From tonight’s MLS playoff game…
I like this one because it’s a great example of what wide penetration can do to defensive shape. Here’s the video:
The first critical thing that happens is that the Galaxy striker, Gyasi Zardes, manages to reel in the ball in a tight space surrounded by three RSL defenders…
…and push it wide to Robbie Keane.
But as you can see RSL have numbers back, are marked up well and have covering defenders both in the box marking logical targets for Keane’s cross as well as out wide marking Keane himself. There are seven outfield players holding a good defensive shape but in two seconds it’s gone.
Keane gains a very deep position without even having to take on a defender. In the process, all the RSL defenders focus on him and completely collapse down to the point that just as Keane cuts the ball back there are eight RSL players within eight yards of their own goal. So when Keane smartly cuts the ball back into the massive space they’ve created…
And he still has no one within eight yards of him as the defenders had all left themselves far too much ground to cover unnecessarily. There are seven defenders to mark four Galaxy players in the box. No one thought to mark the logical space that a trailing mid would fill for just such a shot. If they had, not only would Franklin have had much more pressure on him as he shot it’s actually unlikely the ball would even have reached him as it would have been cut off.
This shot gives a better angle on just how much space RSL left for Franklin to operate in.
Granted, it was likely the strike of a lifetime for Franklin but those happen.
Credit to all three Galaxy players involved in the movement. Zardes wasn’t particularly graceful in gathering the ball and quickly moving the ball to Keane but it was essential. Keane just bided his time, allowed the RSL players to keep dropping off and then found the angle to cut the ball back into the huge space they’d vacated. Franklin kept it low instead of blasting it over the bar and the swerve took it into the side netting.
So, the value of wide penetration is primarily its ability to get defenders to collapse. You can try to penetrate centrally but it’s busier than wide channels so your odds aren’t as good. By getting close to the byline you force defenders to collapse closer to their goal because the attackers they’re marking can push forward without fear of being offside. The secondary benefit is that it can induce ball-watching in defenders as seen in the picture third from the top. By pulling defenders attention 90 degrees left or right you facilitate strikers being able to drift off central defenders in anticipation of a cross and midfielders to come towards the top of the box looking for cutbacks of the sort Keane expertly delivered.