Though it might not be in line with the club's technical-driven playing philosophy, the Montreal Impact could really use some physical specimens in the side.While the Montreal Impact’s upper management thinks of ways it can improve the team for next season and transform it into a legitimate title contender, it will surely be keeping a very close eye on the ongoing MLS playoffs.
What becomes immediately apparent from observing the playoffs so far is that the speed and physicality of the games, compared to those of the regular season, have significantly increased; and that’s a concern for the Impact, who already struggled in the regular season to cope with the physical nature of many matches.
An elegant possession side like Real Salt Lake, one which the Impact have tried to emulate, has had to adjust to the often frenetic tempos of the playoffs and play a different game than they did in the regular season. It’s difficult to imagine that the Impact, even if they had arrived to the playoffs in the best of form, would have been able to do the same.
The spine of the team is made up of veterans well into their 30’s – Marco Di Vaio, Patrice Bernier and Matteo Ferrari – and it needs to be supplemented by younger and more athletic players.
At centre-back, the Impact might already be set for next season. Former Deportivo La Coruna defender Adrian Lopez was signed in order to replace the now-retired Alessandro Nesta, but suffered an ACL tear in August. When the 26-year-old does return next year, he should be able to complement Ferrari with his mobility. Imposing academy product Wandrille Lefevre has made big strides and will be a solid option. Hassoun Camara, who played predominantly at right fullback this season, is expected to switch back to this preferred position in central defence as well.
Where the Impact will really need a significant injection of athleticism is in midfield, particularly on the outside, as none of the team’s wingers, except for draft pick Blake Smith, are really capable of playing the full length of the field for 90 minutes. Since most teams in MLS play a 4-4-2 and like to attack down the outside instead of through the middle, having wingers that can quickly track back is essential. Against Houston in the playoffs, the Impact were often caught in numerical disadvantage on the flanks as Andrea Pisanu and Justin Mapp struggled to get back in time to help mark up.
The general lack of physical ability in the side also means that the Impact seldom ever press opponents high up the field. Usually it’s up to one of the forwards to identify an opportunity to press the opponent and start the charge - his teammates will then quickly close the space down behind him. The trouble is that the Impact usually play with Marco Di Vaio alone in the attack, and the 37-year-old often prefers to stay put and conserve his energy rather than chase down the opposition.
The lack of a pressing game hurt Montreal dearly at home at the end of the season in losses against Columbus, Vancouver and New England, as all three were given far too much time and space to move the ball forward in transition.
The Impact will need to decide whether they want to stick with their preferred one-striker formation with Felipe sitting behind Di Vaio or go with a more traditional 4-4-2. If they take the latter option, which is likely, they’ll need to acquire a second forward who can really complement the Italian, especially a player who can hold up the ball in midfield.
Di Vaio isn’t very adept at playing with his back to goal, because he easily gets out-muscled and shrugged off the ball. He excels at getting in behind the opposing defence and stretching the field, but the Impact need a player in the attack that can check back and help keep the ball from time to time and give the team a breather – especially on the road.
Part of the Impact’s philosophy has been to try to acquire players with strong technical qualities as opposed to physical ability, but given the way the 2013 season played out, they’ll desperately need to strike a balance between the two.
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