Chattanooga’s High Line Dominance: Nowhere to run

The USL League One can be an unpredictable place: Two teams who are most comfortable on the counter attack played in the 2021 final (imagine Burnley winning the Premier League. Omaha fans, before you come for me: I don’t think Omaha is the Burnley of L1), at least 4 teams changed formations every week like it was FIFA Ultimate Team, and defenders will probably end up playing as forwards at some point in the season. This can all be very scary for your League One soccer teams that don’t like chaos around them. The Red Wolves are NOT a fan of all that “unpredictability” mumbo jumbo — unless it involves a last minute Galindrez goal. Instead, they use whatever means necessary to make sure they have control of the game. I wanted to take a few minutes  to take a look at what makes Chattanooga’s control such an effective tool for winning games. A couple of weeks ago, I posted this graphic (see below) showing the xG per shot (basically, how good of a position in relation to the goal were they in for each shot on average) of players in the USL League One and I noted the very high xG per shot of many Chattanooga players (Even Jonathan Ricketts was on par with some of the strikers and wingers in League One).

Left alone, this is an unhelpful bunch of data points smashed together. When they’re paired up with tactical insights, we begin to get a better understanding of what’s going on. To be clear, this won’t really be a Chattanooga tactical explanation piece because I’m not Jimmy Obleda (it’s actually me and two other friends in a trench coat that make up Obleda and my friends aren’t with me while I write this) and don’t think it would be fair for me to try to tell you what he’s thinking. Instead, I’m just going to give you a simple version of what I see and what effects it has on those who encounter them. 

I think the word mentioned earlier, “control”, is the best word to describe the desire of Chattanooga’s tactical set up. Whether they’re in possession, out of possession, facing set pieces, or taking set pieces, their man goal is to control — the ball sure, but also the field. This season, Chattanooga had an average of 53.2% possession, the second highest in the league. Chattanooga’s main goal was to have the ball, and when they had it, control the space on the field. Why? The smaller the size of field your opponent has to work in, the harder it is for them to string together any sort of meaningful possession. How did Chattanooga limit teams from possession? Two main things that are really one thing: Their defensive line sat REALLY high while their team had possession, sometimes you’d even see Jason Ramos sitting in the opposition half ready to receive the ball or make a tackle.

The second thing was their high press. In order for a high defensive line to work (this is a generalization of course, but it’s definitely harder if you don’t do this), you have to press high to keep control of the ball if you lose it. In other words, Chattanooga gained control of the ball by making the field as big as possible for them, but as small as possible for defending teams. Chattanooga was incredibly good at keeping the ball where they wanted it and pressing high, winning the ball in the final third more times than any other team in USL League One (169 times!!!!). If they didn’t have the ball, you best believe they were going to work to get it back as quickly as possible in order to retain control.

This allowed Chattanooga free reign to work pretty much anywhere they wanted on the field. They often pushed their full backs very high and wide and allowed their wingers to tuck inside to create more problems for defenses in central areas. Below is an example of the different options Chattanooga had when they had possession. You can see that they were pretty much able to control the central areas without much hope for opposing defenses. They rotated A LOT, but this gives you a basic idea of the Chattanooga offensive structure as they sought move the ball forward. You can see why Chattanooga strikers might have better looks at goal as well. If you’re constantly trying to win the ball deep in your own half and trying to get down the field, you likely will have a harder time getting closer to goal. On the other hand, if your team pretty much owns the field, you don’t really have to go far to get close to the goal. Juan Galindrez had an incredibly high xG per shot of 0.21 this season, meaning that he was expected to score 1 from every 5 shots on average. Chattanooga was the joint highest creators of big chances with 60 and were expected to score well over 40, but not quite meeting that mark. Chattanooga took over 13 shots per 90 on average but only had a goal conversion rate of just under 10%. Some would say they were incredibly unlucky, striking the woodwork a league high 18 times. Even with these good positions, you can see that these chances didn’t always work out for them like they hoped.

This video is kind of long, but I wanted to highlight how this control that Chattanooga wants to have is exerted on teams to force chances and goals. Some would call Chattanooga incredibly lucky when it came to late goals, scoring 12 in the last 15 minutes of the game last season. I don’t think they were lucky. Putting this much pressure on a tired opponent isn’t luck, it’s hard work and solid execution. They were superb in this stage of the game (I do not have stats to back up this next statement, but I believe it meets the eye test), and it seems like they pressed harder and sat higher in this phase than any other. Here’s a clip from their 87th minute goal against Tormenta.

As mentioned in the video, Chattanooga’s structure makes it very hard for opponents to break free when they regain possession of the ball. In central areas, Chattanooga create a block to prevent central progression up the field. People like JCG, Ualefi, and Villalobos were instrumental in helping Chattanooga retain and win back possession centrally. This forces teams to try to play the ball wide, giving Chattanooga extra time to make recovery runs into a more defensive shape. Chattanooga were excellent at preventing shots because of this, allowing the fewest shots per 90 of any team in the league. The one problem with a high line is that execution is KING and one mistake can cause so many problems (see Playoff video below).

Long story short, Chattanooga’s desire was to have control of the ball, and the field as much as possible. The only chaos or unpredictability that Chattanooga wanted was the chaos and unpredictability created by them. By and large, they did a good job of making sure that happened. This year, you can see that they’ve already secured many important pieces that make this formation work in the lineup, but they’re not done yet. With Navarro is there only center back returning so far, they’ll probably be looking to bring in another ball playing defender that allows them to exert the control they want. They also hope that they don’t hit the post as often this coming season! This will probably dramatically increase their goal scoring as long as it’s in the back of the net and not off target (tongue in cheek).

I feel as though I’m rambling at this point, but I hope this makes sense and you enjoyed it! It will be interesting to see how Obleda continues to use this tactical set up as I’m sure they’ll be looking to take another crack at the playoffs this coming year. Only time will tell!

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