The Montréal Impact managed just 1 point in their last two games, and overall it hasn’t been pretty. Defensively they were okay. Offensively it was somewhat of a disaster. So what has happened between now and the first two weeks, where IMFC looked like world-beaters?
Drogba giveth’, Drogba taketh’ away
Whereas the Impact started the season on fire and didn’t really need to look at themselves in the mirror too much, other teams had a lot of issues at the outset, and subsequently worked on them. Over the first eight games, IMFC have been in that "if ain’t broke, don’t fix it" zone, and it’s offered somewhat mixed results.
On one hand, head coach Mauro Biello doesn’t want to scrap everything he’s built after a few subpar performances in a row, and nor should he. The make-up of the team is more talented than it was last year, so there is no reason why they shouldn’t be better. That said, there is one thing that is missing from last year’s epic late summer run into the playoffs… Can the real Didier Drogba please stand up?
To put it lightly, the Ivorian star just isn’t there yet. Try as he might, his conditioning has not quite caught up with his skill and smarts yet, so what you see at the moment is a player waiting for something to happen rather than making it happen. He was still more effective than most offensive players on the pitch the last two games, but for the Impact to win consistently he has to be better.
One area that I thought he dominated last year was on aerials, and not just ones in the box, either. Drogba, and this speaks to his conditioning at that time, would regularly win balls off of Evan Bush goal kicks in 2015. This means that instead of being well up the pitch waiting for the action to come to him, he was the one creating the offense.
Part of me thinks that Biello wants Drogba to stay up top, conserve his energy, and let the midfielders do their job. Unfortunately, there simply isn’t anyone on the current roster who seems to have the ability to consistently win 50/50 balls in the air or on the ground.
Slow and low… That is NOT the tempo
The game against NYCFC really showed the Impact’s flaws in the middle of the park. Between Patrice Bernier, Kyle Bekker and Marco Donadel, there simply was not enough speed, aggression and quality to counter City’s mids. The reason why the home side dominated possession and created more opportunities than IMFC is because they did everything at a higher level centrally.
NYCFC’s midfielders, Lopez, Bravo and Pirlo are not physically stronger or even quicker than Donadel, Bernier and Bekker, but their execution was much better and faster. Everyone in Montréal is begging for a physical, skilled defensive mid, but at the end of the day, very few teams in the world have one. The key to the position, in my opinion, hinges on two qualities: decision-making and speed of thought. If you have these attributes, you can make up for not being the strongest, fastest, or most skilled.
In the last few games for Montréal, there’s been far too much passivity and dawdling with the ball in midfield. With the team’s inability to cross the ball from the wings with any kind of effectiveness, the middle of the park is an area where the team needs to get quicker and more decisive.
I know I’m a broken record, but Harry Shipp has to be given an opportunity to play centrally, somewhere. From what I’ve seen from Bekker, he’s just a bit too slow in his decision-making and execution. In Shipp, I see as a player who reads the play quickly and can execute thread-the-needle type passes.
I thought it was the wrong setting for Bernier’s first start of the year. The park in New York was simply too small for him to operate, as he is a bit of meanderer on the ball. That said it wasn’t a great park for any of Montreal’s players, as it is way smaller than what they’re accustomed to. For that reason I tend to not read too much, good or bad, into what I see from IMFC on this field. I can only assume that most teams see their visit to NYCFC as an anomaly in their season, a game that shouldn’t make you start doing things differently.
Still, it did highlight the main weakness in Montréal game, which is slowness in offensive execution. A small park requires you to do everything a bit quicker (because defenders are on top of you that much faster) and overall I found NYCFC that much more on the ball (pun intended).
So… Time to panic?
At this point in the season, where the Impact are still somewhat miraculously near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, if I were the coach I would take advantage of the team’s current standing and continue to tinker, specifically in midfield. As much as the team has struggled in the middle, they have at their disposal a number of players to fit those roles.
Besides the Donadel role, which is by far the weakest depth-wise on the team, the other two midfielder roles ahead of him on the pitch (in a 4-1-4-1, 4-3-3, or even 4-2-3-1) can be filled by a plethora of players. Anyone from Alexander, Bekker, Bernier, Mallace, Shipp or Ontivero could potentially suit up there, and finding the right mix is probably going to be Biello’s biggest challenge for the next few games.
Hooray for Canada! Wait, really?
To contrast with the problems in the middle, IMFC have had the good fortune of receiving some slightly unexpected good performances from certain players, notably Maxim Tissot and Hassoun Camara. While we’ve covered Camara’s big performances a lot over the past few weeks, Tissot has really impressed me, at least from an offensive perspective down the left flank. I’m not sure who’s idea it was to try to convert him from LB to LW, but it seems quite obvious to me that he’s made for the wingback position. He was maybe a bit off on the defensive side of the ball, which is understandable, but he really has a knack of knowing when to make runs off of passes and seeing how a play is going to develop. If he could bottle Toia’s physicality and relentlessness, he could be a really good one.
Wandrille Lefèvre also played very well in his starting debut of 2016, but that comes as little to no surprise to me. The naturalized Canadian has had very few off games in an Impact jersey, and he was his usual cool and collected self against NYCFC.
A performance like the one from Lefèvre kind of puts things into perspective: there isn’t any reason to panic. The team is blessed with a solid back four and goalie, they have one of the best strikers in the game (who’s not yet in form), and they have a top wing player in Piatti. They need to find the right mix in midfield and start playing with a bit more fire, but with the players they have, it’s completely within their reach.