The Montréal Impact lost 3-1 to NYRB in the sweltering, New Jersey heat this past Saturday, in what was another in a long list of lackluster defensive performances. There’s no denying the results: just 2 clean sheets in the last 18 games (4 overall) exhibits the lack of defensive cohesion in the squad, and an explanation as to why the team currently sits 5th in the Eastern Conference.
The loss on Saturday showcased some of Montréal’s best and worst traits. On one side, Piatti’s goal was one of the best counterattacking goals we’ve seen from the team this year. Biello played a fairly defensive team that called for a quick strike, counterattack style, and the goal was a product of that. Sadly, the defensive instability was back in effect, one week removed from a 1-0 win versus Houston.
Maybe it’s a question of naivety on the side of Biello. There’s been a commitment all season long to having the full-backs release into the attack, and that’s all good and well if you have the personnel to pull it off. While Biello seems convinced he has the right men for the job, there’s been very little evidence that proves him right.
Ciman Le Géneral?
Coming into the season, I could see why the Montréal Impact would have been confident in their full blitz, offensive approach. They have, after all, the reigning defensive player of the year in the form of Laurent Ciman, and a centre-back partner in Victor Cabrera who was one of the surprise breakout performers for the Impact in 2015.
The 2016 versions of both players have been somewhat subpar, however. In the case of Ciman, the same fire he played with in 2015 seems to have dwindled, and maybe as a result of this dare I say, complacency, his renowned tackling ability has suffered.
On too many occasions this season, the man known as Le Géneral has gambled and lost on a big tackle up the pitch, leaving his defensive partners high and dry. Maybe after getting his big chance in the Euro Championships with Belgium, it’s a question of having too much confidence, and not taking MLS competition seriously enough. I seriously doubt he’s lost any of the skill or confidence that he demonstrated in spades last year, so to me this all has to be mental.
Suffice it to say, Montréal need Ciman firing on all cylinders if they want to challenge for the MLS Cup this year.
Victor Cabrera has been disappointing this year as well, though it appears more and more that his somewhat average play is a direct result of Ciman not being at his best. As I’ve stated here before, the combination of these two centre-backs seems to be a recipe for disaster, as each enjoy the big tackle too much.
I’ll give Cabrera a pass with his missed tackles, because though he misses a lot, stats prove that he makes his fair share. In fact, the young defender is at the top of the league in interceptions this year. The problem is, his big area of weakness, aerials, has cancelled out his solid tackling ability.
Since the beginning of the year I’ve made mention of his inability to outmuscle attackers in the box, but of late he’s also struggled to time his leaps on incoming crosses, mistakes that have directly resulted in goals against. Part of his problem is that he’s often out-jumped or outsmarted by an attacker in the box. Other times he tends to get caught too high up the pitch trying to make a tackle, and can’t return in time to make a play on a cross.
And this brings us back to Biello’s offensive full-back approach. With two centre-backs who are anything but stay-at-home defenders, it seems foolish to have both full-backs play an all out, offensive style. Two things compound this problem: Ciman is not having a great year, and Hassoun Camara does not have the pace nor the stamina to play up and down the wing for 90 minutes.
Again I bring up the naivety of the coaching staff here. Hassoun Camara seems to have won his job at RB this season due in large part to his offensive abilities, highlighted by two assists in the beginning of July. What was overshadowed in those two games was that IMFC conceded a total of four goals, two of which were scored on the break where Camara was unable to track back and defend.
I’ve said it again and again: If Biello wants to play the modern game with two marauding full-backs, he can’t expect Camara, a lumbering giant whose natural position is centre-back, to play there week in, week out.
It begs the question: why did IMFC go out and trade for Amadou Dia anyway? In the one game we’ve seen from the newly acquired Frenchman, he impressed with speed down the flanks against Roma. On top of that, arguably the team’s most consistent defender last year, Donny Toia, has been back healthy for a month now, but been used sparingly. It would seem that there are plenty of options and variations in defence that Biello has it his disposal, but he keeps on putting out the same lineup.
To me, this is the most frustrating part of Montréal’s season thus far because aside from the defence, the team seems to be really coming together.
Bernardello and Mancosu provide big boost
On the other side of the coin, the offensive third of the pitch have seen a nice bump in productivity thanks to the additions of Hernan Bernardello and Matteo Mancosu. While Mancosu’s contributions have been easier to quantify, Bernardello has been just as important to helping the offence function at a high level.
Besides the late equalizer he scored versus DC United, the wily Argentinian has made an immediate impression with his work rate and ability to win back possession for his team. He has already created good chemistry with his new midfield partner Marco Donadel, as the two seem to complement each other quite well.
While Donadel likes to sit just in front of the back 4, playing almost as a sweeper in the middle of the pitch, Bernardello is more of a box-to-box type midfielder, playing as much on the offensive side of the field as the defensive.
The pleasant surprise from Bernardello so far has been his energy level and work rate. After coming in as a sub in his first outing, he has played two complete games (90 minutes) in a row, and has been one of the hardest working players in both those games. Particularly in the match against Houston, he showed a fantastic ability to cut off passes in midfield, continuously hounding the opposition in the process.
Mancosu, meanwhile, has been a revelation up front. No one knew exactly what to expect from the Italian (whose name no one could pronounce for a couple of weeks) when he arrived in July. Most people thought the signing was underwhelming, considering the player’s lack of a name brand and pedigree. From what I’ve seen thus far, however, he has provided exactly what the team needed upfront, and more.
In 5 games, the Serie B star has notched 2 goals and 2 assists, and in two of those games was used only as a late substitution. For me, Mancosu has been impressive in three specific ways thus far: Finishing, pace, and intelligence.
As a striker you obviously want to be known for your scoring ability, and the Italian has immediately shown he’s the finished product, scoring twice with deadly precision. His winning goal against Houston was not just a nice finish: It was a WORLD CLASS finish. Both of his goals demonstrated top-level scoring ability, each time beating the keeper to the far post with clinical precision.
Another aspect that impressed me was his speed, something that is not always a pre-requisite for a striker. It’s an important development, because it gives an added dimension to the Impact’s attack. Having a true scorer than can play up top or closer to the wing is an extra threat for IMFC, with Drogba and Piatti already wreaking havoc on opposing defences.
Thirdly, Mancosu has a poacher’s knack for hanging off of the shoulder of defenders, timing his runs to perfection. He’s already managed to sneak in behind on number of occasions, making him a terrific threat in counterattack situations.