As the USL season winds down, Indy Eleven are still looking for who they are and how they can get into top form.
No one in the USL’s Eastern Conference seems to want the fifth position on the table. That includes Indy Eleven, whose hot and cold form has left fans unable to get comfortable with what the team’s identity is. Are they a fluid attacking team centered around a 4-3-3 that can throw numbers forward? Or, are they a defensive team with a 4-3-3 that allows for space and zonal marking areas that keeps teams from getting comfortable?
That is a question that Indy Eleven’s head coach Martin Rennie has worked on solving all year. A problem that seemingly was solved with the arrival of Dylan Mares from Miami. Following the 1-0 loss to Penn FC, however, Indy Eleven seems to be back to their core problem. Who are they and what style do they play best in?
Statistically sound, quality of possession unsound
One of the big things to notice from Indy Eleven over the last two games has been the average positions of the team. Indy was overwhelmingly flat in their attacks with Penn FC which can be seen by the large space in their midfield in the first graphic. In the second graphic, from the game against NYRBII, you can see average positions tend to line up more triangular and allowed for overlapping.
Using the Penn FC match as well as the New York Red Bull 2 match as examples of both the high and the low, it is difficult to pinpoint what statistically is the issue for Indy Eleven. In both games, Indy Eleven conceded a majority of the possession to the opposing team. Penn FC had the higher total amount of shots. Indy Eleven have allowed their opponents to take 42 shots vs. their own 18 total shots taken in the last two games.
The move from 4-1-4-1 to 4-3-3 was something that Rennie clearly had a calendar countdown to when he could make the change. His determination to use defensive midfielders to hold the midfield allows for more presence in the center area of the field, but it has left wings exposed and also left the final third with desperate need for help at times. It’s difficult to stretch the formation to hit every part, but it seems there is a styles clash over the style this team is prepared and able to play versus what Rennie wants them to play.
Statistically, it seems like Martin Rennie is okay with teams, both home and away, coming in and walking over Indy Eleven. Even in wins, losses, or draws it reads like an open book. Indy Eleven’s biggest struggles are finding the quality of possession for what possession they have during a match. If a team defensively can lock down the team from getting quality moves in, Indy Eleven is virtually held down by their own devices.
Dylan Mares could be the difference maker for Indy Eleven
With the inconsistency of Indy Eleven’s form and their lack of desire to, for whatever reason, jump into the top four, Indy Eleven’s signing of Dylan Mares is a positive sign of the team’s playoff intentions for 2018.
A team built in a few short weeks in January of this year have arguably outplayed their predicted standings. Signings of Saad, McInterney, and others signaled Indy Eleven’s intentions to start strong, however, they were always behind the eight ball. Head Coach Martin Rennie had to build a roster to compete against some teams who had players who had been together for seasons.
While the team searched for their form and the best formation, at times they lacked attacking prowess. At their peak, Indy Eleven’s best form was led by strong forward play up top who could bring every player into the fold. With the addition of Elliot Collier and Diego Campos last week on loan from Chicago Fire, you added depth on positions you needed depth at. One aspect they still needed was an attacking midfielder who could hit a killer pass and be a dual scoring threat.
Statistically, Dylan Mares hasn’t contributed any more than anyone else on the field. In 6 games, he’s started five times. Indy Eleven hasn’t lost a game he started in. Mares has had 191 total passes in six games he’s appeared in with a 75% passing accuracy. Mare’s involved on the field has led Indy Eleven to better results, more goals, and better chances at winning games than you had up until his return.
Mare’s return is a vital portion of Indy Eleven’s plans for the 2018 playoffs but for Martin Rennie, Mares needs to be a long-term part of his plans especially if his insistency to use 4-3-3 continues into 2019.
Why was Steinberger loaned out?
The news of Butler product and Indy Eleven midfielder Zach Steinberger’s move on loan from Indy Eleven to North Carolina made sense for Steinberger but virtually made no sense for Indy Eleven, becoming more head scratching following a loss to Penn FC. Steinberger played in the central midfield and had a great mindset for a box-to-box midfielder. He was able to storm the final third to provide an extra pass and was able to trek back when he needed to.
Steinberger had the highest passer accuracy (81.8%) and as an attack-minded player, that’s a valuable statistic. Steinberger’s goal to assist ratio clearly lacked what Rennie and company desired, but Steinberger’s accuracy passing as well as his ability to get up and down is vital. It felt like, with the move, that Steinberger wasn’t being judged on his performances as he should but rather what he wasn’t doing and a move was needed.
Steinberger has four goals and an assist to his name so far on loan. His goals have been spectacular, he’s maintained a passing rating of about 80% and as a result, the head-scratching continues for Indy Eleven fans who see what he’s able to do in a more natural position and wonder why he wasn’t given the chance to do that here. There is also a lot of head scratching that regardless of whether or not Rennie felt he needed to be loaned out, why you would loan him to an in conference playoff contender but that’s something else entirely.
If it is a tactical decision, even on a shortened timeline, Indy Eleven should have had a better process for these moves. Players like Nico Matern give the club a good anchor in the defensive midfield but having an extra midfielder could prevent any defensive issues.
Will they or won’t they?
Indy Eleven has some decisions to make. They need to decide on what kind of team they are wanting to be. They need to find some consistency defensively. They need to find someone who can play Dylan Mares role when Dylan isn’t on the field or on good form. Most of all, Indy Eleven need to find out who they are as a team because at times the styles they want to play clash with each other and supporters are left watching a stalemate of ball movement. The 2018 playoffs will be interesting, but the future of this team under Martin Rennie will definitely be more interesting.