After a long, thirty-four game season, New England Revolution have won their first ever MLS Supporters’ Shield. For anyone unfamiliar with the MLS’ bizarre structures, that is the equivalent to winning a league title in any other league around the world. In the MLS, all it means is that New England have the best seed heading into the Playoffs, where they will hope to claim glory for good. But despite the insignificance of something that should be very significant, New England need to be commended for their incredible 2021 MLS season. The Revs lost just 5 of their 34 league games, scoring 65 goals in the process. Through it all they played some intriguing football, in a unique 4-3-1-2 system. Here is our tactical analysis of Bruce Arena’s New England Revolution in 2021.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-3-1-2
New England operate in a fairly unique 4-3-1-2 formation. Last year we wrote about RB Salzburg’s success in winning the Austrian League utilizing the 4-3-1-2 formation, but it’s also a system of play that can go very wrong very fast, as seen with Marco Rose’s Borussia Dortmund at the start of this season. Luckily, New England have been more Salzburg than Dortmund, and have achieved much in the way of tactical fluidity within their system. It’s shifted at times into a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2, and takes up a myriad of different shapes in both attack and defense.
In attack, New England build out from the back in what most closely resembles a 2-4-4 or 2-4-3-1 (at risk of over-complicating things). That sees Tajon Buchanan push up into attacking areas, as Tommy McNamara hangs lower and engages in the build-up. In defense, they block most commonly in an actual 4-3-1-2, but you might even catch them pressing high up the pitch in what looks more like a 4-3-3 (or again a more complicated 2-5-3) with Carles Gil shifting wide and Tajon Buchanan often stepping up into central attacking areas. So before going into more of the intricacies of their changing shapes, let’s first talk more about personnel.Embed from Getty Images
Arena’s been flexible and adaptable in giving many of his players a chance this season, but a consistent eleven players have emerged as favorites. Nine of these players played over 2,000 minutes this season, with Andrew Farrell accumulating nearly 3,000 at the top of that list. At the very back of the formation is American keeper Matt Turner, who has finally earned his first twelve caps to the American Men’s National Team all in the last eleven months. Ahead of him is the robust and agile Andrew Farrell, another experienced head for New England, who frequently partners 23-year-old Henry Kessler. DeJuan Jones and Brandon Bye have been two of the standout players in the team, performing an important attacking role in addition to a solid defensive one as part of New England’s back-four. The same could be said about Matt Polster, who anchors the midfield in front of the back-four, and Tommy McNamara, who also holds a relatively defensive, low position. Tajon Buchanan on the other hand is an adventurous midfielder who frequently joins the attack, and he has been a key player in their first-place finish. But no man has been more important than the team’s ‘number 10’ – Carles Gil, who’s contributed to 17 goals in his 28 appearances this season. Up front, both of Arena’s strikers have been on fire, begging 31 goals between the two of them. That would be Adam Buksa in just his second season with New England, and the powerful Argentinean striker Gustavo Bou, who’s personally contributed to 23 of the team’s 65 goals.
With so many valuable, dangerous attacking players, it’s no wonder why New England have been soaring high this season, and achieving so much success in their 4-3-1-2, that favours attacking flexibility and fluidity.
build-upEmbed from Getty Images
New England Revolution build out from the back in what could be considered a 2-4-4 or 2-4-3-1 shape. Crucial to the process are the two centre-backs and two central midfielders, who will often circulate the ball through short and safe passes in a window-like structure, until they find the right avenues to progress into the wide areas and beyond.
Depending on the opposition, New England may look to engage one side more than the other, attempting to exploit their opposition’s weaker side. This allows both fullbacks to be equally important members of the build-up and beyond, where Tajon Buchanan can float between both sides of the field and connect higher up. Bye and Jones are both solid progressive passers, and will look to make vertical passes whenever they can into the wide channels. These connections can be for strikers to run onto, especially when timed right, or they can be inside to Buchanan or Gil to then dribble at speed and work magic higher up.
Gil and Buchanan meanwhile are often used as mechanisms to switch play centrally out wide, where a fullback may look to deliver a cross from wide. While they may look to engage their strikers early on in moves, they have also delivered the most crosses per game (22) this season, and frequently create chances from out to in rather than going direct all the time. Jones is more likely to sit one up from deeper on the field, whereas Bye will frequently get up and down the by-line and get closer to the end-line when he delivers into the box. Due to the greater attacking position he poses, it’s no surprise that Bye has been the one to deliver more crosses on a match by match basis. However, it’s actually Jones that has assisted more goals and created more chances. The point of all of this is to say that while their build-up may start from the two centre-backs and two central midfielders, all eleven players are important to the process of progressing the ball into the final third for New England to score goals.
ATTACKING COMBINATIONSEmbed from Getty Images
New England have achieved much in the way of success this season, through a simple mix of speed on the break, and elegance in possession. It’s a common feature of the very best teams in each league, from the likes of Man City and Chelsea in the Premier League, to Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga or Inter in Serie A. It gives these teams a vast variety by which they can score goals, meaning they don’t just need to rely on possession and dominance to win games. In fact, New England have kept just 51% of the ball this season, which has allowed them to counter attack and use their speed on the break more than the other top teams. By the way, when we say speed on the break, we really mean it. Gustavo Bou is electric going forward, and Tajon Buchanan’s pace is practically unrivalled in the entirety of the league. Bruce’s men get up the field in numbers quickly, and frequently engage their strikers within one or two passes after winning the ball. With both of these facets working in tandem, it’s no surprise that New England have generated many of their chances within just 10 seconds after winning the ball back, and scored six counter attacking goals, according to WhoScored? – which is the most in the league. Everything they do in attack is quick, whether it be a corner kick, a throw from the goalkeeper, a looped ball from deep into their strikers, or just your everyday counter-attack. New England simply don’t slow down for anyone.
The Revs are also more than capable of creating through their possession, looking to use a mix of width and centrality to expose their opposition. The width comes from the fullbacks in Bye and Jones getting up and down the line, while the centrality component comes from another window-like structure of Buchanan-Gil and Buksa-Bou linking up in close quarters. Gil and Buchanan are both fantastic in tight spaces, and use that talent in different ways. Gil will often use silky skills to escape a myriad of players trying to triple team him, before he switches play or delivers a ball whipped into the penalty area. Buchanan meanwhile is more likely to use his speed and power to escape his markers and drive into the eighteen, where he can then either create or get off a shot. He too though utilizes a lot of skill, pulling off stepovers nearly every time he finds himself with space to move into in the final third. But it’s Gil who is the key chance creator from a New England perspective. Gil’s 4.6 chances created per game stands out from the rest by quite a significant margin (the next highest player has managed just 3.2), and the same goes for passes into the penalty area, progressive passes, key passes, and shot creating actions. In other words, he’s an incredibly difficult player to stop, and is completely dominating this league after failing to really make his mark in the Premier League with Aston Villa or in La Liga with Deportiva La Coruna.Embed from Getty Images
When you add New England’s deadliness from crosses and the ease at which a player like Adam Buksa finds open space in the box, the sixty-five goal tally makes complete sense. The Revs have accumulated the most completed crosses into the penalty area this season, and Buksa himself has the most shots per 90, and non-penalty expected goals per 90 in the league. He’s also scored 6 headed goals for his team, making himself a complete nuisance fro the opposition. Acting as more of a target man, the Polish striker has won 3.6 aerial duels per game for his team, as Gustavo Bou engages lower on the pitch and gives the team more of that 2-4-3-1 look. Bou loves a shot from distance, and as a chance creator himself helps to perfectly bounce off the big man. In short, when you combine one of the league’s most prominent creators with one of the league’s deadliest finishers, and back that up with an excellent cast and crew in behind, you are destined for success like New England.
DEFENSIVE STRUCTURESEmbed from Getty Images
New England haven’t been the best in the league from a defensive perspective, but they’ve still been more than defensively sound. With just 51% possession, it can be expected that they’ve conceded more shots and goals than other teams around them in the league table. Matt Turner deserves much credit for how New England have kept their opposition out this season, with a solid save percentage of 74.2%. But the team shapes and structures in place have mostly been sound, and many of their goals have happened more so to individual mistakes or momentary lapses in concentration, rather than too much to do with how Arena has set the team up…well to an extent.Embed from Getty Images
New England defend in a compact 4-3-1-2, leaving little room for vertical progression. Teams are often forced out wide, where their fullbacks are solid blockers and capable tacklers, and New England are then able to regain possession and go again. But then again, the narrow shape does allow space out wide to be exploited. The fullbacks are often well positioned enough to delay attacks and allow others to regain their footing, but teams deadly in transition could find ways to expose the 2-4-4 attacking shape that allows for space out wide in any formation, especially if it’s the fullbacks themselves that lose the ball. This has been New England’s biggest hurdle this season, as opposition teams can wreak havoc out wide and isolate Henry Kessler 1v1. The big man at the back is not the best 1v1 defender, and can become overpowered by big and powerful centre-forwards. But New England’s defensive record hasn’t been that bad, and most of the time, the team’s structures are sound.
They defend from the front fairly well in a variety of 4-3-3 and 2-5-3 shapes. When given enough time to properly set-up their defense, compact central channels and force their opposition out wide in their 4-3-1-2, they defend very well as a collective unit. It’s instead when they lose the ball and find themselves exposed on the break that they often concede goals, and this will need to be an area of concern for Bruce Arena going into the 2021 Playoffs.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
New England Revolution dominated the 2021 MLS season, accumulating 73 points in 34 matches, and topping the league by quite some distance. They scored 65 goals in the process, conceding just 41. With fluctuation and fluidity in their 4-3-1-2 formation, Bruce Arena has created a system designed to generate chances and score goals. While the shape can leave them exposed in transition, it’s far more likely to have positive effects in bringing out the best in their top men. Now as New England head into the playoffs, they will be hoping to end Seattle’s dominance, and provide a new face to the final for a change.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Bruce Arena’s New England Revolution. Be sure to check out more of our analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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