Sometimes soccer is as simple as quick math.
The Montreal Impact have scored 14 goals this year.
Eleven of the goals have been scored or assisted by Nacho Piatti.
What’s the best way to keep the Montreal Impact off the scoresheet?
You don’t have to call your accountant to help you with this one.
On Wednesday night, the Chicago Fire defeated the Impact in Bridgeview, 1-0 after defender Kevin Ellis scored a late winner. The most interesting part of the game, though? The Fire did the same calculations as you and I.
Chicago made their major point of emphasis to negate Piatti. Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic asked rookie midfielder Mo Adams follow the Argentinean star all over the field. Like, fully follow. Like, sometimes when Chicago were in possession, Adams turned around to run closer to Piatti.
Adams excelled at the task. He shut down Piatti like few players or teams have been able to do. Piatti struggled to get going and, as a result, the Impact rarely posed a threat. The plan worked.
It’s not something we see often in professional soccer. Sometimes we see coaches tell their players to “know where [Player X] is at all times” or “make sure we are always close to [Player X].” It’s a conversation teams generally have when they play Bradley Wright-Phillips or Miguel Almiron. Specifically, Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch has asked Tyler Adams to stay close to opponents in big games, including with Michael Bradley in last year’s playoffs and NYCFC’s Maxi Moralez in this year’s New York Derby. But it’s generally a note in the plan rather than the entire plan itself. Mo Adams took it to a new level. His single job in the game was to stay close to Piatti.
I can only remember three examples from recent history when a player had the sole job of man marking an opposing player (I’m sure there have been a few more, so get in the comments section if you remember them). The most recent one occurred in El Clásico this year. Real Madrid’s Mateo Kovacic was told by Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane to follow Barcelona’s Lionel Messi all over the field. (It happens to Messi on a fairly regular basis, but that one was memorable because it was Real Madrid.) Another took place in last year’s FA Cup quarterfinals, when Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho told Ander Herrera to track Chelsea’s Eden Hazard at all times.
The most famous man marking displayed occurred in a Champions League game between Manchester United and AC Milan in 2010. Sir Alex Ferguson had Park Ji-sung man mark Andrea Pirlo the entire game. Pirlo opened up about the experience in his autobiography a few years later: “[Manchester United] unleashed Park Ji-sung to shadow me. The midfielder must have been the first nuclear-powered South Korean in history, in the sense that he rushed about the pitch at the speed of an electron…Back and forth he went. He’d try to contribute in attack and if that didn’t work, he’d fling himself at me. He’d have his hands all over my back, making his presence felt and trying to intimidate me.”
The objective for the defending team is clear. Player X contributes an above-normal amount to his team, so we shut down given attacker, we shut down the team. Don’t ever let Player X get time or space. We are willing to make sacrifices in other phases of the game to accomplish this one goal.
You might ask yourself, 'Why teams don’t do it more often?' If Messi is so good, why don’t teams always stick close to him? For one, it asks a lot of the single player asked to do the man marking. The reason a team plays a zone is to play as a group and help each other. When you man mark, it often leaves a single player on an island. If the defender makes one mistake, it can cost the game. It almost cost Chicago in the 24th minute when Adams slipped a few feet from Piatti and the ball fell to the Argentine in the box, but Piatti took an uncharacteristically bad touch.
Second, most teams have other attackers who can beat you, and if you take a player away from your overall defensive effort, you are giving other players a higher chance to score. The math doesn’t always add up. In the Real Madrid game mentioned above, Barcelona broke on a counter through Ivan Rakitic and Kovacic (Messi’s man marker) was the closest to the ball; Kovacic opted to shape his body to block the pass to Messi but gave a straight path for Rakitic toward goal. It looked like a play from a children’s game. A few seconds later, Luis Suarez scored for Barca.
Finally, it’s a somewhat derided practice in professional soccer. Man marking is something used in youth games, not professional games. Pirlo didn’t hide his contempt for Park’s efforts, writing of Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to deploy a man marker, “[Ferguson’s] essentially a man without blemish, but he ruined that purity just for a moment when it came to me. A fleeting shabbiness came over the legend that night.”
But there’s a simple response to Pirlo’s ridicule, of course: It worked. Manchester United won the series. Just as Chicago won on Wednesday night. And the Fire, like United, didn’t have any qualms with it.
“What [Adams] did was a work of art," Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic said of the rookie’s performance. "He showed probably the entire world how to defend a player of that class. A player of that talent. Someone who at any moment can change the game and with the constant hard work, the effectiveness, and the dedication.”
It’s a continued trend of a willingness to try new things for Paunovic. When his team struggled to defend early in the year, he switched from a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2, moving Bastian Schweinsteiger to the backline. In a game a few weeks ago against Columbus, Paunovic had his attackers press high and coax Crew SC goalkeeper Zack Steffen into a bad pass; the Fire scored the winner after picking Steffen off at the top of his 18-yard-box. In last week’s matchup with Atlanta, Paunovic had his group man mark in midfield. They ignored any zonal responsibilities and followed whichever Atlanta United player came near them.
While we can expect Chicago to continue to adapt to each opponent, don’t be surprised to see team’s steal the Fire’s approach to Piatti. “Mo gave a great example to the rest of his teammates and to, perhaps, the rest of the teams in the league,” Paunovic said after the game.
Right now, the math says he’s right.