After weeks of speculation, beginning with the first roster announcements in early March, head coach Ben Pirmann finally unveiled his first official starting XI of the 2016 season. With only a handful of the first team regulars available, the first pre-season friendly against Windsor was more of a conditioning exercise than anything else, offering very few clues about who would be starting and where. The second friendly against Muskegon, however, offered the first hints that Pirmann might deviate from his standard 4-4-2 formation. Indeed, the team started the opening round U.S. Open Cup (USOC) match against the Michigan Bucks playing a rather unconventional, but highly effective 4-3-3.
It was a surprise to see Evan Louro’s name on the team sheet in the friendly against Muskegon after announcing that he wouldn’t be playing for the team in 2016 and it was Louro who again made the start against the Bucks. Nobody seems entirely sure how long Louro will be available for selection but Wednesday’s USOC match showed why he was coveted by the coaching staff in the first place. Louro was a commanding presence in the City penalty area. Louro exuded confidence in the air, dealing comfortably with the Bucks’ crosses, both from the run of play and from numerous corner kicks. Louro demonstrated great shot stopping ability and was also quick to come off his line to snuff out the dangerous Bucks’ through passes. Of course Louro will go down in Detroit City history for the two huge saves in the penalty shootout. The first was not well placed but it was struck with a lot of power and Louro did well to cover it, diving to his right. The second save though he demonstrated exceptional goalkeeping technique, taking a step forward and pushing off with his front foot before reaching across with his right arm to palm the ball over the crossbar. Textbook.
Many of the questions going into the season related to the squad and Pirmann’s tactics surrounded the defense. With Josh Rogers retired and Bennett Jull pursuing his education elsewhere there was a big gap to fill in the middle. In previous seasons, a flat back four was the default but with only three recognized center backs on the roster and a plethora of attacking options, many wondered if Pirmann might experiment with a back three. Against Muskegon it was clear he would not. Having featured as a right back in the past, Seb Harris’ aerial prowess and strong tackling now make him an automatic first choice at center back. The interesting thing was that Pirmann preferred Billy Stevens as his partner in the center of defense. While Stevens lacks the height often characteristic of central defenders, he is exceptionally quick, reads the game really well, and is strong in the tackle. He often plays as right back for the University of Michigan but didn’t look the slightest bit uncomfortable in the middle. Pirmann utilized newcomer Matt Nance at left back and the versatile and experienced Zach Schewee on the right. Schewee is normally a marauding full back and sometimes it is hard to work out if he is playing as a defender or an out and out winger. But against the Bucks he limited his forward runs, focusing rather on not allowing the Bucks left winger to exploit the space behind him. Nance, on the left, was also conservative in joining the attack and this was most certainly down to Pirmann’s instructions to try and keep things tight at the back.
Pirmann’s 4-4-2 was exposed in the match last year’s USOC match against the Bucks when he paired Spencer Thompson with Dave Edwardson. The Bucks outnumbered City in the center of the pitch and were able to dominate possession and exploit the spaces through the middle. This time, Pirmann countered by deploying two holding midfielders, Troy Watson and Brett Nason, just in front of the back four. With Watson and Nason covering and tackling, it gave Dave Edwardson, in theory, the freedom to burst forward from midfield in his typical box-to-box style. Edwardson, because of the Bucks’ quality in midfield, did a great deal of covering and pressing and only had a couple of real opportunities to break forward. Edwardson was also more subdued after an early yellow card for a crunching tackle in the first five minutes. It’s hard to say if it was intentional or not, Edwardson is never one to shy away from getting stuck in, but that tackle really set the tone and sent a message of intent. Watson and Nason, though, were key. Not only did they provide a shield in front of the four defenders, cutting out several Bucks’ attacks before they even had a chance to develop, they also provided cover for the outside fullbacks on the rare occasions when they did venture forward.
The three-pronged attack consisted of newcomers Danny Deakin, Spiro Pliakos, and ex-Bucks player Tommy Catalano. Pirmann opted to play without a traditional center forward despite having Tyler Channell on the bench. In the past Pirmann has preferred to pair a more physical target man (Channell, Wade, Myers, etc) with a quicker forward (Mellors-Blair, Bautista, etc). Instead it was Catalano, normally an attacking midfielder, who lead the line with Deakin on the left and Pliakos on the right. Catalano, however, was frequently dropping very deep, playing at times almost as a false ‘9’ – a forward that plays between the lines, rather than playing higher up the pitch, occupying the two opposing center backs. While they started in those positions, there was a great deal of flexibility in the scheme as the game went on. All three of the front players interchanged with one another, turning up at various times on the left, right and through the middle. The same was true after Ali Al-Gashamy and Jeff Adkins entered the game in the second half, although Adkins stuck closer to the left wing. It looked as though Pirmann was hoping to try and unbalance the Bucks’ defense keeping the front three in constant motion and having them swap in and out of different areas of the pitch.
- There wasn’t a ton of pace in attack until Adkins came on for Edwardson. Deakin, Pliakos, and Catalano are all technically adept players but none of them are particularly fast. Especially on a night when City was going to have to defend and counter, for the most part, the lack of speed up front killed several chances to create danger in the final third. Adkins’ speed caused more problems for the Bucks’ back four and it’s not coincidental that City’s best spell in terms of play coincided with Adkins’ introduction into the game.
- Nance struggled. He seemed a bit tentative and gave the ball away too easily at times. Hopefully he will settle in after he gets a couple of games under his belt. Nance plays at very good Division 1 program (Xavier) so the quality is definitely there. But with Schewee patrolling the right and Alex Isaevski still out through injury, he needs to find his footing quickly.
- The team needs to find a way to get the ball to Danny Deakin. He seemed isolated on the wings and he struggled to get involved. When Edwardson came off, he played more centrally in midfield and showed signs of improvement. He seems like the sort of player that grows in confidence the more he touches the ball and in the second half when City was able to keep possession for some longer stretches, Deakin was able to get on the ball and looked sharper working short, quick combination passes with Catalano and Al-Gashamy especially.
- Pirmann got his tactics right. City was able to weather the storm in the first 10-15 minutes which is something the team was not capable of in last year’s meeting with the Bucks. They weren’t over run in midfield, everybody got behind the ball when the Bucks had possession, and the positional discipline of the players kept City in the game. Of course, Louro had to intervene on several occasions but Pirmann and the players had a clear approach to the game and for the most part they executed that plan very well.
- Al-Gashamy, by his own admission, was feeling a little rusty. It was hard to tell. He has great ability to hold the ball under pressure and then wriggle away from one and even two defenders before playing an intelligent pass. He combined really well with Deakin and Catalano in the final third. You can tell he has that extra bit of quality and while he didn’t quite find the opening against the Bucks’ stingy defense it’s clear that once he gets on the same page with his companions in attack and up to full match fitness he has the ability to unlock opposing defense to create important goal scoring opportunities.
- Someone on Twitter mentioned that Billy Stevens was going to quickly become a fan favorite. If you have seen him play for the Michigan, you knew that Stevens plays with guts. He doesn’t back down from anyone, he’s a leader on the pitch, and very communicative, always shouting instructions to his teammates. He might just be the perfect foil for Seb Harris in the center of defense.
If Wednesday’s match answered a handful of questions, it also posed several more. Was Wednesday’s 4-3-3 designed specifically for the USOC matches and will Pirmann will revert to a 4-4-2 for league play? How will players like Javi Bautista, Tyler Channell, and Cyrus Saydee, who figure to be important contributors to the team’s success, be utilized going forward? And perhaps most crucially, how will the team cope without Evan Louro once he departs? Regardless, one thing that is clear: one game into the 2016 season, the new look Detroit City team appears capable of great things.