Falling 2-0 to the #5 team in the country is not a reason for concern or frustration by itself. In fact, that score line is very respectable. Even Duke’s statistical superiority is not a serious problem. The main issue from yesterday is how Vanderbilt approached the match.
At kickoff, I was like a giddy child. The kickoff alignment made it clear Vanderbilt would be in a back 3. Visions of a game full of strong attacks and aggressive pressing danced in my head. Instead, the Commodores were about as passive as possible. The anticipated 3-5-2 was revealed to be a 3-4-2-1 as they match unfolded. As an aside, I really do not what the full convention is on formation naming because I am sure some of you are wondering why I did not call it a 3-6-1. Basically, all I can say is that you list the fewest number of lines (each number represents a “line”) without obscuring the alignment to someone with a moderate soccer knowledge. A 3-6-1 could have several different midfield combinations, so the midfield lines must be further separated to give a better description.
If you are looking at the 3-4-2-1 designation and wondering if I need to do a full tactical rundown like I did with the 3-5-2 and 4-3-3, the answer is no. The difference in a 3-5-2 and a 3-4-2-1 is that one striker slides back beside the existing attacking midfielder, so you have 2 attacking midfielders behind a single striker in the 3-4-2-1 as opposed to a single attacking midfielder floating behind the 2 strikers in a 3-5-2. The 3-4-2-1 is not necessarily a more defensive formation, just a little bit different in the buildup and how those front 3 players combine and move in the attack. However, yesterday, that one slight change formationally from the typical 3-5-2 served as a signal of what was to come.
The Commodores only had possession in the attacking half for only 15% of the match. Duke had the ball in the Vanderbilt defensive half 34% of the time. When you spend just over a third of the match pinned back, bad things happen. You also lose the shot battle 13 to 4 and shots on goal 7 to 3. Vanderbilt looked like a sad, scared shell of itself.
To be clear, none of this is meant to criticize the players. They, to my eye, were executing the game plan fairly well. The second goal was a breakdown in execution whereas the first goal – another penalty – was a rash decision to slide in for a tackle. It was not perfect. No game ever is. It looked like a competent performance against a very good opponent though.
The tactics alone are not even bad. When overmatched, sitting back to absorb pressure and keep your midfielders and defenders compact to protect against being ripped apart makes sense. The problem is that is not how Vanderbilt normally plays. In the last two seasons, the only other times Vanderbilt was so cautious were against Duke (spring 2020) and Louisville (2019). If you are not going to use these tactics often, why use them in a nonconference matchup early in the season?
The team would have been better served playing their style against the elite opposition. It would have been more productive to get pulled apart and lose 4 or 5 to nothing as opposed to “only” losing by 2. I am not saying to ignore the fact you are playing a high-level opponent and be reckless, but there is a lot of ground between cautious (acceptable) and scared (unacceptable and what happened Sunday.) I can even stomach, as frustrating as it was in the moment, Coach Ambrose using the chance to get some younger/lesser used players into a match with a very good team instead of going all-in to try to mount a comeback and win.
A cautious approach is getting all 11 players back defensively and not pressing 30 yards into Duke’s half. Scared is putting all 11 behind the ball and setting up 45 to 50 yards from your own goal. Cautious is playing some free kicks short when you would normally put them into the box from 60 yards out. Scared is taking every free kick longer than 40 yards from goal and playing it short.
A Top 25 team should never play scared. Vanderbilt’s players made some mistakes purely from being uncomfortable playing that way, too. The strategy did not appear to be useful in that match or in helping build the team for the future. Right now, they need as many chances as possible to get comfortable playing their style, and you do not get many opportunities to test yourself against a Top 5 team. The “good” news is we can probably throw away just about every complaint we had about this match since the Commodores likely will not play that way tactically again all season.
To end on a positive, Coach Ambrose has proven that he is a very good coach. He just overthought the tactical setup yesterday. Vanderbilt will almost certainly be back to their attacking ways against Southern Illinois Thursday. I am curious to see if they stay in a back 3 or revert to a back 4.