Inter Miami CF, as a collective, needed to take a breath.
Something needed to change.
Head coach Phil Neville gave Gregore the captain’s armband for his team’s next game, which turned out to be a 1-1 draw with the Philadelphia Union. Another change came soon: more consistent usage of a 3-4-3 shape, which had shown up at times earlier in the season.
Now, with four wins in their last six games, it appears Miami’s deep breath and slight reset after the New England game paid off. They’re still missing wins against top-tier playoff contenders (their only win that falls into that category came back in late April against the Union), but there’s tangible progress.
One of the main reasons behind Miami’s uptick in form is Rodolfo Pizarro's production. With three goals in his last two games – his only three goals of the season – Pizarro has been influencing Inter Miami’s attack in a way he’s rarely done throughout his MLS career since arriving in 2020 from CF Monterrey.
Recently named to the MLS All-Star Team, Pizarro’s connection to Mexico and Liga MX will make him a key player to watch for Wednesday night’s game at Banc of California Stadium (9 pm ET | FS1, Univision in US; TSN, TVA Sports in Canada), especially with Carlos Vela and Chicharito missing the game due to injuries. He’s also the only Mexican international on the Bob Bradley-led team, though several others have Liga MX experience.
At the start of the season, Neville used Pizarro the same way Diego Alonso used him for much of the 2020 season: as an attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1. As 2021 has progressed, Neville has shifted the 27-year-old into a slightly wider position. Pizarro isn’t hugging the touchline, but he’s being used as a narrow winger, one of two players flanking Gonzalo Higuain.
Inter Miami still lack a detailed attacking structure in the final third and sometimes look mixed up, but they’ve been using a recognizable 3-4-3 possession shape in recent weeks. And, even better, they have been finding some chances over their last two games. With a mixture of Robbie Robinson, Indiana Vassilev and Pizarro stretching the opposing backline and occupying the halfspaces next to Higuain, Miami have a solid set of front runners that’s caused issues for opposing defenses.
The data sample size is still too small to make any firm conclusions, but because he’s not a pure chance-creator (he’s averaging 0.08 xA per 90 minutes this year and averaged 0.112 xA last year), Pizarro may be better suited to play off to one side of the striker rather than as a No. 10.
When he’s playing in one of the halfspaces in a 3-4-3 instead of in a central attacking midfield position, the Week 21 MLS Player of the Week bears less of the creative burden of a classic playmaker. Now that playmaking responsibility is divided between the outside center backs (who often have great passing angles to break lines), the narrow wingers (who operate in the halfspaces), and Higuain (who often drops deeper to act as a point guard in possession).
As he’s shown over the last few games, Pizarro can thrive when he’s the player on the end of a key pass instead of being the player playing the key pass. His game-winning goal from Miami’s 3-2 win over Chicago Fire FC came in a moment when he was off to the left side of striker Julian Carranza. While the opposing backline was worried about Carranza, Victor Ulloa passed to Pizarro, who then scored with a one-touch finish with the backline’s focus elsewhere.
In their most recent game against Toronto FC, Inter Miami used Pizarro’s quality on the ball, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez's distribution from the back and errors from Toronto to earn a 3-1 win. The first goal came after Miami pounced on a loose ball from Mark Delgado. Higuain then found Pizarro just outside the box, after which Pizarro cut across Luke Singh and scored.
Pizarro posted his highest single-game xG total of the season in that Toronto game (0.86), which doesn’t mean much on its own. But it’s entirely possible the All-Star is better when he’s getting on the end of chances as opposed to creating them. His second goal on Saturday came off of a lovely chipped ball over the top from LGP, followed by a defensive error from Singh. Again, we see the threat Pizarro poses to opposing defenses when he’s in on goal.
Now, it’s decidedly too early to take any major things away from Inter Miami’s recent run of form and Pizarro’s recent goalscoring success. Still, with Miami’s Heineken Rivalry Week game against Orlando City coming up on Friday (8:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes), it will be interesting to see if Neville continues to use Pizarro in a narrow winger position and if Pizarro can continue to produce in that slightly different role.
Miami are only five points outside of a playoff spot, and if Pizarro keeps looking like the Designated Player that Miami invested so heavily in, then perhaps they’ll keep climbing. We’ll soon see if his form – and this tactical wrinkle – continues.