Manager drawing soccer game tactics with white marker on transparent wipe board over green background. Football coach explaining game strategy.

Deep Dive Tactics: Richmond Kickers HC David Bulow

In our latest edition, Richmond Kickers head coach David Bulow takes the deep dive into the world of tactics.

“The biggest problem I had with the first game is that they didn’t buy into what we’d done for the eight weeks of pre-season,” noted Richmond Kickers head coach David Bulow after their second loss to Lansing Ignite. Kicker’s players “went away too quickly from everything we worked on.”

Richmond had stood toe to toe with Lansing in their second match before a 35th-minute red card made for a difficult night. Since then Richmond is undefeated, including a 2-2 result in the final meeting of the season with Lansing on May 4th.

Richmond’s style of possession with purpose and quick build up – not counter-attacking but moving the ball quickly forward looking for spaces and line breaking passing – has taken time to perfect. The style allows for multiple scoring options, including driving to the end-line for a cross, sometimes playing down the middle, and other times creating space for some individual brilliance. The dangerous attack for  Richmond after the first several matches has been the diversity of options they have shown. Particularly with Joe Gallardo’s creativity helping to create many scoring chances, if not scoring on his own.

Defensively, the team struggles against set pieces allowing several goals to spoil otherwise good performances. The Lansing press disrupted the Kicker’s possession style initially, but the team seems to have worked out how to play around the press. But, one of the keys to the team’s style is they control the game through possession; making chemistry and soccer IQ necessary for the team’s future success. The Kickers will be tested when they face other high pressing teams like North Texas SC.

Kicker’s Are An “Outlier” In USL League One

“Nobody knows what the league is yet,” Bulow said, highlighting what every coach has said. “Is it closer to MLS or [USL] Championship or more like [USL] League Two and below? It’s probably appropriately between that. But, it is a very aggressive, energetic, high-intensity league.”

League One is “a bit direct, it’s physical, there’s a lot of intensity,” the former US Open Cup leading scorer noted. “The challenge that we have as a team that wants to control things is that we’re a bit of an outlier in this league. We not only have to coach intensity and work rate, but we’re also coaching thinking on a pretty high level. It just takes time.”

A quarter of the way through the season and the team seems to be developing a better rapport with each other, but there remain challenges. As mentioned, marking and attacking the ball on set pieces remain glaring issues the team needs to solve if it hopes to compete for the playoffs.

Buying Into The Principles

“We’re big on principles within our game model,” the former Kickers’ legend told me when we sat down on April 18th. “If we stick to those principles and our team level communication is on the same page, then we should have a pretty good chance as long as we match the work-rate of this league.”

Coach Bulow used video to show his team where they had abandoned their principles. But, even isolating the positioning of a single player can be useful in determining the evolution of the Kickers over the first stretch of the season.

Maxi Rodriguez Lansing Match 1 Heatmap

Maxi Rodriguez is the Kickers’ central,  mostly defensive, midfielder. As a classic #6, his role should be to break up attacks and begin the possession/attacking phase of play.  The danger for Maxi in the early matches was his movement into the attacking half, leaving gaps behind which Lansing were able to exploit with their press. As you can see in the heat map (courtesy of USLLeagueOne.com) Maxi spent a fair amount of time the first match in the center circle or the attacking half.

Maxi Rodriguez Lansing Match 2 Heatmap

However, during the second match against Lansing, Maxi stayed home and, until his 35th-minute red card, broke up attacks and helped start the Kicker’s possession moving forward. As the next exhibit highlights, he did occasionally move toward the midfield but was primarily in the typical position of a holding midfielder. Presumably now that he seems healthy, Braeden Troyer will either platoon at holding midfield or sit next to Rodriguez in a double pivot.

Other players also seemed to have better understood the system as well, with movement off the ball creating spaces and allowing for 1v1 duels to be had in the offensive half. By spreading the pitch, players such as Joe Gallardo, Matt Bolduc, Mutaya Mwape, and Dennis Chin have room to take on players 1v1 and drive at defenders with the understanding there will be cover behind.

In fact, in their match on May 11th at home to FC Tucson, Mwape (#80) on the right and Chin (#15) on the left both found themselves on the ball in good positions. Although Chin’s passes were often unsuccessful, both he and Mwape were able to keep possession and get dangerous looks in the attacking half. Tucson did a good job most of the match keeping a strong defensive line about 30 yards from goal.

The Kicker’s opening goal against Tucson was created in part by player off the ball movement. Individual brilliance from Gallardo played a large role, but look at the below starting in the 6th second. Chin backs up forcing his defender to make a choice – step to Gallardo or stay covering Chin’s move. Simultaneously to the left, Matt Bolduc makes a run pulling another defender. This allows just enough space for Gallardo to take a touch and shoot without immediate pressure. All in just two seconds time.

“Be 1% Less Worse Than Yesterday”

“Our motto in the coach’s locker room is to be 1% less worse than yesterday… and I think we’re doing that,” Bulow noted. When preparing for matches, he uses video and works on specific items. I was able to observe training, where the team was working on a specific attacking option. The coach used the opportunity to work on the details.

“Make the defender make a choice,” Bulow reminded his players again and again. He mentioned this to players who were both on or off the ball. The Gallardo goal is an example of the coaches “higher level thinking” mentioned earlier. Keeping possession without penetration toward the goal is pointless – the Kickers seem to be figuring out both the league and their own style of play. In fact, while their possession per match has been inconsistent (see chart below), they are one of the few teams to have over 50% of the ball in every game – making them the oddity of the league. Given the Kickers want to play a more possession-centric game, clearly having the ball has always been in their game plan.

After a slow start, the Kickers are now above the playoff line in both total points and points per game. Should the Kickers hope to remain contenders, they’ll need to continue being 1% better each day – because their opposition will be working toward the same goal.

For our full interview with Coach Bulow and Richmond Kicker’s players listen to the League One Fun podcast episode, click HERE.

 

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