To put things bluntly, Baton Rouge have stumbled mightily at the start of this summer’s Premier Development League campaign. Although the capital club is not alone, with 2010 champions Portland U-23 finding themselves nine points off the pace in a rather competitive Northwest Division and beaten finalists Thunder Bay second from bottom in the Heartland Division (having only played two matches thus far), Baton Rouge coach Stuart Hayers must surely be getting nervous as the Capitals still sit twelve points adrift of reaching a playoff position. Granted, “squeaky bum time” might seem highly alarmist and misappropriated only five matches into a league campaign, and with the club retaining a couple games in hand, certainly there remains time to gain ground on the likes of Laredo. The PDL season, however, is only 16 matches long, so with one third of the campaign effectively already passed, there is scant room for error going forward.
In other words, Baton Rouge can’t pretend to be Everton; there’s simply not enough time.
This past weekend, fans of the Black & Red endured another gut-wrenching 1-0 loss at Crusader Stadium for the Capitals–this time at the hands of old foes Nashville. Baton Rouge had a stunningly-high number of chances to score with 18 shots that went begging, so the 31st minute strike by Jonathan Jackson of Nashville seemed just desserts for having wasted so many chances in front of the opposition’s goal. Forward Adrian McCinnis looked an able partner to Ben Callon up top, with the young lad often running wide in order to slide a cross into the veteran but also contributing with his own chances on goal. Perhaps the best player on the day for Baton Rouge, however, was ball-hawking midfielder James Livingtson. The Lancashire-born Livingston provided constant cover for a rather out-of-sorts back line and effectively served to transition the side from defending to attacking when on the ball. While the final result was not what had been desired, Livingston’s performance throughout the match justified his increasing prominence in the squad and indeed makes him another to watch for.
What was interesting and possibly overlooked as Hayers continues to tinker on a starting XI that can get the club back in the business of scoring and winning was where he had Livingston positioned on that rather dry pitch Sunday evening. Setting up centrally as a defensive midfielder, Livingston looked vaguely like the dot Carlo Ancelotti draws on the base of his chalkboard when devising his preferred diamond-shaped tactical formation. Labelling the Baton Rouge formation as a diamond would seem inadequate, though, as it was too roughly carved and not at all polished at the top. In this day and age when all things must seemingly be classified and enumerated by increased greatness, not being able to determine just exactly how the Capitals were reacting to one another on the pitch became somewhat of a spur. It seemed quite odd, for instance, that Guilherme Brandao–a player considered to be a forward–was playing at left fullback. At times, he was so far advanced in support of the Baton Rouge attack as to reduce the cover in front of GK Kyle Buxton down a man, but with Livingston playing in front of the centre backs, he was positioned well to lend his skill in the center while one of them could be seen moving wide left to cover the area of the pitch left undefended by Brandao. Justin Portillo remained the playmaker near midfield, and as mentioned earlier, McCinnis often played wide with Callon located typically in his centre forward position.
Perhaps fans of Italian football or those who have an encyclopaedic knowledge of all tactical formations have already surmised where this is heading, but for those who are not followers of the Italian game nor well-versed in the Azzuri side that captured the 1982 World Cup, it seems what was being performed was some variation of Catenaccio called Zona Mista. Being unable to locate a more reliable English analysis of it, this seems to explain most appropriately what Baton Rouge was doing against Nashville. In grand contradiction of the overly defensive and stagnant assumption granted to Catenaccio, this Italian-cum-Anglo-American variation generated a great deal of attacking verve for the Capitals with the only missing feature being the finishing in front of Nashville’s goal. The major drawback to this formation was that it became rather unbalanced, with many of Baton Rouge’s forays into Nashville’s end focusing on the left where the addition of LB Brandao was used to outnumber Nashville’s defensive banks. In effect, Nashville resolved to clog this portion of the pitch and effectively cut out a portion of prime real estate on the right the Capitals might have used to switch the point of attack. This also left the non-stop running of RB Steven Morris absent from the proceedings, as he sat the bench throughout to allow the tactic to see if it yielded results.
What was incredibly refreshing, though, about seeing this deployment was its utilization at an amateur league football match with a mix of university players and former English league reserves who have likely only ever known how to play in the standard 4-4-2 formation. To their credit, the players maintained the integrity of the Zona Mista throughout, rather than returning to their potentially learned by rote understanding of how football is to be played. On this particular night, Hayers and his staff had taken away their security blanket, but there seemed to be none in the Baton Rouge squad to need some type of pacifier, save Morris who had to watch events unfold from the bench. Rather, the squad could have done with a bit more luck and without one particularly fine save off the line from a Nashville defender late in the 2nd half when the net was otherwise unoccupied by someone wearing gloves. The luck, then, for Hayers and his charges must be found on another away weekend in Texas as the Capitals will seek to reverse a previous 1-0 loss to Laredo and attempt to do the double over RVG before returning home. The following two matches are incredibly crucial for the club, as it seeks to get back into the thick of things while experimenting with a new style of play.
For supporters of the Black & Red, let’s hope the espresso helps.
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