Despite having the fewest goals allowed and being undefeated, with only one win from four (all at home) it’s pretty evident that FC Dallas needs to improve the attacking part of their game.
In hindsight, this offensive struggle is not that surprising. Oscar Pareja and Fernando Clavijo all but completely overhauled the defense, but only brought in Santiago Mosquera to try and boost the offense that had such well documented issues last season. On top of that, Pareja continues to be faithful to five of the six non-defensive players that saw FC Dallas fall down the table and out of the MLS Cup Playoffs last season.
This offense is built around the playmaking of Mauro Diaz and the speed of Michael Barrios. For his part, Barrios is a consistent danger to the opposition, but Díaz has been far less so. Díaz has battled to regain the excellent form he was in before his achilles injury. In 2018 there have been glimpses of the unicorn, but this squad in its current state needs a full-on, rainbow-defecating, majestic unicorn.
Díaz is a player who thrives on space. When he can beat his marker and get time to survey the pitch, he can spot teammates’ runs and hit them with his signature perfectly weighted through-balls.
Enter Maxi Urruti.
Urruti is likely one of the first names on Pareja’s team sheet simply because of his work rate. He loves to get involved on defense, be it a one-man high press or dropping into the midfield to break up the opposition’s possession game. But that’s the rub. Once FC Dallas recovers the ball, not only is Urruti too deep to be a target for a cross in from the wings, but he’s also brought his markers closer to the area that Díaz is occupying. Even though he is often still able to find a way to make a play, imagine what Díaz could do without being bottled by the extra traffic from Urruti and his marker.
So, perhaps it’s time to move Mauro deeper into the midfield.
One needs only to look to Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard to find an example of this. Gerrard moved all over the midfield to fit his team’s needs and to adjust for his strengths and weaknesses as they evolved throughout his career. During the Benitez days he played anywhere from a #10 to an auxiliary striker, but by the end of his career he’d moved all the way back to a deep lying #6. Part of moving deeper was due to age, but part of it was an effort to get him the ball with more of the field in front of him.
Díaz can follow a similar path. Like Gerrard, the squad is in a place that it desperately needs him to make plays. Also, just as Gerrard’s pace diminished over time, it remains to be seen if Díaz has actually regained 90 minutes of explosiveness.
FC Dallas has seen this work already. As they’ve been chasing the game against FC Tauro and Colorado, Díaz has dropped back into the midfield two (or even as the lone midfielder at the end of the FC Tauro match), and each time FC Dallas has managed to score goals and create more chances. The obvious (and fresh) example here is Díaz’ assist to Cristian Colmán to equalize against Colorado, but that is just one of many.
With Díaz vacating the CAM position, it begs the question “Who fills that spot?” Assuming the team stays in Pareja’s prefered 4-2-3-1, there are a few options.
One would be Roland Lamah. He has shown a knack for scoring goals when the team finds a way to get him involved and invested in a match. He is also a very direct style of play that would suit the position well in attack. However, Lamah may lack the willingness to drop back and help relieve pressure in the middle of the park. In 2017 he averaged a measly 0.8 tackles per game (only beating Tesho Akindele and Cristian Colmán).
Another option would be to bring on Paxton Pomykal. It’s been suggested that he’s seen as a like-for-like understudy for Díaz, and has looked impressive in his cameos this season. However, he’s injured right now and we simply don’t know if he’s ready to make the spot his own week-after-week.
The most attractive option to fill the attacking void of Díaz is to move Urruti there and bring Colmán on as the #9. Urruti can obviously contribute on offense. Not only did he lead FC Dallas in goals in 2017, but he also ranked second in the squad in passing according to whoscored.com. Since Urruti is already dropping back to cover on defense, we know that he is willing and able to provide the occasional cover in midfield. In this scenario, Urruti can get stuck in without clogging the area for Díaz.
With Urruti also dropping deeper, Pareja should bring on Colmán to introduce a more typical center-forward. Despite the finishing woes that have drawn much criticism, Colmán is consistently making smart runs into the box and providing the wide-men a target in the box. He was able to convert his penetrating run into the box against Colorado, but even against Real Salt Lake he was waiting for Maxi Urruti’s ball in and would have buried it, had the defender not done it for him.
As with anything, there are potential pitfalls with this plan.
The biggest one that comes to mind is Mauro’s durability. Players in the deep midfield are often required to put in a very physical outing in order to provide cover for the center-backs. However, the formula for opposing defenses and defensive midfielders to deal with Díaz is to stay close and rough him up when he gets the ball. This threatens to take more of a toll on him than would defending. In addition, with players like Acosta and Gruezo waiting in the wings, Díaz could be substituted out to help close out games.
Another pitfall might be that this tactical arrangement might only be effective when the opposition is sitting back and absorbing pressure to try and preserve a scoreline. An opponent that implements a high-press or overloads the top of their midfield might well cause problems by limiting the amount of space that Díaz has to operate in. However, when a team is under that type of pressure, having the playmaker involved in the breakout helps tremendously in finding the open man in order to relieve that pressure. In addition, when teams press and try to overload an area it leaves gaps that a player like Díaz can exploit. Once he beats his man or finds someone in that gap, FC Dallas would be able to push farther up very quickly and with minimal opposition.
In soccer, as in life, adjustments must be made based on the challenge being faced. While it might not be perfect for every match and opponent, making this adjustment in the positioning of Díaz allows Pareja to get his playmakers in positions to make plays.