San Jose Earthquakes: Seismic issues leading to MLS-worst defensive marks – scout report
To call this a tough season for the San Jose Earthquakes is an understatement.
With 22 points from 20 games, they are second from the bottom in the MLS Western Conference and their playoff hopes are quickly fading.
Scoring goals hasn’t been the problem. With 33 goals on the season, they’re tied for fifth in MLS. With the abundance of goals, it’s obvious the other side of the ledger is the issue.
This tactical analysis takes a deep dive into the San Jose Earthquakes’ seismic issues that are leading to opposition goals. We will first look at the data supporting the topic, and then move into the top factors in their goals against record. Be prepared for a surprise conclusion to the scout report.
To get a sense of San Jose’s poor defensive record, we can start with the most obvious of statistics, goals conceded. Pairing that with xGA in the graph below, San Jose leads the pack in goals against, tied with DC United with 41, and xGA, with a mark of 37. The top right quadrant marks the worst-performing clubs in terms of real and expected goals. Toronto is close, but San Jose’s grasp of the lead in each category has them positioned as the worst defensive team in MLS.
With such poor defensive statistics, especially relating to goals, you would assume that San Jose is a disorganised group that struggles with its defensive duels. Surprisingly, the final part of that thought does not hold. In both defensive duels p90 minutes and defensive duels success rate, they are at approximately the league median in the category.
In terms of their PPDA (passes per defensive action), San Jose is one of the more aggressive pressing teams in the league with a value of 9.74. They are also one of the most heavily pressured too, which is represented by their placement in the top right column. The matches are highly transitional and fast-paced.
In his end of the EPL season analysis for The Guardian, Tom Bogert rated the Quakes as the fourth most watchable team in the league. For any viewers in the UK, San Jose’s chaotic matches are the polar opposite of the highly structured games featuring the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool. That is certainly part of the appeal as it is non-stop end-to-end action, but that chaos is a double-edged sword, and it has largely hurt the Earthquakes this season.
Looking specifically at the Earthquakes’ defensive shortcomings, they’re a fascinating case study. There are some issues in their execution of defensive tactics, but they also have a lot of success in the high press and counterpress. They’re a side that gambles, chasing high-risk high-reward opportunities to pressure their opponents in losses of possession.
We can certainly nitpick their defensive tactics, and there are some red flags to address, but this is a side that generally does well in the high press and counterpress. Former head coach, Matías Almeyda, delivered a system in San Jose that is very much like Leeds United under Marcelo Bielsa. Typically, each match is an attempt by the Quakes to rattle opponents with their relentless pressure and highly transitional play.
Since your typical San Jose match is so highly transitional, let’s start with their counterpressing. Again, it is very aggressive and typically productive. When there are issues with the counterpress, it often comes down to the forwards and wingers neglecting their responsibilities.
Take the instance against the Los Angeles Galaxy for example. Once the ball is lost, the forwards and wingers have largely checked out. They are designated by the white circles. Meanwhile, the central midfielders are working hard to close space and apply pressure on the ball.
Without support from the forwards and wingers, San Jose finds itself on the wrong end of a numeric superiority. Los Angeles is able to play out, which is where the intensity of the defensive breakdown amplifies. In image two, the first touch is taken into space and the dribble progression leads to a direct attack on the San Jose backline. In image three, the centrebacks are caught too deep to immediately pressure the incoming pass, but also too far forward to cover space with the Galaxy’s 3v2 central advantage. In image four, the killer pass is tipped away by the last defender, limiting the damage, but it’s the poor, late counterpress high up the pitch that saw San Jose’s two-man central midfield overwhelmed and the backline immediately placed under duress.
Almeyda’s man-marking system has fallen by the wayside with his 18 April 2022 departure. Instead, this San Jose side under Covelo plays a narrow, zonal 4-4-2. The midfield is especially narrow, adding to the importance of not letting opponents play out of the press.
Again, the high press is generally effective and has directly played a hand in San Jose goals this season, but the team is prone to the occasional mental lapse in the high press. When opponents are able to break the first line of pressure in the central channel or half spaces, then pivot into a forward-facing position, San Jose’s flat, narrow midfield is vulnerable between the lines and against the big switch of play, which is what we see in the first two images below.
In images three and four, Houston is then able to run at the backline and play three consecutive passes that leave the Quakes scrambling. In the end, Houston creates an excellent scoring opportunity and nearly claims the lead.
Those examples of San Jose’s counterpress and high press are cases of, “when it goes wrong, here’s why” type moments. The biggest issue of all though comes from the backline.
Poor organisation, miscommunications, and undisciplined movements along the y-axis make San Jose’s backline a major vulnerability. Below, the first two images are from one sequence, and the two at the bottom are distinct. In our first sequence, Nathan is a good 5 m behind his backline, aggressively running towards his goal to protect the space behind the backline. The obvious issue is that he leaves the runner behind him onside. The second issue is that when opponents decide to target him through the dribble, he has a tendency to burst forward too quickly and with rash tackles.
A very similar sequence occurs in 2.1 with San Jose’s backline split into two units and keeping three Los Angeles Galaxy players onside. In 3.1, It’s Tanner Beason who makes an ill-informed run into midfield, leaving a gap for the Galaxy to attack centrally. In that instance, LA does find their runner over the top, leading to last-ditch defensive efforts from San Jose.
Disorganisation is the key theme here. Nathan, despite his penchant for important tackles, is a bit of a free spirit along the backline, often moving independently of his teammates. He’s not alone in this regard, but he is certainly the most likely to venture off on his own.
The real culprit – attacking tactics
The issue with the backline is certainly the biggest red flag in San Jose’s defensive tactics. Poor shape, discipline and cohesiveness have cost them dearly, but there is a plot twist to this story. Despite some defensive vulnerabilities, I’d argue the most significant reason for San Jose’s poor defensive record comes down to bad habits in possession.
If there is a running theme in this tactical analysis, it’s that San Jose’s matches are highly transitional. Whichever team performs best in those moments will typically come away with the result. This takes us back to the data. We want to see where the Goonies rate in terms of ball losses p90 and the opponent’s average xG per shot.
After concluding the video analysis, this chart placement was rather predictable. Though San Jose rates at the median for ball losses p90, no one allows a higher percentage shot in the league than San Jose. Their mark of 0.14 gives them another MLS-worst mark in a key measurement.
When San Jose does turn the ball over, there is a penchant for errors large enough to be measured on the Richter scale. To make matters worse, it’s frequently members of the backline who are responsible for these mistakes, many of which are virtually unforced errors.
Take the example below. Jackson Yueill plays the ball into Marie. Instead of playing the ball to his centreback with his first touch, Marie tried to spin away from his defender with a half turn. Unfortunately, he missed the ball.
Fafà Picault ran onto the untouched pass, then calmly slotted the ball into Carlos Ferreira’s path for a simple finish.
We have a similar situation with Nathan below. A simple, easily controllable pass from the goalkeeper, JT Marcinkowski, rolls right past the Brazilian. The only explanation is a drop in concentration. Not only does the centreback lose the ball, but he lunges in with an all-or-nothing sliding tackle, coming away with nothing. Fortunately for San Jose, Houston was unable to capitalise on the 5v3 scenario, mishitting the ball into the wing.
But Houston would get another chance courtesy of the San Jose backline. There are really two opportunities gifted by the Quakes in this single sequence. Marie is involved again, passing the ball to Eric Remedi. The centre midfielder was not aware of the pressure on his back and lost the ball, leading the Earthquakes to quickly counterpress. To their credit, they do manage to win the ball back.
However, Marie tries to shield Ferreira from the ball and is pushed to the ground quite easily. Houston picked up the loose ball, leaving both Marie and Remedi behind them. A simple pass to the wide-open Thor Úlfarsson culminated with the ball in the back of the net. Three things to note in that sequence are how much space Nathan gave Úlfarsson, Beason caught in no man’s land when he needed to cut off the pass to the Icelander and Tommy Thompson all alone at the far post, totally disconnected from Nathan.
Attacking miscues have been San Jose’s Achilles heel this season. Bad mistakes deep in their own end and a rest defence that typically leaves them ill-positioned to recover ground frequently leaves San Jose in numbers down or numerical equality in their defensive third.
Once San Jose moves into the middle third, they tend to have a better attacking structure and stay well connected. Their narrow midfield helps them make a quick transition to defence. While there are the occasional tactical breakdowns, San Jose’s greatest weakness is their technical execution and decision-making at the back.
On that topic of poor decision-making at the back, San Jose’s impetus to force play forward rather than patiently searching for solutions in possession has been problematic. We get a glimpse of that in our next image. There’s a clear passing lane to Marcinkowski, yet a hopeful ball is played forward, resulting in a turnover and eventually leading to a shot.
There’s not only a habit of forcing play forward. San Jose frequently plays those passes into congested areas of the pitch with no clear plan for playing out of the opposition’s press. At times, they’re willfully playing into the opposition’s pressing traps.
Our final image, which is a four-in-one, highlights one of many situations discovered through video analysis. The first pass is played into pressure, but there’s still an opportunity to turn towards Marie on the right wing. Instead, Jamiro Monteiro turns in the other direction and has the ball poked away. Notice not only the options available to him but also San Jose’s positioning the moment the ball is lost. Marie is high and wide on the right, which communicates to San Jose to funnel the ball into the wing. We can talk about the timing of Marie’s movement up the field, perhaps going too early before the play had evolved. Lingering further behind and timing his movement forward would have put them in position to help with the counterpress.
Instead, the Galaxy bypassed the midfield and then had three runners against the two San Jose centrebacks. Much like the situation against Houston earlier in the section, only a poor pass keeps LA from a goal-scoring opportunity.
Given the number of goals San Jose has conceded, as well as their league-high xGA, one would believe the issues were primarily a matter of poor organisation and execution of the team’s defensive tactics. However, as this tactical analysis has shown, many of San Jose’s issues start with mistakes in possession and a poor attacking structure.
The backline has greatly struggled this season, giving the ball away far too easily at the back. Though there are a few areas to tighten up in their defensive tactics, San Jose would greatly benefit from more structure in possession and perhaps turning to another player in the buildup, such as having Yueill split the centre-backs to direct the build-out.
We’re beyond the halfway point of the MLS season, San Jose sits well out of a playoff spot so a quick fix is needed to get anything out of the season.