Match Breakdown: Season 2 Grassroots International Cup Final

Background

The second season of GRSL’s cup competition saw the Club Key West Flamingos take on FC Warsaw in the final, in what looked likely to be an offensive slugfest. Early computer-aided projections saw bookies slash the odds on “over 4.5 goals” as the majority of outcomes suggested that extra time was likely, while producing an average of roughly 6 goals per game.

Key West reached the final after a stunning second leg turnaround win over Casper FC — this season’s eventual premiership champions — after losing a narrow fist leg in Casper, 3-2. The return leg at The Keys was thoroughly one-sided, and the only logical explanation anyone had was that Casper just had “an off day”. Not producing a single shot on target would lend some weight to that idea. Key West remained largely quiet on the matter, perhaps cognizant of their position in the league table at the time.

On the other side of the pitch, Warsaw had been through, well… a war… figuratively speaking. After stealing a narrow win in Mexico City in the first leg, Warsaw raced to a 3-0 lead within half an hour in the second leg, putting them four goals ahead on aggregate. Only for Mexico City to somehow level things up with three goals in the space of seven minutes, approaching the hour mark. Warsaw took the lead again on the night, extending their aggregate lead to two, but Adriano Ochenta-Cuatro’s 80th minute goal put them on edge. Despite generally enjoying superiority throughout the match, Warsaw were forced to weather a late barrage from Mexico City, who would steal the tie on away goals if they scored. But weather the storm they did, perhaps good practice for their opposition in the final.

Key West entered the final knowing that they had almost certainly lost their Premiership title — needing a Casper defeat and a huge swing in goal difference on the final day to steal top spot — and to their minds, there was little chance of them ending the season without *any* silverware. The attacking quartet of Mako Mendonca, Jay Cue, Rinji Oda, and Sophia Delacour had combined for 10 goals and 5 assists in their 4 cup games leading into the final; not to mention their 55 goals and 31 assists in the league. They had also put eleven past Warsaw in their two meetings in The Keys.

Warsaw, however, had won the most recent match between the two sides, a well-deserved 2-1 results in The Colosseum which arguably killed Key West’s championship hopes. While Key West’s attacking line had spread the goals out among them, Warsaw relied heavily on top scorer Teemu Pukki to get the goals they needed. Their two wingers, Benedetto and Winecka, were largely tasked with chance creation for their goal-hungry Finnish striker, and had mustered 32 chances created between them — for perspective, this holds up well when comparing even to Key West’s wingers, who had 40 chances created between them. 

Given that the match would take place on neutral ground, Warsaw could enter the game with a lot more confidence than if they’d had to play out this game in The Keys. Similarly, Key West perhaps were a little nervous about the prospect, they’d won just four of their twelve games away from home this season after all. A significant drop-off from their 100% win rate in The Keys. Again, for comparison, their record away from home was comparable to Warsaw’s. The Polish side had also won four of their games away from home, though they had played thirteen, and only managed one draw compared to Key West’s two. Either way, there was a distinct feeling that Key West, when they’re taken out of The Keys, are far from the invincible monster they were at home.

An injury to Winecka in the build up to the game had some concerned that Warsaw’s primary playmaker may not be fit to compete, until reminded that the league’s medical team possessed advanced technology to repair any injury and restore a player to full health in less than 24 hours. There would be no reprieve for the Flamingos. No would there, for that matter, be any reprieve for Warsaw: Key West had won their last three games, including a 3-1 win at Casper that kept their faint hopes of retaining their title alive. Sophia Delacour had scored a hat trick against Malta just days beforehand.

None of this could matter, though. The game itself loomed. And what happened on the day would decide who won the cup. Nothing else.

Kick Off

Predictably, things started a little tense. Within seconds of kickoff, Key West had been forced all the way back to their own goalkeeper. Rather than their usual, deliberate build up play, the Flamingos were playing long balls, looking a little flustered. 

It didn’t take too long for both teams to settle, though, Key West seemingly focusing their attacks down their right flank, where they could exploit the pace of Sophia Delacour and Johnny Utah’s overlapping runs against Xuereb, potentially pinning back Benedetto and nullifying his attacking threat. For their part, Warsaw had also identified a potential weakness, and were attacking down the same flank, no doubt hoping to catch Key West on the counter, and use the space on the left, often vacant while both Delacour and Utah commit to attacks.

The action stayed largely confined to that one side of the pitch for some time, with The Upper forced into a strong save low to his right shortly before the five minute mark. The first warning shot was from a Warsaw gun. Though Key West would fire back quickly, with Albert Einstein clumsily bringing down Rinji Oda just as the Australian winger was about to launch a counter attack from deep inside his own half. Referee Glen Tonna opting to brandish a yellow to set the tone early, though perhaps a little harsh on The Professor — despite his uncharacteristically foolish move.

It didn’t take long for Warsaw to threaten again, though. Pukki forcing another good save out of The Upper, before play was called back for an offside. This would become a theme of the game. Key West struggled to sustain their attacks in the Warsaw half, with possession breaking down or tactical fouls stopping progress and giving Warsaw time to regroup. When nobody even got near a magnificently swerved Rinji Oda free kick, that sliced a crescent through the Warsaw penalty area, there was a definite feeling of “they’re there for the taking” it seems. Just seconds later, Utah fed Delacour in the box, but she hesitated, allowing Xuereb to steal the ball off her toes.

When she replied by planting a cross directly onto Mako Mendonca’s head from the ensuing corner, and Black turned it in from less than a yard, it looked like maybe this was where everything got flipped on its head. Maybe this was where Key West awoke. The crowd roared, and players celebrated, only for one man and his flag to ruin the party. Black had been offside. A let off for Warsaw, or a false awakening for Key West? Who knows? All that can be said for certain is that after ten minutes, only one team had managed to put the ball in the net so far. Even if they’d only had one real chance.

First Blood

After the excitement of the disallowed goal, both teams reverted to long balls and hoofed clearances for a little while. It makes sense. The familiarity of the simple “whack it away from our goal” is effective at calming nerves. Zion Gadol however, had a moment of clarity in which he spotted Sophia Delacour in space on the right. He sent his hoofed clearance in her general direction.

With a burst of speed, the winger kept the ball in play and rounded on Franklin Xuereb. To his credit, the fullback attempted to show Delacour down the line, on her weaker right foot. She didn’t take the bait, and instead crossed early, stepping inside onto her left and whipping a ball toward the back post. Rinji Oda spotted it, and arrived on the end of it, unmarked, unpressured. 1-0 Key West.

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And so it began.

Counterpunch

Buoyed by their opener, Key West pressed their advantage, committing to the overload on the right flank again. In response, Warsaw continued to attempt their counters largely from that side.

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As you can see, over that ten minute period following the disallowed goal, the majority of wide play was on the Key West right/Warsaw left, depending on your perspective.

When the equaliser came, it was ultimately down to two things: firstly, Key West captain Paez slipped and lost possession near the centre circle; secondly, both Utah and Delacour had gone on the attack. When Castillo won the ball, Utah was further forward than half of the Key West side, and Delacour was in an offside position, to put that into perspective.

As a result, when Pukki collected the short pass just inside the Key West half, he had acres of space on the left to run into, rounding Gadol before bearing down on goal. On the right, Winecka read the play brilliantly and had angled his run to attack the far post. Inside him, Einstein drew the attention of Delbert Shartner, leaving Winecka open at the back post when Pukki’s shot was parried. Easy finish, 1-1.

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The frustration evident among Key West’s ranks — especially from The Upper, who hoofed the ball back to the centre circle while bellowing at his defenders — Warsaw continued to press, rather than simply sitting back and waiting for another chance to counter. They would take the lead via free kick, however. Castillo, on the edge of the box, turned to play in Benedetto — who had just cut inside from the left flank, escaping the attention of Johnny Utah — when he was upended by Javier Paez. Benedetto stood over the free kick, and curled one over the wall into the top left. The Upper got a hand to it but couldn’t keep it out, and within the space of seven minutes, the game had been flipped on its head. Warsaw were in the ascendancy now.

Anything You Can Do…

Key West again settled into their usual rhythm, trying to play out from the back, with mixed results. The duel between Delacour and Xuereb wasn’t quite going as predicted, for a start… the Warsaw fullback had acquitted himself well thus far — that one assist aside.

Warsaw continued to attack what they perceived as Key West’s weak point, with King being lured into a rash challenge, and a booking. On the touchline, Key West gaffer Curb Ishley could be seen pacing and remonstrating. Not a common sight, and certainly not a calming one.

Thus far, while they had been focusing a reasonable amount of their attacks down the Key West right, it seemed that Warsaw were getting a lot of time on the ball when they advanced through the middle. With Paez dropping deeper to support King, and Cue pushing up to support Mendonca, there was a vacuum in the middle, and Warsaw were exploiting it with their midfield talent. Noting this, Cue and Mendonca begin to dribble more through the middle, hoping to push the Warsaw midfield back, and relieve the pressure on their own midfield. On one of these runs, Mendonca ends up too far ahead of the other forwards, and holds up the ball to receive support. As he does so, he is upended by Yossi, but the referee doesn’t blow. Instead, he has spotted Giannis Kroustis pulling the shirt of Rinji Oda. No doubt remembering what happened the last time the Aussie was allowed to run free.

Oda, not to be outdone by his opposite number, Benedetto, curled the shot in from thirty yards to level things up. 

”I see you’ve played hoofy-punty before…”

As is the pattern so far in this match, the two teams devolve back to their long ball game for a while after the goal. But with Pukki double teamed, and Mendonca isolated, neither side is able to make anything of these hopeful punts. 

The duel between Castillo and Paez heats up, with the latter perhaps lucky not to be booked for a shove, before Castillo’s pressure forced the Argentine to hoof the ball behind his own net for a corner. It’s hard to argue that the Warsaw man is winning this particular duel at this point, and this perhaps explains Key West’s continued long balls. Bypassing the midfield — an area in which they are being outplayed — makes sense, especially when you have the pace of Delacour, Cue and to a lesser extent, Utah, to exploit from a long ball over the top.

Warsaw are employing a similar approach, playing long balls out of defence to clear the danger, knowing it will come back at the midfield, where they are strong. At half time, Einstein and Castillo , when combined with left winger Benedetto, account for a disproportionate amount of Warsaw’s touches (188 vs 235), with the central midfield duo enjoying more than twice as many touches as Key West’s pairing of King and Paez (113 vs 47).

This general controlling of the midfield is perhaps most evident in the combined heat map of all five Warsaw midfielders

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As we can see, they are advanced, putting pressure on the Key West midfield duo (also seen in the screenshot), meaning they must rarely need to drop deep in central areas to defend. You can also see that there’s not a huge amount of activity in wider areas, suggesting that Warsaw have opted to play a narrower attacking game, to better attack the weaker central areas of Key West’s formation. The only wide area to see significant activity is the right fullback zone, which is often exposed when Johnny Utah races forward to overlap Sophia Delacour.

Interestingly, this focus has allowed Rinji Oda to push higher up the pitch than usual on the left, with his average position second furthest forward only to Mako Mendonca, while Cue and Delacour appear to be pinned back inside their own half at least half the time.

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For all that talk of attacking weaknesses, Warsaw have only mustered two clear cut chances at this point — admittedly this is one more than Key West, but it doesn’t exactly point to tactical superiority. Yet. On the flipside, the difficulty in transitioning from defence to attack is clearly stunting Key West’s offensive output. The combined heat map for their much-vaunted front four at half time looked thus.

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For a team that attacks with two wingers and at least one full back, there is scant activity in wide areas, and a glaring, blue blob inside the centre circle, which hints at an attempt to attack centrally. This is misleading, however. The majority of the action in that area is Mako Mendonca, trying desperately to bring his teammates into the game and struggling. The problem is that long passes out of defence are unfamiliar for Key West, and positioning hasn’t really adjusted with the circumstances, meaning often, Mendonca is isolated with no teammate nearby to flick those long passes on to.

These difficulties in keeping possession are evident when trying to figure out the focus of Key West’s play. It is clearly on their right flank, with Utah and Delacour combining for roughly 40% of the team’s touches at half time. In fact, besides the right flank duo, only Mendonca has mustered more than 40 touches by half time. 

Part of the shortfall here is due to the low pass completion rate. By half time, Warsaw have intercepted 34 Key West passes, while the Flamingos have put another 33 out of play themselves. Of the intercepted passes, we can see that the majority happen in the middle third, while it’s also particularly notable that the majority of the passes are from fullbacks.

Key West’s wide players are struggling. Warsaw may just go on to steal this.

Adjustments

The second half would see some changes, with Key West gradually adapting and eventually creating more chances, despite still having less possession. Normally, you’d expect a team with a lower rate of possession but more chances created to be shooting more from distance, but that’s not the case here.

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Only three of Key West’s twenty-one shots on goal came from outside the box. Two were free kicks. So what gives?

Put simply, Key West are an aggressively top heavy team. Their best players are mostly involved in play in the final third. This is not the case for Warsaw, who have loaded the middle third with their talent. What this means in practice is that while Warsaw’s build up is good, and they are better able to complete their passing moves and transition chains, Key West rely more on the people at or near the end of those passing moves and transition chains. While Warsaw rely on Pukki to score most of their goals, Key West enjoy four reasonably dangerous forward options. 

Once the ball enters the final third, it is significantly harder to stop four players from getting a good chance on goal than it is to stop one or two, even if they are someone as single minded in their pursuit of goals as Teemu Pukki. Besides, have you seen the number of shots Mendonca and Delacour take?

So how did Key West turn this aspect of the game around? Putting aside unmeasurable things like “team talks” and “motivation”, the first clues lie in the heat map again.

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In the second half it’s clear that Key West switched up their approach, making better use of Rinji Oda on the left. We can still see that Delacour remained a threat on the right, ensuring the midfield couldn’t simply double up on the left and stop Oda; but the Flamingos certainly funnelled their attacks to the Aussie.

Passes received by the duos on each flank are roughly even in the second half, so why so much more attention on the left? Well… partly due to Mendonca and Cue. The forward duo shifted toward the left because they needed to be nearer to Oda to receive his passes — longer passes were being intercepted more, of course. In doing so, they created three effects: firstly, it pulled attention away from the centre and the right flank; secondly, this freed up space for Delacour and Utah, while relieving pressure on Paez and King; and thirdly, it fixed the “brokenness” of the Key West formation from the first half. With Mendonca (and Cue) nearer to Oda, fewer of their attempts to connect defence to attack — in the absence of a true transitionary midfielder — failed. 

By extension, this led to more entries into the final third, and given the quality available to Key West in the final third… more chances on goal.

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Warsaw’s average positions after half time. Note that the right fullback is wider, a likely reaction to Oda’s frequent inroads down the wing, from where he can pick out a cross; while Delacour’s propensity to cut inside does not necessitate similar action on the left.

In addition to this, it should be noted that neither fullback zone is particularly solid for Warsaw, and both wingers play high up the pitch, and relatively narrow, meaning that Rinji Oda could exploit space behind the defence on the left, providing crosses to both Mendonca and Cue in the middle, or Delacour and Utah at the back post. 

It would be too reductive to say that “Warsaw’s gamble didn’t pay off” because in many ways it worked. Their problem was that they couldn’t ever really hope to shut down all of Key West’s “four horsemen”, especially not when the opponent has such threats on both wings, and you have questionable quality at fullback.

Discipline

In perhaps a fitting end, it was discipline that decided the match. Firstly, Pukki put the ball in the net early in extra time, only to be ruled offside. Interpret that as poor positional discipline from the Finn, or strong positional discipline from the Key West backline, but either way, this is a discipline related outcome.

The eventual winner would come from a penalty. Zaki Castillo, perhaps having had enough of being pushed around by Mako Mendonca, tripped the big man as they jostled for a throw-in. There have been suggestions that Key West’s striker may have gone to ground a little too easily. Not as quickly as electricity or as easily as an Italian, but suspicious nonetheless, even to those not wearing red and white tinted glasses. Mendonca, who seldom misses penalties, it should be noted, stepped aside to allow Rinji the chance to complete his hat trick… which he did, slotting home low and to the right of the goalkeeper.

With just three minutes to play, Pukki *again* had the ball in the net. And *again* he was flagged offside. Was his eagerness to score compromising his judgment? Who can say? But twice, in extra time, Pukki could have changed the course of the game. Had the game gone to penalties, perhaps those nerves that affected Key West in the first half would have resurfaced… but sadly, it was not to be.

The last notable act of the game was Yoel “Yossi” Benayoun picking up a silly booking — though some Key West fans would argue his challenges to that point had deserved one earlier — as Mako Mendonca turned to hold up the ball, and was sent sprawling by the Warsaw midfielder. The Israeli departed for a very slightly early bath just after the fourth official had held up his board indicating time added on. Benayoun’s dismissal seemed to deflate Warsaw a little. After the two disallowed goals, conceding a penalty that put the opposition ahead after leading 2-1 earlier, losing one of their more influential players when they were already looking at “last chance saloon” territory may have been the final nail in the coffin.

Key West raised the cup in the end, but one can’t help but wonder if Warsaw may have shown the rest of the league something of a blueprint, a prototype at least, on how to slow down the fearsome four.

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