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Men’s Soccer Commentary: Clark misused Lapira vs. UConn

Greg Arbogast | Monday, November 19, 2007

When Notre Dame went down 2-0 to Connecticut after 30 minutes in the Big East final, odds were against the Irish making a comeback. The Huskies’ defense has been one of the stingiest in not just the Big East, but the entire nation, this season conceding only 12 goals in 20 games entering Sunday’s match.

However, whatever chance Notre Dame had of coming back to tie or win the game likely rested on the boots of Joe Lapira. Notre Dame’s most explosive offensive player – and last year’s Hermann Trophy winner – was the player who scored two goals keying the Irish comeback from a 2-0 deficit against the Huskies on Oct. 13. If anyone was going to be able to direct a similar comeback Sunday, it was Lapira.

That’s what made Irish coach Bobby Clark’s tactical use of Lapira so confusing.

Lapira, arguably the fastest and shiftiest player on Notre Dame, is most dangerous when he gets the ball in open space where he can run at the defense. After the first half of Sunday’s game, though, Lapira had found about as much open space as he inevitably would on the long flight home.

The problem was tactical.

On Sunday, Notre Dame employed their standard 4-4-1-1 formation in which Lapira plays as a lone target forward, while Kurt Martin drops behind him as more of a holding forward. Given that the Irish had utilized that formation all year with success, it’s hard to second-guess changing it before Sunday’s game. But it was evident by halftime that Lapira was not getting the ball against the Huskies defense in the places he needed to.

“We know [Lapira] likes to make diagonal runs and get behind the defense,” Connecticut defender Julius James said. “We just tried to keep him in front of us.”

When Martin dropped back toward midfield, he was usually marked by one of Connecticut’s two defensive central midfielders leaving the Huskies entire back four to concentrate solely on Lapira. The result was that, instead of receiving the ball behind the defense in space, Lapira only saw the ball with his back to the goal – a problem given the size differentials.

At 5-foot-8, 150 pounds, Lapira was often matched up against Connecticut’s central defenders Kwame-Watson Siriboe (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) and Julius James (6-foot-0, 175 pounds). The results were predictable.

Given Lapira’s ineffectiveness in the first half, tactical changes were needed for the final 45 minutes. Why not move Martin or another forward up top with Lapira forcing the Connecticut defense to account for two attackers? Such a move would have drawn attention away from Lapira and, perhaps, opened some space for the reigning Hermann Trophy winner to work some of his magic.

Clark’s initial adjustment? Nothing.

For the first 30 minutes of the second half, the Irish attacked out of the same 4-4-1-1 formation with similar results as the first half. Ultimately, Clark ended up moving Lapira to outside midfielder with 15 minutes to play – seemingly out of desire to give his forward more space to work.

“He’s very fast, and it gave him a different look,” Clark said.

Why not make the tactical switch sooner, though?

The move seemed to succeed in giving Lapira more space to work with as he received the ball in one-on-one situations on the flanks with Huskies defenders. While it’s no guarantee that an earlier tactical change would have spurred an Irish comeback, it would have given Notre Dame more ability to attack out of its most dangerous formation given the way Sunday’s game was playing out.

Sunday’s game was a setback on Notre Dame’s path to its goal of reaching the Final Four and, ultimately, winning the national championship. If that goal is to become a reality for the Irish, however, they’re going to have to find a way to get to more out of their top striker.

The views of this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Greg Arbogast at [email protected]