MLS 2022: What Charlotte FC need to improve to collect their first-ever MLS points – tactical analysis
We’re already three matchdays into MLS 2022 and it already looks like we have an exciting season ahead of us. Among all the new faces, movements and changes, there was a lot of curiosity surrounding Charlotte FC, the newest team in the league that has started competing just this season after forming their squad over the last months.
Charlotte’s start has been very disappointing. While we all expected a completely new team to struggle in its first games, getting three defeats in their first three games wasn’t expected and it’s probably worrying the fans already. It was especially hard to see them lose in the first-ever home game against LA Galaxy in which they recorded the highest-ever MLS attendance with 74,479 attendees at the Bank of America Stadium. It was also the highest attendance for a football game in 2022 so far ahead of all La Liga, EPL or Bundesliga games.
Build-up problems: rewardless risks and ineffective direct play
One of the main aspects Charlotte need to improve is their ball progression, starting with their build-up.
Charlotte usually use short passes in their build-up, probably looking to draw pressure and find free players in advanced positions and behind the rivals’ backs. However, they struggle to break lines with low passes and usually end up choosing long passes to get forward.
They’re the team in the East Conference with the third-most long passes (48.46 per 90). While playing long isn’t necessarily bad, it looks like Charlotte aren’t choosing the best moments to do so as they normally start their build-up with short passes and even take risks to progress with low passes but it isn’t paying off. In the end, they are sending these passes forward from quite uncomfortable situations, which results in their below-average long-pass accuracy of 51.6%.
The first issue here is the lack of passing options during the build-up. The central or defensive midfielder who comes deep to receive behind the first pressing line doesn’t offer safe passing options and his orientation isn’t good enough so he’s easily pressed and has to take lots of risks. The defenders and the goalkeeper still look to play with him, which seems to be a team instruction but the decision making isn’t good and the risks they take don’t have any reward as the man who receives the ball doesn’t have the orientation, space or skill to turn and play forward so he either loses the ball or plays backwards again.
There are moments in which the central midfielders’ movements just add more pressure to his teammates as they draw rivals and reduce space instead of being patient and trying to provide passing options behind the pressing rivals.
In a similar situation, the defensive midfielder loses possession when challenged.Even when they try to combine to get out of pressure, Charlotte players still don’t know each other well enough and don’t look like a unit so they’re not coordinated and lose some good opportunities to progress. This is understandable for a team that has only been together for three official games but they need to avoid taking risks until they can work together and understand each other’s movements.
The technical quality of the centre-backs is also an issue they need to keep in mind. On the left, Fuchs has a lot of ability to pass the ball forward both long and short and both from the left centre-back and full-back positions, he contributes a lot in the build-up. However, Makoun (the middle centre-back when they use a back-three, the left centre-back in a back-four) doesn’t look as technically solid and tends to make mistakes under pressure, while Corujo (right centre-back in both systems) has a more no-nonsense approach so he doesn’t make mistakes but won’t offer too much in terms of ball-progression.
Having looked at these issues, we get to the point of asking how Charlotte get the ball forward if they struggle to keep the ball on the ground and progress. The answer is with long passes but there are still problems they need to solve to be effective doing this.
Charlotte’s long passes from the back are usually aimed at the wide forwards, who make runs to create these passing options. However, once they receive the ball, they’re usually isolated as midfielders aren’t getting forward in time to offer passing lanes. This leads the forwards to abuse dribbling, often in disadvantageous 1v2 situations.
The striker Karol Swiderski’s movements have improved this to some extent as he plays well with his back to the goal so direct passes don’t always need to go wide but he’s still too isolated most of the time and Charlotte need to work out a way of committing players forward to win the second ball after playing long.
Lack of creativity & movements to penetrate through the middle
The few times Charlotte manage to get the ball out of their half, they face a similar issue to progress further up the field.
First of all, there seems to be a lack of intention and decision to pass the ball forward. Players look hesitant and struggle to take responsibility for getting the ball into dangerous areas, preferring to pass it around at a quite slow speed, which gives the rivals time to get back to their positions and deny space in the centre.
Charlotte have the third-lowest passing rate in the East Conference with just 12 passes per minute of possession. They’re often forced to pass the ball sideways or backwards as they don’t take the chances to play forward when they appear.
The following example shows one of these situations in which a Charlotte player wasn’t able to pick a quick pass forward and ended up slowing up the attack and losing the opportunity to take rivals by surprise.
But apart from the lack of quick decision making and vision to pass the ball forward quickly, the receiving players are also to blame. In general, Charlotte lack players between the lines who can receive and turn so the only way of progressing they find is by the wings, where they usually are at a numerical disadvantage and depend too much on the wingers’ ability to get something out of the play.
The maps below show exactly this. Throughout their three MLS games so far, Charlotte players have only received the ball 90 times in the marked area and the lack of presence around ‘zone 14’ is evident.
To provide some context, we’ve included the same map for LA Galaxy (left) and Atlanta (right). They’ve received 172 and 130 passes in the marked area respectively, a huge difference to Charlotte.
The picture below shows a moment in which Charlotte need to score so they get numbers forward but still fail to offer any interesting passing option between the lines or in central areas so their only way of attacking is by the wing.
Forced to attack from wide most of the time, one would expect Charlotte to overload the box to at least have a numerical advantage there and provide the wingers with more passing options. However, that’s not the case. Often, the winger only has one or two options to cross the ball to, which decreases the chances of something happening.
And even more, if the centre forward decides to support the winger by coming close to combine or receive a short pass, there’s usually no one attacking the box, which is left completely empty. At some points when they were desperately looking for a goal (like in a previous example), Charlotte have committed more players forward so it seems more a matter of risk aversion and lack of dynamism to get forward.
This lack of presence in the box and creativity is obvious when looking at stats. Charlotte are the team in the East Conference with the least touches in the box (9.93 per 90, rivals 21), the lowest xG (2.39), the 2nd lowest shots (7.53 per 90) and the 3rd lowest xG/shot (0.095). This inability to get forward and create decent chances explains why they have only scored one goal so far (and it came from a corner kick).
At the end of their latest game against Atlanta, Charlotte changed to a 4-3-3 to try to solve it. It got much better when Bender played wide instead of a winger as he was allowed to drift inside and play almost as a ‘10’. Swiderski support movements also helped the team progress and showed the way forward. Their presence between the lines leads to layoffs and better opportunities to cross and finish when the ball goes wide so it’s probably what we’ll see them try in the next few games.
Defensive shape: (lack of) compactness, responsibilities & intensity
Defensively, the main problem Charlotte have faced is their lack of compactness and distance between the lines, which have conceded their rivals too much space and time to think and play comfortably both in the build-up and between the lines.
When playing with a back-five, Charlotte often had a numerical advantage in the defensive line but still an ineffective one as they weren’t controlling players well enough and rivals found ways of creating chances even in disadvantageous situations. It looks like the defenders and defensive midfielders didn’t really know which zones/players were the responsibility of whom and it was often easy to receive the ball between them.
However, the main issue in Charlotte’s defensive system has been the distance between the defensive and midfield lines and also the space around the defensive midfielder.
Charlotte don’t press high all the time but prefer to mix it with sitting back and waiting for rivals. Their PPDA is quite close to the league’s average as a result. The problem with the way they press is that the defensive line seems hesitant to step forward and keep a compact shape and that the defensive or central midfielders sometimes aren’t marking anyone, so there’s a lot of space for rivals to move between the lines, receive the ball and run at the defensive line.
These issues are even worse when in some pressures, Charlotte players lack some intensity and just cover their shadows, giving rivals too much time to raise their head and look for the free man. This tendency to not engage in duels is also an invitation for rivals to just carry the ball forward out from the back and get into Charlotte’s half, like in the example below.
The spaces between the lines basically appear in two forms for Charlotte. Either they press high and no one takes charge of the space between the pressing players and the defensive line or, in a lower block, the central midfielder(s) are drawn wide too easily or unable to cover all the space around them and the half-spaces are free for rivals to receive the ball and attack. There are lots of examples of these situations so let’s look at some of them.
Starting with the examples of spaces between the lines, we have the following play. We see Charlotte pressing high but in a quite timid way. The team presses and man-marks but aren’t aggressive to challenge the man in possession so he has time to find the right pass and execute it. One of the defensive midfielders isn’t marking anyone and the centre-back on that side doesn’t step out either so the press is easily surpassed and the receiving player has plenty of space to receive, turn and run at the defensive line.
Again below, Charlotte press and man-marks but aren’t aggressive enough to challenge the man in possession. Also, two players are marking the same rival and when the defensive midfielder wants to react, it’s too late and he can’t intercept the pass. Once again, the receiving player doesn’t have a defender close to him so he can turn comfortably and drive the ball forward.
Looking at situations in which spaces appear on the sides of the defensive midfielders, we find two types of plays that happened repeatedly over time.
The first one is when the central midfielders are drawn wide and there’s a lot of space for the rival to switch the play and attack the defensive line. We see that in the play shown below in which all the midfielders are on the same side and there are huge spaces for rivals to move into either by driving or passing the ball
The other situation that happens often and is quite similar is the one below in which we see LA Galaxy’s goal in Charlotte’s 1-0 defeat. The play starts with a rival midfielder comfortably in possession with no one around him so he can turn and find a pass forward. As the player receives the ball in the left half-space, it isn’t clear who has to mark him as it could be the returning midfielder, the defensive midfielder, the full-back on that side or the centre-back on that side. As no one steps out to stop him, the player advances and shoots from the edge of the box without much opposition, scoring a great goal.
He manages to shoot without a single Charlotte player challenging him and scores.Again, stats show that something is failing in Charlotte’s defensive system. They have the fourth-highest xG against (5.02, 6 conceded), the most shots against (13.85 per 90) and the lowest percentage of blocked shots (8% when the league average is 28.15%). They’re clearly conceding too many good chances and lacking the instinct, speed or/and aggressiveness to block shots.
Charlotte have conceded some unlucky goals and hit the post twice but it’s still fair to say they haven’t deserved a win so far. They have the lowest expected points so far with just 2.2 and they are struggling both to create chances and to not concede them.
As it’s normal in a newly formed team, they’re still developing as a group and that development is evident as the games pass but they still have many flaws they need to solve before becoming a solid team. In this tactical analysis, we’ve highlighted the main ones in the first three games of the MLS and it will be interesting to see how Miguel Ángel Ramírez addresses them in the next few games.