A nice home win to open the season is just what FC Dallas needed to get the season off the ground. This weekend sees the Montreal Impact come to town fresh off their own opening day win against New England.
When Montreal comes to Texas, you can count on the Hoops pocketing a win and three points. The Canadian team has never won a game in the Lone Star state, only once getting a draw in 12 tries (against Houston). But with a new coach and front office on board, will things be different this go around? The Impact made a huge signing this week, getting Victor Wanyama across the Atlantic from Tottenham Hotspur. The Kenyan international could be a major boost to the middle of the field as an all-round midfield destroyer. Though he failed to make the grade at Spurs this past season, his history surely perks up a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2016. Fortunately, Wanyama won’t be available this week as his paperwork hasn’t come through. (Side note - how is this possible in 2020? Do all leagues need paper copies? Was the file too large for their email server? Did the ship carrying the mail hit a head wind? Did the pigeon get lost in route? Honestly…smh…) Even without their new signing, there is still plenty new to check out.
First off, in case you missed it, Thierry Henry is now manager! One of my favorite players of all time! But unlike his former teammate Patrick Vieira, Henry’s first go at managing was a complete disaster in France. In his 20-game stint at the club, Monaco won four games, drew five, and lost 11. There’s no point in comparing tactics and styles with that team; besides the talent gap, team situation, and pressure of running a historically significant French club, coach Henry will have (hopefully for Montreal fans) learned a book’s worth of lessons since then. So, let’s look at how he’s setup Montreal in their first few games of this nascent season.
Montreal got things going early this season in Concacaf Champions league play, having their first two competitive matches against Costa Rican power Deportivo Saprissa. In their two-leg bout, Montreal were tough to break down for most of both games, showing a solidity in the back that was not present last season. In fact, had tired legs and injuries not hit so hard in the first leg, they may well have pulled out a 2-0 away win rather than 2-2 draw. Montreal’s set-up then and now appears to have settled into a somewhat unique formation, at least by MLS standards. The formation is a 5-2-3/3-4-3 variation that asks a whole bunch from the wing backs. Basically, the “two” central midfielders are tasked with protecting and shielding the back line rather than contributing meaningfully in the attack. This allows the full backs to get forward and stay forward, because they should, theoretically, always have cover from a midfielder or one of the center backs. With the full backs providing width, the three attackers are more central and can play off each other across the front three. Indeed, with attacker Bojan positioned in the central spot, he can act as a false 9, allowing Maxi Urruti and new signing Romell Quito to attack from all manner of places on the field. This is where Dallas will have to focus hard on determining the greatest threat in the moment. Tracking Quito making a slicing run through the middle, holding Maxi at bay while he presses the back line, or pressing back at Bojan before he can get possession will be an every minute calculus problem.
That also leads into our introduction of players Montreal is set to run out. Signing Bojan last season was a risk worth taking. The talented Spaniard didn’t set the world on fire in his eight-game cameo. He registered three goals and no assists in his time, but he also didn’t have loads to work with either. This season will be the real test of whether the investment was worthwhile. Partnering with him is our dearly beloved Maxi Urruti. In typical Maxi fashion he ended the season with more assists (six) than goals (four) but endeared himself to another fan base all the same. New in for this season is Romell Quioto of Houston Dynamo fame. First, congratulations Mr. Quioto are for getting out of the swamp down south of Dallas. Quioto had a down year last season with only two goals and two assists but is a known threat when on the field. Maxi and Quioto both got on the score sheet last week, so there is a risk of meeting two streaky scorers starting the season on a hot streak, which Dallas will obviously want to avoid.
The two midfielders to shield the back line will most likely be Samuel Piette and Saphir Taider. Piette is the classic holding midfielder who takes his defensive responsibility more seriously than getting forward. He’s a tough tackler who takes the ball quickly and moves it to someone else just as fast. Taider, on the other hand, fly’s in the face of my analysis up above. While he’s in a holding midfield position, he is not a holding midfielder. He’s a box-to-box mid only in the sense that he runs that distance. Taider is a pure attacker. He led the team in goals and assists last season with nine and seven, respectively. He makes runs from the midfield deep into attacking territory and can set up anyone who gets open, including himself. He is the reason, I believe, Montreal is bringing in Victor Wanyama. Having someone in midfield who can do the work of two players, especially defensively, frees up a player like Taider to become an even greater threat. Henry has stated he wants Montreal to become a more possession-oriented team. Wanyama and Taider are the key players for that transition. That may leave Piette on the bench most games, but it also allows Montreal to kill off a game if they get a comfy lead by putting both defensive mids together.
Along the back line we find full backs Zachary Brault-Guillard and Jorge Corrales. Captain Jukka Raitala is out injured for this one, leaving Corrales to fill in for a second week. At center back we should see Rod Fanni in the middle with new signing Joel Waterman on one side and another new signing, Luis Binks, on the other. Montreal has really leaned in on shoring up the defense. Although they left it a bit late in the off-season, signing Waterman and Binks in the back (with addition to Wanyama) should really help with Montreal keep the ball out of their net this season. In between the sticks will be Clement Diop, formerly of the Los Angeles Galaxy, who may not help keep the ball out of the net if his time in LA is remembered.
Keys to the Game:
Let’s revisit the formation and particularly Saphir Taider. As mentioned earlier, the 5-2-3 formation Montreal rolls out is typically a more defensive operation. The two midfielders are to hold down the middle of the field and protect the back line while the full backs push forward. That leaves five players devoted to attack and five to defend (generality alert). With Taider, Henry has a talented attacker masquerading as a defensive mid. Much like Bojan playing a false 9 role, where he acts more as a creator and facilitator rather than out and out striker, Taider is operating as a false 6 (or perhaps false 8). Instead of being a holding mid, it’s Taider who often drifts wide and forward rather than Jorge Corrales. This allows him to join the attack more naturally and leaves a better defender in the middle. Corrales is quick enough to push back out to the wing should he be needed, and Montreal’s shape can swing over to accommodate should Taider or the other fullback, ZBG, be too far forward.
But this is where Dallas will find its openings. Playing the ball through the middle of the field will force Taider to either stay back or get caught out of position. If he vacates the middle, he needs to cover the wing, but if he’s caught out, Michael Barrios and Fafa Picault have the speed to burn the exposed sideline and center back. Conversely, if Taider stays, it leaves Dallas with a numbers advantage in the midfield (3 vs 2) where they will be able to cut through to the Montreal back line. The perfect example of this happened just last game with Paxton Pomykal’s goal. Go back and look and you will see five defenders racing back to cover in the same general arraignment Montreal will play. Paxton and Tanner Tessman broke through the midfield with a simple one-two before ending things with another simple one-two. No, it’s not a perfect comparison, Dallas won’t get that much space all game, but the numbers and circumstances will present themselves plenty.
A reworked backline, a morale boosting signing, and a new coach and GM all point to an improved Montreal Impact. Just not this soon. Give me Dallas with a 2-0 win against the maple syrup snobs.