Putting in Work
First off, shout out our color blind homies for the feedback on the red/green color scheme!
Last year, we analyzed what area of the field Austin’s defensive actions were taking place in — coming to the conclusion that sagginess in the middle was forcing our backline into tough situations too consistently. While they would make a decent amount of tackles and pressures, the sheer number of imbalanced attacks they were facing were bound to result in goals.
That data, along with other factors, had CB quality and depth near the top of everyone’s list for offseason acquisition. What took place before the Gabrielsen deal went through, however, were a series of signings that brought depth to our forwards and midfielders.
One of those signings, Ethan Finlay, may have provided some early insight into a trend we’re now seeing unfold. In his introductory Q&A with Adrian Healey and Michael Lahoud, the MLS journeyman said, “I’ve always said that defense starts up front.” While it’s tough to say how much knowledge of the Austin FC defensive strategy he had at that moment, it turned out to be borderline prophetic.
The Verde & Black are getting after teams in their own third at an impressive rate — to the tune of 1st and 4th in tackles and pressures respectively.
At first glance the middle and defensive third data may look a little worrying. In fact, these are more likely than not a positive side effect of the team’s defensive ability up top. This trend also puts Austin in good company this season with league leaders LAFC and Philadelphia Union boasting defensive stats that are similarly skewed towards the attacking third. On the flipside, squads that are over reliant on their back lines contributing to a majority of their defensive action haven’t fared well this season. Nashville, even with a USMNT caliber CB in Walker Zimmerman are in the bottom half of the league defensively in part due to not turning the ball back over higher up the field.
With two of Austin’s first four games coming against the punching bags of the MLS, it would be reasonable to think these stats are a result of us dominating those games. That doesn’t seem to be the case so far, however. Against Portland and Seattle, both pressures and tackles in the attacking third looked very similar to the season average.
The hard work being done up top is having positive ripples throughout the rest of the field as well. Last season, Austin was one of the worst teams in the league when it came to getting dribbled by the opposition. To start the 2022 campaign, the Verde & Black are the best of the bunch. While the additional pressure up top is likely helping to keep players out of tough one-on-one situations, you can’t mention this stat without also mentioning the individual work being done. The on-ball defending by Austin’s midfield core of Dani, Alex, and Seba has improved to open the campaign, and all of their dribbles-by per game have dropped to match.
Number of Dribbles-by per Game
Pereira: 1.21 → 0.57
Ring: 2.07 → 1.32
Driussi: 1.31 → 1.03
Stylistically, today’s game against San Jose is going to be one of the most unusual of the season. In many ways, it’s going to feel like playing against ourselves from last year — racking up loads of possession without much to show for it. Despite leading the MLS in average possession, the Earthquakes are last in both xG and xGA.
With Cecilio likely out as they finalize his green card back in Paraguay, Austin FC will be without some depth at the wing that makes their pressing style work. It will also be interesting to see what those tactics look like against a team that prefers to possess the ball.
These are the type of road games you have to steal to make a playoff push in this league. How do you see this one playing out?