Almeyda and San Jose, from disappointment to hope

After a rough start, the team absorbed the ideas and achieved a good streak. From an adaptation period to details that give signs of a promising future: Almeyda’s first months in the MLS have gone by like this.

A trip to Cancun to work on the players’ fitness and videoanalysis sessions. Matías Almeyda showed from some of his first decisions how he wanted to change the San Jose Earthquakes’ reality after a disastrous year. From new aspects for the roster, it was clear how ‘El Pelado’ was looking to build a competitive team.

After the surprise, his arrival brought some hope to the city. Following his successful time at Chivas, in a period that started to avoid relegation, included four domestic titles and, after an ordinary league season, ended in a continental trophy, CONCACAF’s best coach of 2018 placed himself in front of another big challenge.

“At the beginning, his signing caused a lot of doubts –Joel Soria says-, because it wasn’t believed that the same Almeyda that had picked Chivas up was going to start a new test in San Jose. Among all the available teams, he took charge of one that had been suffering and was placed far away from the MLS’ bigs.”

While he had other offers and was rumoured as a possible coach for the Mexican and the Argentinian national teams, El Pelado opted to go to a growing league, that he has in high steem. He started another cycle in charge of a team placed in a difficult situation, this time related with an almost total reconstruction and not with achieving a desired promotion, like in River and Banfield, or with avoiding relegation.

With 4 wins and 21 losses in 34 games and without a win since August, the work to do was not just about tecnique, tactics and strategies, and it also had psychological demands, having to boost the roster’s confidence and having to build a winning mentality. The coaching staff looked to work these aspects from the first moment.

Almeyda and Guido Bonini, physical trainer, in front of the group in Cancun. Credit: San Jose Earthquakes.

To improve the team’s chemistry and the global atmosphere, Almeyda took several determinations: he presented the Bushido code (from a Japanese origin, its principles look for a loyal, honest and respectful life), something he has also done in his previous clubs and that has marked some of his former players, and worked towards a total integration of the group, even with the linguistic differences.

Apart from the coexistence -aspect treated, apart from others, in this good ESPN article-, preseason incluuded an intense and arduous physical work. With two sessions a day, something new for the team, the roster had to work hard, but that demands have given excellent results on the pitch.

Apart from his commitment and dedication, El Pelado also wants his playres enjoy the game. His goal is to spark that feeling to imrove and grow as a team. About that, the need of a slow and collective work and the proyect started at San Jose he talked in this great MLS’ video.

But all the work done seemed insufficient when it was time to compete, since the Quakes’ start of the season was tough, with four losses (against Montreal, Minnesota, the New York Red Bulls and LAFC), two goals scored and 14 received.

“The first four games were suffered,” Joel Soria says. “The team played as bad as last year and there was very little hope that it could become, at least, competitive. After that catastrophic 5-0 defeat against LAFC, San Jose woke up and has never looked back.”

In those matches, the main deficiencies were the man-to-man marking system, that wasn’t completely assimilated, and the mental fragility, because of the incapacity to overcome a received goal and to mantain a good level (achieved during 25′ against Montreal and during the first half against NYRB). In attack, some ideas and interesting movements could be seen and there was predisposition from the players, but the defensive mistakes and the lack of concentration weighed more.

During the bad streak, El Pelado said that patience and time were needed for work to be seen, and denied any change in his philosophy. He learned that during his time at River, when facing Arsenal and Godoy Cruz he aligned four central defenders because of the need for results, something that he stills regrets.

Even though the games finished in to big wins (4-0 and 5-0, respectively), having ignored his football principles gave him an unuforgettable lesson. “Despite we won both matches, I wouldn’t put that same formation, because I like to play with two fullbacks, each one in his position. The decision was to look for a positive result instead of the stile, since I knew that I was going to be sacked if didn’t get those wins. I betrayed myself there, and of cours I haven’t done it again,” said, firmly, in “La estrategia de Almeyda” [Almeyda’s strategy], a (spanish) book I wrote about his coaching career and how his teams played.

After a rough start, what Almeyda wants has slowly been seen. Credit: San Jose Earthquakes.

After keeping the individual persecutions, the biggest controversy point, the turnaround came against Portland. The Quakes had a good performance and won 3-1, with a solid game in spite of some deficiencies.

From that moment on, San Jose has earned two wins (against Kansas and Cincinnati), two draws (Seattle and Dallas) and a loss (Houston), point total that has the team in a playoff spot after matchweek 10. Over that period, performances improved a lot.

“There is a lot of optimism,” Joel Soria describes. “The biggest changes are in the players’ mentality and the clubs’ day to day. It is a much more ordered and healthy environment. Almeyda, like he always does, puts a big emphasis in rules, coexistence and teamwork, from the first team to the youth players.”

Different circumstances have contributed to the turnaround. Apart from getting used to the system, especially to the man-to-man marking, it has also been caused by changes in the eleven, with pieces getting together.

From the middle of the field to the attack, the inclusion of Jackson Yueill, Shea Salinas y Danny Hoesen were key, since, because of their characteristics, they have been more useful than Judson, Vako and Chris Wondolowski, respectively.

Yueill, a box-to-box, dynamic mid with a good touch, has become an ideal complement to Aníbal Godoy, who is more positional and has aptitudes similar to the Brazilian, who didn’t create a partnership as good and couldn’t get completely used to the chasings, despite his intensity, his good positioning and long balls.

The Minnesota born helps to get the ball out from the back and because of his physical display he can also get close to the opposing goal -he scored once and has already shot as much as in 2018 (10-15)-, what contributes to the team by opening spaces, apart from being another passing option.

Salinas, who is more commited defensively, has shown a great aptitude in 1v1s, an asocial aptitud with the fullback and very good effectiveness, being the team’s top scorer with four goals.

Finally, Hoesen has given the team what it needed. Apart from his skills, his mobility is key to support a teammate’s run with the ball, to create spaces by pushing the defense backwards and to generate chances, as his brace against Kansas shows.

Credit: MLS.

Defensively, Florian Jungwirth’s entrance for Guram Kashia, who had shown a good level before suffering a lowe leg injury, has given the team more aggressiveness in the man marking and his ability to read when to go for the interception, when it is better to wait and when to switch towards the ball. But he has also provoked some penalties because of his energy.

As it refers to the team characteristics, the one easily spotted refers to the individual persecutions to nine of the opposing players. Like any defensive system, it is complex, has an adaptation period and has punished most of its mistakes -in this case, any error leads to a rival having a lot of space to go forward-, but it has some benefits.

Correctly applied, it avoids numerical inferiorities in any part of the field, forces the opponent to receive in bad situations and obliges it to send the ball back. Apart from that, with the desire to run forward immediately to create an offensive transition, it is useful as an offensive threat, because of its constante pressure and the constant possibility of generating a counter with an interception.

San Jose, actually the third team with more interceptions with 12.8, according to whoscored.com, has developed this aspect with an improved communication, something key to recognize when to swithc. This has been an important aspect of the turnaround, since during the first games it was an inconvenient, even though many of the 14 goals were caused by individal mistakes rather than by a system deficiency, what is also possible because of its high physical and mental demands.

A detail to develop can be the space that the central defenders allow by positioning close to the penalty area, what gives the opponents a lot of “playable” ground and allows them to receive freely with diagonal runs. Apart from that, the strategy is every day more rooted in the team and leaves as many positive as negative aspects, although these ones are the ones that are more exposed.

Credit: ESPN, NBC Sports, Univisión and MLS.

But believing that San Jose’s strategy ends there and that the team stops playing once it gets the ball back is a mistake. “When our style is analyzed as only man-to-man marking, [what about] the rest of our play? Did they forget to see that?,” El Pelado said recently, as Joel Soria gathered in this good piece for the MLS.

In attack, the Quakes look to get the ball out from the back and then become a vertical, dynamic and sharp through the wings team. To go out from Daniel Vega’s goal it is important to have a variety of alternatives and mechanisms to overcome the opposing pressure.

“I give them the positions and the dynamic pretended,” the Argentinian coach said in “La estrategia de Almeyda”. “Then, it is them who decide inside the pitch. They are free to choose the movements, but to do that they need at least eight alternatives, and they know that. It is there where you see the work.”

Throughout the games, this has been clear with very good executions. It hasn’t always been succesful and the central defenders have shown some deficiencies, particularly in the precision and the strenght of the passes to give continuity to the plays, but they have improved over time.

Credit: ESPN, NBC Sports and MLS.

In the opposing field, the wings’ role, mainly Salinas and Cristian Espinoza, who have been playing in a great level, is prevailing. Both of them have shown interesting moves and the intelligence required to complement with the fullbacks, staying wide to stretch the defense or going inside to take benefit of inner spaces.

They are who take the team to the next level and the most threatening players.

Credit: ESPN, NBC Sports, Univisión and MLS.

With 10 matches gone by, conclusions have more positive than negative aspects. With performances amazingly improved, with concepts learned throughout this run of games, they have turned around the bad start and are looking high into the postseason spots.

“I believe San Jose is doing well,” Joel Soria says. Almeyda’s philosophy is increasingly applied and the players’ fitness level is stupendous. They can make the playoffs if the sign adequately, what I think is with strategy and ambition.”

Having overcome the rough path, now the challenge for the Quakes is to find regularity. Being an attractive team and one capable of putting any team in trouble, to dream big they have to be consistently competitive.

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