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The Dynamo tried new things against Atlanta; it didn’t work

Wilmer Cabrera tried to do something different that would reverse the Dynamo’s road woes. Needless to say, it was unsuccessful.

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

The Houston Dynamo have lost five times in 12 games, all of them on the road. MLS teams aren’t supposed to be good on the road, but not getting a single point from five road games is really, really bad. They’re still second in the Western Conference thanks solely to their exploits at home, but with six of their next nine games away, they’re going to have to figure out what to do about this at some point in the near future. If not, they will quickly be overtaken.

Wilmer Cabrera went to Atlanta on Saturday night with a new plan: stack as many players behind the ball as possible and pray to the soccer gods that a young and talented United attack wouldn’t break them down. Miguel Almiron had something to say about that.

ATL predictably slaughtered the Dynamo to the tune of 4-1, with Almiron scoring thrice and the home squadron of attackers running circles around a slow, bunkered Dynamo defense that lacked any sense of organization. Atlanta skillfully moved the ball horizontally all night, taking the nine or even 10 Houston players behind the ball with them the whole time. The players in orange might as well have been called simply ‘the Orange team’ due to their resemblance to a youth soccer side in how they chased the ball in bunches.

Literally, the Dynamo had problems ‘bunching up’ in certain areas of the field, which is a criticism I thought had been left in the Owen Coyle era. This is a screenshot from just before Almiron’s first goal:

The ball is being fought for in the upper middle of the screen by AJ DeLaGarza and Yamil Asad. AJ DeLaGarza is a right back. It’s not hard for Almiron — or anyone else, really — to notice the acres of space left on the far side of the field. The Paraguayan (No. 10 jogging next to Juan David Cabezas) quickly takes advantage by roasting Adolfo Machado with a gorgeous first touch.

You’ll notice that nine Dynamo players are in close proximity to each other here. The 10th field player, Andrew Wenger, never appears in this clip. A later replay shown by Fox Sports Southeast showed that he was on the far side of the field by himself.

In general, it was simply a tactical disaster for the Dynamo. Let’s take a look at the formation they used:

football formations

I’ve seen this called a 4-3-3, a 4-4-1-1, and a 3-4-3. In reality, this formation does not have a name. It’s just a ton of defensive-minded players put on the field at the same time, with the league’s best box-to-box midfielder forced to play as a de facto striker. If anything, it’s a 6-2-1-1, or maybe a 5-1-2-1-1 if you want to think of it that way.

Poor Mauro Manotas, who played as the striker, was on a massive island up top. The Dynamo took the title of ‘lone striker’ all too literally. He had little opportunity to do much of anything up top, thanks to the Dynamo’s extreme bunkering.

Playing defensively and stacking numbers behind the ball is not inherently bad, and it’s not a bad option for a team that excels in space and has struggled on the road; in fact, it’s a natural next step. But to do that effectively, you have to 1) actually play compact and shut down your opponents’ space (meaning not bunching up) and 2) be at least some sort of a threat in transition. When your ‘wingers’ are a 34-going-on-35-year old left back and a defensive-minded winger told to stay deep, you’re not doing anything in transition, ever.

Manotas is a great striker, but they could have played Luis Suarez up top and he wouldn’t have scored. Alex did everything he could as well, but what help did he have? To make matters worse, ALEX IS NOT A STRIKER. He’s not even a playmaker, or a No. 10, or a central attacking midfielder. He’s a box-to-box No. 8 who has had a career year in that spot. He has six assists this season because he’s been able to distribute to extremely skilled guys in transition like Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis.

The problem the Dynamo have on the road is not personnel, nor is it formation. To put it bluntly, it’s tactics, strategy, and in-depth preparation that is not currently there.

Winning on the road takes some ability to put together strings of possession. This does not mean the Dynamo have to be Barcelona. Nor does it mean they have to win the possession battle, or take more short goal-kicks. It means, at some point, they have to be able to generate opportunities through passing in the midfield.

The Dynamo don’t do that (read the story). They aren’t setting up their shape well enough in possession, and too often they resort to long balls. Necessary patience isn’t there, which is why Machado and Leonardo get so few touches on the ball.

Back to the drawing board for Wilmer Cabrera, and by that I mean designing a game-plan that involves the team’s most talented players, sticks with what has found them success, and designs tactics that create short passing options and plans for how to move forward with the ball at midfielders’ feet.