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Martin Rennie: Tactics and Strategy

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Martin Rennie of the Vancouver Whitecaps
Martin Rennie of the Vancouver Whitecaps

An automatic question about any new coach is "what style of play does he like?" Some coaches are reputedly rigid: there's a reason "Teiturball" has been a meme in Vancouver Whitecaps circles for four years. Others can be flexible to a fault, costing the team consistency, as Whitecaps fans also learn whenever Tom Soehn puts a new brainwave into effect every other week. There are coaches in MLS who have won a lot of games by taking the classic U-15 boys strategy of putting somebody quick and tall near the top of the field and thwacking long balls until he gets on the end of one, then there are a few who have had success with possession soccer.

It's always been my opinion that a coach's tactics don't matter too much. Or, rather, what matters is not a coach's individual tactics but how he adjusts what he wants to the reality of his team. That was a main reason I was fond of Teitur Thordarson: he may have played a lot of long balls and his teams never seemed to be able to exploit their speed, but he was also able to mould a bunch of slow defenders like Greg Janicki and Nelson Akwari into an effective combination while his famous long balls and 4-4-2 formation generally worked very well with the players he had. As we've discussed, he mixed it up when necessary. He had a preferred style, but he was able to finesse that style around the resources he had available.

So what of Martin Rennie? Is the new gaffer more Soehn or Thordarson? If you get a chance to watch his Carolina Railhawks play an NASL game, you'll in all likelihood come away both impressed and entertained. They beat almost all comers and occasionally dominate in ways seldom seem in the second division. However, it does look at times like a one-man show, run through sublimely gifted Maltese forward Etienne Barbara. How much of their success can be down to their coaching and how much if it is simply having one player that's better than almost everybody else?

Never fear: Rennie can take a lot of the credit. He certainly relies on Barbara but he also puts his star in a position to succeed. In previous seasons, he's changed up his playing style (sometimes quite dramatically) to take advantage of whatever his team's strengths are. Merely having an excellent forward isn't enough, as Eric Hassli could explain at length: you have to surround that forward with ten other players doing their jobs.

Rennie's seldom benefited from established stars. He has, on the other hand, brought in little-regarded players and exposed greatness within them while turning a revolving door of journeymen at all positions into one of the most feared teams in the United States. He's done this all with an eye towards offensive soccer but an eagerness to change up his tactics. This is a guy who makes players work.

It's difficult to sum up how a Martin Rennie teams play soccer. He's a coach who adjusts his tactics to his players rather than trying to adjust players to his tactics. The 2011 Carolina Railhawks have succeeded with very simple offense: keep possession with a good group of ball-holding midfielders and get the target striker involved with long balls. It works for them because the striker in question is Etienne Barbara, the best finisher in the second division until Ali Gerba gets his head on straight and also a superbly gifted playmaker who excels in finding teammates with space. It's lifted Carolina to an overwhelming lead in the NASL goal scoring standings: they average 2.11 goals per game compared to 1.47 goals per game for second-place Puerto Rico, Tampa Bay, and Fort Lauderdale.

Well, why wouldn't Rennie play that way? Barbara has scored sixteen goals in the NASL this season, the same as the Montreal Impact. His midfield is effective despite having very few players you've ever heard of. English-born Matt Watson is a dandy playmaking midfield/forward with good crossing ability, young defensive midfielder Cory Elenio has been a success, and speedster Floyd Franks can pass along the ground as well as anybody in the NASL. The rest of the roster is a staggering array of journeymen and old pros who play a ball-holding style that's short on skill or finesse but dominates the league. Teams going up against the Railhawks in midfield are in for a day of frustration as they keep waiting for their chance. Franks aside, there are very few audacious individuals. It's "wait for Barbara to get open, then the lightning bolt". Etienne Barbara is without doubt the best scorer Carolina's ever had but between Paolo Campos, Nick Zimmerman, and Brian Farber the team has enough big legs on the field that concentrating too hard on Barbara is a path to destruction.

It's a strategy which revolves around Barbara, as it should. However, Rennie has adjusted his strategies to suit his team. The 2010 Railhawks weren't nearly as individually-oriented as the 2011 model: Barbara scored a team-leading eight goals but three more Railhawks (Daniel Paladini, Josh Gardner, and Tom Heinemann) all had at least six. Paladini, an undersized but sly attacking midfielder whose speed and agility got him into masterful scoring positions against slower NASL defenders, was without question the leading offensive star of the 2010 Railhawks. The offense went through Paladini: he'd try to create his own chances but he was also a good enough playmaker to set up Barbara or Gardner. Heinemann, added late in the season, was put up top and used as a classical target man for Barbara, Paladini, and Matt Watson to bounce balls off of: this resulted in a lot less aggressive individual play but was also extremely effective. There was a far greater emphasis on rapid ball movement and killer transitions from defense to attack: their defensive play suffered for it but they could clamp down when necessary.

Of 2010's offensive stars only Gardner was signed with the expectation he'd stand out. Watson, a creative spark of the Railhawks to this day, was a squad player with the USL-2 Richmond Kickers. Barbara had a good but hardly spectacular career in the Maltese league, Heinemann came on a mid-season loan from the USL-2 Charleston Battery, and Paladini was cut by the miserable Chivas USA. Heinemann, Paladini, and Gardner have all joined Major League Soccer for the 2011 season. Heinemann has been an exceptional pickup for the Columbus Crew, Paladini has been semi-regular for the Chicago Fire, and while Josh Gardner doesn't get much time in Columbus he's generally been effective. Barbara is virtually certain to join those three in MLS come 2012 unless he gets a bigger deal elsewhere.

Rennie's team defense tends to be good but not always brilliant. The 2011 Railhawks are also the NASL's best defensive team, a touch ahead of the NSC Minnesota Stars. However, defense isn't a particular strength of Rennie's Carolina team. The 2011 Railhawks keep the ball out of the net because of their effective possession play and a strong goalkeeper who makes up for the occasional gaffe. Former Puerto Rico Islander John Krause is the only defender I'd consider near an all-League standard; at the beginning of the season they also boasted Brad Rusin, an NASL star who signed in Denmark back in July. In 2010, the Railhawks (with Rusin and perfectly competent goalkeeping from Eric Reed) were on the top end of average defensively but the 2009 Railhawks were an exceptional defensive team, tied for best in the league with Puerto Rico.

Rennie's teams have been very no-nonsense defensively, which is part of the reason relatively limited players like Rusin and Krause have enjoyed such success, as well as a key factor in their surviving considerable player turnover. Their first focus has been ball-winning and quick long balls rather than anything technical. It'll be interesting to see how he adjusts to players like Alain Rochat and Jonathan Leathers who play a much more aggressive game; there aren't many indications in Rennie's history as to how he'll deal with them (as a rule NASL defenders are at least two of 'tough, slow, and feet like rocks').

So what of his player selection? There's some debate on how much input Rennie will have on player personnel. Yesterday, Tom Soehn said that Rennie will have input but that Soehn is the decision-maker (sounding like the input Teitur Thordarson enjoyed; some fans seem to think Soehn is a control freak but he certainly gave Thordarson some benefit of the doubt). Marc Weber, on the other hand, reported that Rennie has final say. Either way, it'll be useful to know what he looks for in players.

Martin Rennie is loyal. Something has been made of his bringing former Cleveland City Stars players up to Carolina when Rennie took over the Railhawks in 2009. However, he's not loyal to a fault. Only one former Cleveland City Star remains with Carolina: the aforementioned attacking midfielder Floyd Franks. Sierra Leone international Sallieu Bundu is on the payroll but loaned to the USL Pro Charlotte Eagles after two useful but unspectacular seasons as a depth forward.

Rennie may have taken advantage of his old players but he didn't show bias. Take, for example, midfielder Chris Lemons, who played for Rennie in Cleveland for the 2007 season but was signed to the Railhawks the year before Rennie joined. Lemons had done well with Cleveland and was a regular player on a bad Railhawks team but Rennie made no effort to retain Lemons for his first year in 2009. Goalkeeper Eric Reed, another Cleveland alumnus, helped the Railhawks reach the USSF D2 final in 2010 but Rennie didn't hesitate to replace Reed with Brad Knighton when the former MLS keeper was available. Reed might have stuck around if Rennie had his druthers: ownership problems in 2010 cost Carolina many experienced players. However, other former Cleveland City Stars like Caleb Patterson-Sewell, Mark Schulte, and Jeremy Tolleson were brought in by Rennie then discarded when they weren't of use. Schulte, in particular, was a former USL Second Division defender of the year, an MLS player with the Columbus Crew, and an absolute stand-out in Cleveland who proved just a bit too old and slow by the 2010 season. He hasn't played since.

Beyond this it's difficult to draw conclusions about Rennie's player choice since NASL bosses have such limited options. The Carolina Railhawks have been an especially difficult place to sign players, since ownership problems meant they turned over nearly half their 2010 roster heading into this season and dove into the player pool very late in the day. His players have run the gamut. Small, dynamic offensive whiz kids (Paladini), limited but reliable defenders (Krause), typical oversized forwards (Paolo Campos), every type of midfielder under the sun. His favourite midfielders tend to be smaller players but that's hardly unique (good news for Davide Chiumiento and bad for Atiba Harris's hopes on the wing). I'm reluctant to say much here; we just don't have the data.

However, everything about Rennie's career indicates that he is as flexible as they come. I don't think he'll have too much trouble adjusting to the MLS coaching ranks; they're a pretty conservative lot on the whole. The Whitecaps should give Rennie plenty of time to learn, but he ought to be fine.