Riverhounds SC play-by-play broadcaster Matt Gajtka brings his perspective on the sport in his ‘View From The Booth’ commentary.
The more I ensconce myself in soccer, the more I’m fascinated by tactics.
Early on in my time as a follower of the sport, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I marveled more in the individual skill of the athletes and the pretty passing plays than which coach was winning the chess match.
4-4-2 … 3-5-2 … 5-4-1 … They might as well have been area codes to me, because the numbers on the tactical sheet seemed rather wonky and inconsequential.
These days, though, I can’t watch a match without looking up the formation and trying to get inside the coaches’ heads. And that’s why what Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC manager Bob Lilley has been up to lately has caught my prolonged attention.
Perhaps it was born of necessity, with center back Joe Greenspan missing a couple of games due to military service, but Pittsburgh has gone with four in the back more frequently in recent weeks, with some combination of Greenspan, Tobi Adewole and Thomas Vancaeyezeele manning the two center spots, while stalwarts Jordan Dover and Ryan James handled the outside back positions.
In the first half of the season, the Hounds went with five in the back more frequently, usually with Vancaeyezeele setting up between Adewole and Greenspan. With the exception of the road win at New York Red Bulls II, we’ve rarely seen that look since spring turned to summer.
“We just want to be able to do different things,” Lilley explained last week after a training session at Highmark Stadium. “I think there will be still a lot of changes at the back end of the season, depending on opponent and what we’re trying to accomplish in a particular game.”
No surprise to hear that sort of thing from one of the most pragmatic soccer coaches on the continent — especially not as we near the end of Lilleyball’s Pittsburgh sequel.
“I think the players are used to it at this point,” Lilley continued. “They’re pretty comfortable if we can gain a tactical edge somewhere by tweaking something. It’s usually something our guys are pretty good about.”
I tend to agree with the bench boss, but obviously that statement holds up better when the team is at full strength.
Against Loudoun United FC last Friday, Vancaeyezeele was out on a one-game red card suspension, causing a chain reaction that probably contributed to the Hounds’ general disconnect in a lackluster 1-0 win.
Without their French Army knife, the Hounds bumped Robbie Mertz back into more of a holding position, with Anthony Velarde getting the call in the attacking midfield alongside Kevin Kerr and Steevan Dos Santos. Mertz can handle the defensive job — he’s been spotted within spitting distance of his own end line more than a few times this season — but the rookie dynamo is probably better utilized further up the pitch.
Unlike recent games with a four-man back line, the Hounds (12-4-8, 44 points) couldn’t shift their attack into a higher gear against Loudoun. They mustered just 10 shots and a mere two on target, below their standards on home turf.
But despite how fun it can be to debate tactics, perhaps this is about simple personnel. There’s a reason Vancaeyezeele had started all but one match entering last Friday, and was on pace to lead the team in minutes for the second consecutive season.
In talking to Hounds assistant coach Dan Visser earlier this season, he said Vancaeyezeele is unique in that he has the freedom to roam into whichever cracks and crevasses he sees fit, thus defying that tactical sheet some of us obsess over.
“We’ve given him at times some different responsibilities in the attack compared to defending,” Visser said of the second-year pro. “Because of the kind of player he is, he has the freedom to exploit some spaces if he sees those in front of him.
“Tommy’s just a very good player, a very intuitive player. I think he reads the game really well. That allows him to take up some different positions that aren’t on paper, but are there as the game dictates.”
For his part, Vancaeyezeele describes his role on the Hounds in basic terms, one that seems pertinent after the team’s wasteful outing vs. Loudoun.
“I’d say I’m a possession player,” he told me. “I try to keep the ball as much as I can, and win the ball back.”
From my amateur viewpoint, I see Pittsburgh as being most dangerous when they play a four-man back line, with Vancaeyezeele in front of them. That in turn takes some of the defensive responsibility off Kenardo Forbes and allows him to focus on delivering the ball to the Hounds’ myriad attackers.
On the other hand, with a road match at aggressive Ottawa coming up Friday, maybe the Hounds will drop five in front of the keeper to absorb and counter. That seemed to work at New York two weeks ago.
But honestly, any formation that includes Tommy V. is better than one without. On that, we can have consensus.
“Thomas is obviously someone we like in our lineup,” Lilley said, “and he’s usually there.”