skills farther up the field, this also enabled Dallas to gain his ability to switch the point of attack further up the field. This caused problems for Seattle’s defense, as they were forced to shift side to side closer to their goal, giving Dallas more opportunities to run in behind.

The Gruezo Effect

As I was watching the game, it dawned on me that I hadn’t noticed the centerbacks much. In fact, had I not known the starting lineup, there would’ve been stretches of the game where I wouldn’t be able to tell you with any certainty who was lined up the middle of the defense. And that’s a good thing.

Hedges-Zieger defensive actions before the red card. Yellow - blocks. Orange - recovery. Purple - clearance. Blue - interception.

I chose to show the chart when both teams were playing 11 v 11, as I felt that would give us the best indicator of how well Gruezo was playing the destroyer role higher up the field. Before Dempsey’s red, Hedges registered just three (!) defensive actions.

Some of this is in part of Hedges’ ability to read the game well and position himself to deter the opposition from sending balls near him, but this also speaks volumes to the kind of protection he got from Gruezo and Hayes in front of him. This is perhaps overly simplistic, but soccer is a simple game after all, but the less defensive work Hedges has to do, the better this team is.

It’ll be interesting to see what kind of notes Pareja will take from this and how he’ll implement this tactical change moving forward. Will he keep Hayes back and let Gruezo do his thing further up the field? Will that continue when Kellyn Acosta comes back? Only time will tell, but it’s nice knowing that there are options that Dallas can utilize to give them an advantage.