After weeks and weeks with nothing to talk about in Revolution-Nation, the Revs finally played a game!
It didn’t go great!
New England came out of their stretch of 3 weeks of downtime, even more injured than when they entered the Leagues Cup break. As such, they fielded a… modified lineup with central midfielders playing both in defense and on the wings.
The first half was a boring but evenly matched affair. However, things took a turn in the second frame, and New England couldn’t hold on to the clean sheet, conceding the go-ahead goal in the 86th minute.
There are many reasons why things didn’t go New England’s way, and they range from big overarching issues to individual errors.
Let’s examine why the Revolution played so poorly and what can be done to right the ship.
View from 30,000 Feet
For a team that cruised to a 6-2-4 record since June 1st, I can’t think of a team that had a worse summer than the New England Revolution.
In a lot of ways, given the summer New England has had, it’s unsurprising that the team was unable to pick up any points in Montreal.
It began on July 30th, with head coach Bruce Arena being placed on administrative leave for “insensitive and inappropriate remarks.” Neither fans, nor pundits, nor players, nor coaches seem to know anything about the investigation. In the interim, coaching duties fall to Ritchie Williams, while Curt Onalfo has taken the reins of General Manager.
That will be important to the next bit.
Matt Polster: “And then with the Bruce [Arena] thing, nobody knows anything, trust me. I think I'll find out through Twitter before I find out anywhere else.”#NERevs
— Seth (@SethMan31) August 24, 2023
Namely, the sale of Djordje Petrovic to Chelsea. Tensions ran high between the Serbian keeper and the organization earlier this month when New England turned away ~$8-10M offers from Nottingham Forest and FC Nantes for the 2022-GKotY-runner-up’s services. Petrovic was said to be very upset and held out of team practices for several days leading up to New England’s Leagues Cup knockout round match against Atlas, eventually missing that game.
While he would eventually come to an understanding with the club’s leadership, shortly thereafter, New England received an offer they simply couldn’t refuse. Chelsea of the Premier League came in late in the window and offered enough money to make Petrovic the most expensive outbound goalkeeper transfer in league history.
That’s great news for Djordje but… not so great news for the Revs.
A replacement has already been signed, although it will be nearly impossible to replicate Petrovic’s shot-stopping prowess.
This brings us to the injury portion of the summer. Right back Brandon Bye suffered a season ending injury during the Leagues Cup, leaving New England especially thin in the back. He joins Dylan Borrero on the season-ending injury list. Meanwhile, Designated Player Gustavo Bou picked up an injury that is expected to sideline him for a month. He left the country to rehab in Argentina.
Add the further injuries to Andrew Farrell and Dejuan Jones to all the above, and it’s no surprise that the Revs struggled so mightily in Montreal.
Focus on the Lineup
Not all the issues stem directly from the injuries and events of the summer. There are structural issues with the construction of the Revs roster that far predate the Leagues Cup break.
Chief among these is a real lack of depth in the outside back position. If you’ve read my other content here, it won’t be a surprise to learn that I think New England’s lack of fullback depth is a real concern. Brandon Bye and Dejuan Jones are 2 of the best outside backs in the league.
Behind those two?
New England’s backup options are: Sporting KC cast-off Ben Sweat, recently re-called from the lower-division Ryan Spaulding, Center-Back Cristian Makoun, and injured Center-Back Andrew Farrell.
New England gambled hard that their star pair of outside backs would be able to remain healthy for the entire season. It was a gamble that they lost when Brandon Bye injured his ACL.
A gamble they lost again when Dejuan Jones missed time on Saturday due to minor injuries.
Anticipated nine-month recovery period would put Bye back in action around late May. https://t.co/9KjFVb7TUL
— Jeff Lemieux (@jeff_lemieux) August 28, 2023
For a team that relies so heavily on their outside backs being able to contribute to the attack, not having capable backups at each position is just plain poor roster construction.
New England had an opportunity over the summer transfer window to address those issues. Instead of addressing the defense, they brought in winger Tomas Chancalay (a replacement for injured Dylan Borrero) and added another 2 Central-Midfielder (Harkes and Kaye) to an already crowded group.
That’s why, instead of fielding a team with 4 defenders and 3 forwards on Saturday, New England was forced to play CM Matt Polster at Right-Back and CM Noel Buck at Right Wing.
While Polster does have some experience at RB, it was years ago, far from ideal.
— Dan Shulman (@DanielRShulman) August 26, 2023
There’s optimism that injured players may soon return to the starting lineup, but given how thin New England’s depth is and the sale of Petrovic to Chelsea, any injury to the back-line could spell doom for the Revs 2023 season.
Now that we’ve covered the off-the-field factors let’s zoom in on some actual tactics.
I’ve mentioned this before, but New England hasn’t been particularly good at playing against high-pressing teams.
I’ve been saying to anyone who will listen (quietly to myself) that the #NERevs do not match up well with teams that press high and play direct. NYRB, PHI, LAFC…even Toronto gave us problems when they switched to this tactic.
Gotta figure it out quick.
— Andy From Revs Nation (@AndyRevsNation) July 23, 2023
From a stylistic standpoint, New England is capable of playing both methodical, build-up-driven soccer as well as more direct transition soccer. You can see in this chart from Opta’s Analyst they exist almost at the exact center of those two styles. Neither quick and direct nor slow and methodical.
While that sort of tactical flexibility allows them to change their strategies to suit their opponents, I think the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” applies here, especially against teams with a strong tactical identity.
Against a team that presses like Montreal, for example, long passing sequences require crisp passes and quick decision-making. If the other team is relying upon a press (aka hustling to the ball to interfere with passes), you need to have the next pass already picked out. If you take too long to make the decision, you end up playing laterally and/or backward just in order to keep possession.
Meanwhile, you can also break down a pressing team via direct play. But that would require an ability to move the ball behind the pressure and into space.
In the end, New England succeeded at neither.
Here is a chart of their successful passes, with the chart showing New England playing right-to-left:
New England’s build-up wasn’t quick enough to unsettle Montreal’s positioning, meaning there weren’t really any gaps to play into. This led to the vast majority of passes being lateral or backward to maintain possession instead of driving the ball forward. That ended up not being a viable strategy to deal with Montreal’s press. New England had one single, successful pass into Montreal’s penalty area.
So why didn’t they opt to play over the pressure?
Why didn’t they play direct balls past the congestion of midfield into, say, their striker?
Well, to answer that question… here are their “Unsuccessful Passes”:
Whether by the accuracy of the long balls or by the position of the forwards, New England had almost no success in advancing the ball on long passes through the air. The obvious caveat is that longer passes are always more difficult to complete
Further hammering this point home: Designated Player striker Giacomo Vrioni played 72 minutes and had 8 (!!) touches. He attempted zero shots and only one pass. Whether that’s on the midfield not being able to find him or it’s on Vrioni for not making himself available, that’s a criminally low amount of involvement, especially for a designated player.
So, What’s the Fix?
Unfortunately, for the big stuff like Bruce Arena’s absence and all of the injuries, there isn’t much the team can do except wait things out. Maybe the team gets healthy (or as healthy as they can), and Arena returns for the stretch run. But maybe they don’t. There’s not much they can do to control it.
From a roster perspective, New England is somewhat limited in how they can adapt. Given that the transfer window is closed, they are unable to sign players from other clubs. They are, however, able to sign players who are and, importantly, were Free Agents at the time of the Summer window closing.
That’s how they were able to acquire presumptive Petrovic replacement Tomáš Vaclík, who was a free agent after helping Huddersfield Town avoid relegation.
New England could try to do something similar to fill other positions of need on the roster, like… I don’t know… say outside back? If you’re forced to play a midfielder out of position at right back, that may be a sign that you should have more options there. Maybe that’s me?
In either case, Brandon Bye’s injury placing him on the season-ending list should allow them some roster flexibility. On the field, New England will need to play quicker in possession or find a way to move the ball to Giacomo Vrioni in behind the defense.
Either option could work, but they really need to make those a focus of their training sessions because… well…
By way of actual analysis:
Montreal under Losada are a press-high-for-90-minutes team. With #NERevs playing 0 first XI outside backs, they pressed even higher and really made it difficult for NE to advance the ball.
Shouldn’t be an issue as NE plays (checks notes)…NYRB next 😱 pic.twitter.com/uzPoReTdWd
— Andy From Revs Nation (@AndyRevsNation) August 27, 2023
Photo: New England Revolution