Analyzing the Revs’ defensive organization

Special thanks to our friends at Match Analysis for the graphs and statistics used in the following feature.

I’ve spoken at length in recent weeks about the Revolution’s defensive turnaround. It tends to spark an interest when a team goes from conceding five goals in one game (July 2 vs. Real Salt Lake) to conceding just two goals in its next seven games in all competitions. Clearly, there’s something a little different going on along the Revs’ backline, and I was interested in finding out exactly what ignited the change.

I wrote a feature back in late July about communication between the defenders and goalkeeper Matt Reis, and how that was the key factor in the Revolution’s stinginess in the defensive third of the field. Based on my conversations with the players, I still stand by that assessment, but two particular phrases which continued to come up in the quotes led me to investigate a little further.

Those recurring quotes were “keeping our shape,” and “putting ourselves in better spots.”

Whether I was talking to Cory Gibbs, Darrius Barnes, Kevin Alston, Chris Tierney or Seth Sinovic, the message was always the same. It seemed like the point of all this communication was to help the Revs “keep their shape” and “put themselves in better spots.”

Now, for soccer fans, this is easy enough to understand. The backline was more organized and therefore was harder to break down. Hence, fewer goals conceded. Done and dusted.

But, of course, it’s not really my job to just leave it at that – especially when I’ve got access to the fantastic Match Analysis program which breaks down games into an endless stream of statistical categories. So if you’re not a fan of stats and numbers – or if you simply prefer to analyze the game from a more subjective point of view – you can probably stop reading now. But if you’re intrigued, I found some telling data which I think shines a bit of light on how “keeping their shape” has helped the Revs tighten up defensively.

    

Above are two graphs showing the number of touches central defender Darrius Barnes had in each region of the field for a pair of games earlier this season. The graph on the left represents the 2-1 loss to the Colorado Rapids on April 24, while the graph on the right represents the 4-0 loss to Chivas USA on May 5.

As you can see in the graph on the left (April 24 vs. Colorado), Barnes covered the entire defensive half of the field in the 2-1 loss to the Rapids. More than 30 percent of his touches were in the wide areas, which is generally unusual for a center back. You’ll notice an even more widespread distribution of touches in the graph on the right (May 5 vs. Chivas USA) – almost 50 percent of Barnes’ touches were in the wide areas, while almost 30 percent were in the attacking half of the field. (Full disclosure here: The Revs played a man down for a large portion of the 4-0 loss to Chivas USA on May 5, which would obviously have some effect on Barnes’ positioning. Still, the point remains the same).

So what do these graphs tell us? From my perspective, the fact that Barnes’ touches were spread out all over the field tells me the Revs weren’t keeping their defensive shape. Unsurprisingly, these two graphs represent a pair of losses in which the Revs conceded six total goals.

For comparison, let’s take a look at the same graphs from the Revolution’s last two games, in which the club earned one win and one draw.

    

Once again, these are the graphs showing Barnes’ touches in the last two games. The graph on the left represents the 1-1 draw with the Philadelphia Union on July 31, while the graph on the right represents the 1-0 win over D.C. United on Aug. 7.

Against Philadelphia, Barnes never touched the ball in the attacking half of the field and more than 75 percent of his touches were central – he had just five touches in the entire game outside the central defensive region. The pattern is similar in the D.C. match, as Barnes had just two touches in the attacking half of the field (one of which was a throw-in). Once again, almost 75 percent of his touches were central. When he did go outside, it was always to the right to support the defender on his side of the field, as he never touched the ball in the left channel.

CONCLUSION

For me, these comparative graphs show us the influence both organization and defensive shape have had on the Revolution’s recent turnaround. In the two games in which Barnes often roamed out of his central position – a.k.a. the games in which New England was less organized – the Revs conceded six goals. In the two games in which Barnes largely remained central – a.k.a. the games in which New England had improved defensive shape – the Revs conceded just one goal.

Whatever you want to call it (organization, shape, picking up the right spots), it’s clearly had an effect on the defensive side of the ball.