Armchair Analyst: How verticality kills in the modern game

Over the last five years fast and direct soccer has, on a global scale, largely replaced "possession" as the preferred method of creating danger and finding goals. In some instances that's meant teams sit deeper and counterattack, and in others it's meant teams press higher and play as quickly and efficiently into the box as is possible.

There are different flavors of this strategic approach to the game to be seen in MLS. The Red Bulls and Atlanta United, for example, are high- and hard-pressing teams who generally seem to operate under the axiom that the higher up the field you turn an opponent over, the better off you'll be. The M.O. for both is to adhere to the philosophy of "the shortest path between the turnover and a quality shot is the best path."

Note that "quality shot" is the goal. Neither team will win a turnover and then immediately blast a long-ball into the box (though both can and do use long-balls out of the back when necessary), because long-balls into the box only rarely result in quality shots, and very, very often are turnovers that A) string your own team out, and B) make it harder to re-set your pressure.

Rather, turnovers are immediate "send runners forward" opportunities – triggers to move vertically into the attack as one unit:

That play, as the turnover was forced, was really a 2-v-5. By the time the ball's in the net, there are five Atlanta United attackers in the box, and four Fire defenders. Obviously skill had something to do with that, as Hector Villalba straight murdered Joao Meira off the dribble. But the overall philosophy was the bigger reason.

These teams, both of which play on the front foot and in the opposing half as a matter of course, also both play vertically as often as possible. It's counterintuitive since the nature of how they're set up allows less space for pure, north-south runs, and yet it works for them.

It's also worked pretty well for teams like FC Dallas, who are trying to figure out how create consistent danger without their chance-creating midfield brain, Mauro Diaz:

Other teams have been more traditionally vertical, defending deeper an an effort to find space to run in behind (neither Atlanta and New York will thumb their noses at counterattacking opportunities, of course). The benefits are obvious: You get to stay more compact when you defend, and when you are able to send numbers forward, you have more room in which to work.

It is a simpler approach that reduces variables, and is a staple of teams who are trying to rebound from off years:

That's verticality, by the book and by the numbers. There are various ways to achieve it, various ways to defend against it, but at this point, everybody should know it's coming.

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