Armchair Analyst: How to win a tournament? Take lessons from the World Cup

The MLS is Back Tournament (it's weirder to write it than to say it) is rather consciously modeled, in terms of format, after the World Cup itself. And so there are lessons to be learned from World Cup's past edition, plus other summertime tournaments.

That said, the international game and the domestic game, even in these unusual circumstances, are and will remain two different things. "Apples and oranges" is a fine idiom here since they're both fruits, and they're both basically the same size and shape, and yet ... still different! So yeah, MLS teams are all drawn into groups, everybody will play three games and then there will be single elimination until someone lifts a trophy. But teams will also be together for a month before kickoff and they've already played two games plus a full preseason together this year. For 24 of the 26 entrants, they existed and played a 34-game schedule last year.

So read some into what we see every summer, but take it as a loose guide rather than hard-and-fast rules.

Do as the French do

The section originally was going to be about how smart international teams counterattack their way to trophies most summers. The French did so in 2018, playing almost exclusively on the counter, while Chile countered the good teams in 2015 & 2016, and pressed the bad ones. Brazil swamped Peru in the 2019 Copa America final, but in the semifinal against Argentina they toggled between pressing (first half, first goal) and countering (second half, second goal). Portugal, in the 2016 Euros, basically didn't attack the entire tournament.

This was going to be an ode to the counter and how almost nobody should go out and try to carry the game in July. There will be an unprecedented amount of rust everybody's trying to shake off, it'll be hot and humid, and how can you play beautiful soccer in those conditions?

Yet, there have been fewer pure counterattacking goals in recent major tournaments than in years past, and teams were almost five times as likely to score from "elaborate attacks" in the 2018 World Cup as they were on the break.

But we rightfully remember the French for their dominant, wire-to-wire performance.

“France went out to win the matches in the most appropriate way for the talents they had,” former New York Red Bulls sporting director Andy Roxburgh, a member of FIFA’s technical study report team, told Reuters in 2018. “They didn’t play high intensity pressing football, it was very much contain and counter attack.”

For France, that was right. And if you have Kylian Mbappe leading the line, it makes sense to find him plenty of room to run into. In MLS, if you have, say, Luis Diaz on the wing and Gyasi Zardes running to the spot, then it probably makes a lot of sense to mimic that.

But if you have Carlos Vela and Adama Diomande, or Johnny Russell and Alan Pulido, maybe going all-in on the counter isn't the way. Maybe the lesson to learn from France – and Brazil and Portugal and Chile – is to lean hard into what you do well. Win matches in the most appropriate way for the talent you have.

Ragged play can be your ally

... and yet.

I'll return back to a point I made above: Everybody's going to be rusty as hell. There will be sloppy touches in bad places, tired legs all over and plenty of chances to punish both. If you're not going to outright high press, at the very least you need to have "selective pressure" as an option in anywhere from five to 15-minute bursts.

2019 was the pressing-est year in MLS history, in terms of where teams won the ball. We think of last year's LAFC team as a beautiful, free-flowing, possession-based attacking team, and they surely were that. But they were also one of the most vicious pressing teams the league's ever seen, and a plurality of their goals came from possessions generated by winning the ball in their own attacking half. The same is true of the 2018 Supporters' Shield winners, the New York Red Bulls, and while it's less true of 2017's dominant Toronto FC side – they were not primarily a pressing team, while I'd argue that RBNY absolutely were and LAFC probably were – they could and did press in big moments, including MLS Cup itself.

Have this ready to spring upon your opponents. It doesn't have to be the battering ram-style pressing of the Red Bulls, but at the very least it should be something you're capable of over the course of a season.

During a summer tournament, in which teams are just rounding into form? We regularly see more than 50 percent of open-play goals scored after winning the ball back in your own attacking half, and after fewer than four passes. That's the definition of using the press as a weapon.

Sub Early, Sub Often

This goes hand-in-hand with the notion of using the press as a weapon. Even with only three subs allowed, I think most managers are too conservative and tend to sub almost exclusively reactively. But with five subs, a compressed schedule, Florida's heat and a chance to punish ragged play?

Managers should be ready to make entire line changes by the 55th minute, bringing on two or three subs at a time to either establish, reinforce or change the tempo of the game.

To borrow a line from Charles de Gaulle: "Never relinquish the initiative."

This is all especially important in summer tournament play, during which you usually see 60 percent or more of the scoring done in the second half.

Set Pieces

Duh. This is always applicable, but has become even more applicable over the past decade. From a summer tournament perspective, nearly 73 percent of goals at the 2012 Euros were scored via open play. By the 2018 World Cup, that number had dropped to just a tick over 60 percent. It's a stark and relatively sudden evolution, first noted for real about five years ago.

Consider the Houston Dynamo. In 2017 they were the league's big surprise, picking up 50 points and making it all the way to the Western Conference final. They also happened to be one of the very best set-piece teams in the league, scoring 15 goals and conceding just five.

In 2019 they were similar to that 2017 team in a lot of ways. Except they scored only four set-piece goals and conceded nine, finished with 40 points and thus missed the playoffs.

This is not to say that you have to be great on set pieces in order to make the playoffs – Atlanta United had only six set-piece goals last year, and NYCFC just five. If you're good enough, you can still compete at a high level.

Now consider the Colorado Rapids. Obviously there was a lot going wrong for them in the early part of 2019 – defense first and foremost. But while they worked on solving that, they absolutely annihilated teams on restarts and actually made a run at the playoffs. Then they started 2020 by taking six points from two games, and scoring a set-piece goal in each of them.

The Rapids are a fun, if flawed, team. Being almost inconceivably dominant on set pieces (they scored 20 in 2019) has covered up many of those flaws, to the point that they've played at almost a Shield-winning pace over the past 25 regular-season games. "Colorado Rapids" and "Supporters' Shield-winning pace" are not words you'd have put together in the same sentence 12 months ago, but here we are.

How will that set-piece dominance translate to a short-form tournament format? Teams that score first usually win about 70 percent of the time, and these days, it feels like every corner kick is a big chance for the Rapids. It might as well be.

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