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Scratching the Chalkboard: In Luchi We Trust

Luchi’s system is reaching new heights as Dallas wins in Atlanta.

MLS: FC Dallas at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

FC Dallas walked out of Mercedes Benz Stadium with three points in the pocket, five yellow cards, a bloody nose and a boost in confidence. Despite Atlanta playing like a hot mess right now, they are still the defending champions and unbeaten at home in 10 months. So getting a road victory in any shape or form is nothing to sneeze at.

It wasn’t pretty, but you don’t get any bonus points for glamour. Dallas abandoned their possession based style of play for this encounter and Luchi Gonzalez did the cruelest thing: make Atlanta fans watch as a rookie head coach outsmart theirs in their own building.

3-4-1-2 or 3-5-2 or 5-3-2?

Who cares?

Formation terms are used very broadly to explain the general way a team is lining up (three defenders, four midfielders, one attacking midfielder, one striker, etc). What it doesn’t tell us is how the team will play with that formation.

Under Pareja’s regime, the general plan when playing for the counter, is simply win the ball and hit it long to Fabian Castillo and/or Michael Barrios. If that didn’t work, get the ball to Mauro Diaz and let him hit the through ball. Admittedly though simple, it was also very effective simply because Pareja had the players to execute it.

Luchi Gonzalez doesn’t have those kinds of players at his disposal, and while it was still play for the counter against Atlanta, there was a little more nuance with the way this Dallas team approaches it. There’s still a commitment to playing out of the back and playing the ball on the ground to where players can play a pass through the lines, and let the receiving player take one touch to advance the ball before making the killer final pass.

Here’s how it broke down yesterday:

This is moments before Dallas found Barrios for the break and as you can see Atlanta has committed numbers forward (7).

Ryan Hollingshead is on the ball, and has three options based on where he’s facing:

  1. Lay it off to Reto Ziegler
  2. Center it to Carlos Gruezo, but Darlington Nagbe looks ready to pounce.
  3. Drop it off to Matt Hedges (which he opts to do)

Once Hedges is on the ball, he takes a touch to move the ball more centrally, which was key to moving Atlanta’s defense out of shape. Now Hedges has two options (Gruezo is not an option because of where Nagbe is):

  1. Launch it forward to Paxton Pomykal or Jesus Ferreira
  2. Lay it off to Jesse Gonzalez now that the defense has vacated Dallas’ right flank

The ball is now laid off for Gonzalez and he can either launch it or commit to playing out of the back on the ground and send the ball to Bressan (1)

(2) This is where Atlanta should’ve started pressing hard instead of jogging. For some reason, despite this pass being telegraphed, nobody from Atlanta went in for tackle hard and allowed Bressan enough time to get the counter going.

Bressan plays a great line splitting pass into Barrios’ feet and has essentially turned this now into a 3v3.

  1. Barrios has no one to pass it back to, so his only option here is to turn.
  2. Because Ferriera and Paxton Pomykal have occupied the central spots, this has forced Atlanta’s defense to go centrally too and has vacated a wide open lane for Hollingshead to expose.

This didn’t get talked about on the air has neither Pomykal or Hollingshead ended up having a direct impact on the opening goal, but Pomykal’s movement from the left wing at the start of this sequence to ending as a central option is the stuff of players ten years his senior.

Now the counter has become a 4v3.

  1. Ferreira does well by constantly checking the line to make sure he’s onside
  2. Pomykal has now slowed down, giving Barrios some cover in case the balls’ turned over and an option as a late runner
  3. Hollingshead sees the opening and has committed to running the length of the field. (Remember, he started this sequence from well inside his own half.

Barrios sends a lovely final ball into Ferreira’s path, who calmly settles it before slotting it past Brad Guzan.

None of this happen unless the players commit to playing the ball on the ground, out of the back and with patience. When a fan groans about why the team is “just passing the ball side to side”, what they don’t know is that the team is trying to move the defense out of position so they can expose an opening. Staying in defense shape requires a lot of mental stamina, and then combine that with the physical exertion required, sometimes you have a moment where you switch off and you’re a second too slow. That second can also be the difference to another goal, which I’ll show you below.

This is the sequence right before Bryan Acosta finished the game off. The ball is at John Nelson’s feet (who by the way, had another excellent showing in a high pressure situation). Atlanta has again, committed numbers (8) forward to press and win the ball back. Nelson did have the option to launch it to Barrios in this situation, but as you can see Atlanta’s press left the middle of the field wide open.

Rather than playing it direct, Nelson commits to Luchi’s plan and continues to play it on the ground and finds Edwin Cerrillo with a quick one touch pass. This pass eliminated five of Atlanta’s players from the play.

  1. Take note of where Bryan Acosta’s starting position is and remember he’s the one who finishes this play off.
  2. Cerrillo has now taken a touch and has one passing option in front of him: Barrios. He can see the CBs are a little out of position to track Barrios’ run and he opts to launch it forward. This is tricky because if Cerrillo hits this too long, Guzan smothers it. If it’s too short, Atlanta intercepts.

Cerrillo plays the perfect weighted pass to Barrios. Guzan cannot commit to come out and has to allow Barrios to advance the ball.

  1. This is Leonardo Gonzalez Pirez caught flat footed. Instead of putting his head down to chase Barrios or to check his shoulders to see if Dallas is sending any runners, he just looks to the sky in disbelief. He hesitates to make any kind of defensive effort for a second.
  2. Again, look at where Acosta is when the ball is played. He’s a good 15-20 yards behind the play.

Now watch the goal unfold and pay attention to Gonzalez Pirez.

He half committed to getting back at the offset, and when he realized that Acosta was behind him, it was too late.

That’s what that one extra pass can do: have a defender switch off for a second and it creates just enough space for Dallas to score a second goal. (Also, that was a helluva volley taken by Acosta there.)

It doesn’t seem to matter how Dallas lines up this year whether it’s a 4-3-3 or a 3-4-1-2, Dallas will commit to playing the ball out of the back to get themselves their scoring chances. This extra wrinkle to their game plan makes it a lot harder for teams to prepare and stay committed to their defensive shape.

Never Sub Barrios

I actually pondered it. He looked gassed at the 75th minute mark, and I thought Dallas needs a speed option up top if they’re going to continue to absorb pressure. I contemplated that Santiago Mosquera would’ve been the right option, but I’m glad that Luchi decided against it and let Barrios finish the game.

Barrios’ offensive chart vs ATL (Green - successful pass. Red - unsuccessful pass. Yellow - key pass. Blue - assist.)

This is great work from Barrios here who provided two assists and two key passes, bring his total to two goals and four assists in eight games. Barrios has been a great servant to the club, and while Pomykal remains the focal point of Luchi’s system, Barrios is the x-factor.