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Midfield movement brings out the best in Republic

Increased midfield verticality in the second half tilted Saturday’s match in Republic’s favor.

Gallery: Sacramento Republic FC vs. Orange County SC - 1 April 2017
Republic FC forward No. 17, Tyler Blackwood, rallies against Orange County SC defender No. 7, Richard Chaplow on Papa Murphy's Park on Saturday evening.
Joseph de Ocampo/Indomitable City Soccer

In any soccer formation, the central midfielders often have the toughest task on the field. Being in the center, they factor significantly in both attack and defense. Central midfielders must balance creating chances on one end of the field with breaking up opponent’s chances at the other end.

Some players specialize in either side of these roles. Some, like former fan favorite Ivan Mirković, are strictly defensive midfielders. Their job is to sit in front of the defense and break up attacks before they become threats.

Some players, like Daniel Trickett-Smith, excel in attack. These players create chances for their teammates through smart passing, clever runs, and good positioning.

Then there is somewhat of a hybrid type, sometimes referred to as a box-to-box midfielder. They operate from the top of their own box in defense, to the top of the opponents box in attack.

The box-to-box type seems to be the preference for Buckle’s Republic squad. Since he likes to play his full-backs high up the field, it makes sense to have a pair of players in midfield that can help push the attack, but also cover the defense when possession is lost.

For most of this season the pair has been Moffat and Cazarez. The two have worked well in tandem, generally controlling the midfield and breaking up the opposition’s play. Their main job has mostly been to shield the defense, rather than rush into attack. Their movement is mostly horizontal; the players slide across the center of the pitch to snuff out runs out wide into the space left by Republic’s swashbuckling wing-backs. This ‘horizontality’ can be seen in heat-maps from last Saturday. Here is Cazarez’s first half:

Heatmap of Augustin Cazarez, first 45min vs Tulsa

His movement across the center of the pitch is easy to see, and although he is situated mainly on the left, his touches can be found in a wide arc from sideline to sideline.

For the first half, most passes from the central midfield pair were back to the centerbacks or out to the fullbacks. Neither midfielder took much risk in venturing forward and Republic’s attacks mostly came from long passes or combination play along the sidelines.

However, in the second half, things changed. Cazarez in particular became much more active on the ball, making several forward runs. His movement became vertical rather than horizontal.

Heatmap of Augustin Cazarez, second 45min vs Tulsa

While this map still shows the majority of touches in the middle of the pitch, much of the width is gone. It has been replaced by touches in the opponent’s half, many of them centrally and some in their 18 yard box.

The second half for Republic was much more fruitful than the first, with 2 goals scored off of some excellent team play. Elliott Hord, who sent in several beautiful crosses that eventually lead to both goals, deserves a special shout-out for his role in making that happen.

However, I think the down-low credit goes to the midfield duo. By changing up their game and becoming more vertical and direct in attack, they were able to spark life into the entire Republic squad. Increased verticality added another threat for Tulsa to deal with, and the new attention lavished on the central pair by defenders opened up more space out wide for Hord to move into.

This change seemed to be a tactical choice made by Buckle. If so, it shows again that the coaching staff was able to identify a problem, and find a remedy to solve it. These tactical shifts bode well for a Republic squad that has deeper talent than last year, but was perhaps lacking in plan B’s to deal with situations that didn’t go their way.