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The Soccer Psychologist’s Game Model

By Brian Maurer

Image courtesy of Charlotte FC

After fourteen matches, Charlotte FC have gotten off to a bizarre inaugural campaign. MLS pundits and fans alike have been impressed by many of Charlotte’s early season performances. However, a disconnect between players and coaches has led to the firing of head coach Miguel Angel Ramirez (MAR).

MAR’s assistant, Christian Lattanzio, has been given the opportunity to lead the Black and Blues as an interim head coach for the remainder of the season. Since Lattanzio has no prior head coaching experience at the senior level, it is hard to predict how the team might look, tactically, during the remainder of the season. However, looking at his past coaching assignments may provide a better understanding of how he sets up the team stylistically.

Working In Youth Development At Manchester City

One of Lattanzio’s roles at Manchester City was to help Patrick Vieira with their elite development squad (EDS). A primary role was helping the young players with the mental aspect of the game.

“One of the main things is to give the players care, attention, and to be detailed in our work…the best way to work with them is to give everyone the same individual attention and to help players to recognize which areas they themselves need to work on” Lattanzio told Manchester City’s Mark Booth regarding his thoughts on the psychological approach of working with young developing players. “Once they become competent and confident in what they are doing, their self-belief increases”.

Clearly, Lattanzio approaches coaching with an emphasis on making sure his players can grow in confidence internally to help support their play on the field

Based on these statements, Lattanzio prefers to focus on providing a caring environment to develop players. This environment gives players the individual attention and care that they need, and a system of training that increases a player’s competency, confidence, and self-belief.

While many of these approaches when used at Manchester City were with youth level players, there still is some overlap to this approach at the senior level. Especially with a team like Charlotte FC where there are many young developing players.

The Understudy For Patrick Vieira

Lattanzio had been Vieira’s assistant coach for nearly a decade. In Lattanzio’s first press conference as the new Charlotte FC head coach, their relationship appeared to be more like a partnership. “We [Lattanzio and Vieira] developed a methodology together for the last few years,” Lattanzio told the media during the press conference.

This kind of sentiment shows that Lattanzio not only worked under Vieira, as his assistant, but that they had a philosophical partnership as the two coaches developed their game models together. Since Charlotte FC will be Lattanzio’s first head coaching assignment, it is useful to look at some of Vieira’s past teams to get a sense of what Lattanzio might bring to the Black and Blue’s style of play.

Looking at both a tactical analysis of OGC Nice done by Rofiq Naufal at Total Football Analysis Magazine, and a tactical discussion of Crystal Palace by Joe Devine, JJ Bull, and Matt Woosnam on Tifo IRL, provides a better understanding of how Vieira’s game model and philosophy works with different teams. This in turn should provide some clues as to how Lattanzio’s style might look on the pitch with Charlotte FC.

During the 2019/20 season at OGC Nice, Vieira’s team was one of the better scoring teams in Ligue 1. However, they were in the bottom half for goals allowed. They were also fifth in the league in pressures in the attacking third per ninety minutes (37.8).

So, while OGC Nice struggled at times defensively, Vieira still preferred his team to apply pressure higher up the pitch. In the attack, Vieira’s Nice would regularly build play up out of the back. Naufal’s analysis provided thorough examples of how their build up play would happen. Below are a couple graphics to help visualize the build up play.

In this set up, one of the center backs (CBs) moves higher up the pitch during build up acting as a double pivot with the number six. This provides a circle with multiple passing options to move the ball around the defense and progress up the pitch centrally.

The first image shows the movements of the players at the start of build up play. The second image shows the passing options between the five players starting the build up sequence.

Naufal mentioned that this 3-2-5 method was used often, but that their primary method of build up play was by using their four defenders as a base with a single pivot defensive midfielder to receive the ball and then begin the progression up the field. Below is a visual of this with the varying passing options.

This is pretty similar to how Charlotte FC has looked for much of the season, in terms of how they have wanted to build up out of the back. An interesting pattern based on Naufal’s analysis of Nice, and Devine, Bull, and Woosnam’s discussion of Crystal Palace, is that both mention these teams have a back line of three when the ball has been progressed up the field.

Also, Vieira appears to utilize a double pivot out of the back on a somewhat regular basis, according to Naufal’s report on Vieira’s 2019/20 OGC Nice. Whether that second pivot would come from the center back pushing up, or a midfielder pulling back would vary based on the situation.

Overall Vieira’s most recent teams have shown a modern progressive attacking style, similar to how Charlotte FC wants to play. A final point is that the Nice squad’s average age was 23.9 years old* in the 2019/20 season, demonstrating Vieira and Lattanzio’s ability and willingness to help develop young players at the senior level, and find success with them.

Image courtesy of Charlotte FC

How These Game Models May Look with Charlotte FC's Personnel

In Lattanzio’s first press conference as Charlotte FC’s head coach he stated that the foundational philosophy that MAR used would continue to be the basis while he is the coach. Lattanzio said that his game model also would involve the regular use of a 4-3-3 formation, progressive attacking build up play that focuses on creating chances, and being solid and compact defensively.

However, looking at how Vieira’s teams have played over the last several years, which included Lattanzio as an assistant, there are a few potential variations that are worth discussing.

First, the ways in which Lattanzio strategizes a compact defense is likely to vary from how MAR approached defensive tactics. There is a good chance that Charlotte FC plays with more compactness from their fullbacks, which was pretty common in Vieira's system. Likely at least one fullback will hang back in a defensive line when the Black and Blues are in attack, and there is a chance the fullbacks don’t press quite as high.

When MAR was at the helm the fullbacks regularly both pressed very high, leaving loads of space on the wings in behind. This could mean that Christian Fuchs ends up getting more time at left back as he is a player who can help provide compact defensive play down the left hand side.

This could also be beneficial for Joseph Mora, as this could take pressure off him having to press high and be involved in the attack. By doing this Mora would be allowed to focus on staying defensively compact, which is one of his stronger attributes.

Second, many of Vieira’s teams have utilized making attacking connections through the middle, whereas MAR regularly wanted the ball switched from side to side waiting for a numerical advantage.

It will be interesting to see if Lattanzio can unlock more effective solutions through the middle, as attacking central midfield play has been considered one of Charlotte FC’s biggest weaknesses by fans and staff alike. Players like Titi Ortiz, Ben Bender, Alan Franco, and Jordy Alcivar, could all get boosts in their form if Lattanzio can find a way to help improve the attack centrally.

Third, Vieira’s system regularly involved building attacks out from the back using multiple different looks. It will be interesting to see if there is as much variety in how Lattanzio has Charlotte FC build up play. This could mean players like Guzman Corujo may be allowed more freedom to push forward and involve themselves in ball progression, which is something Corujo enjoys doing.

This could also mean players like Sergio Ruiz, Bender and Alcivar may get opportunities to play a little bit deeper in a more creative “regista” type role as a double pivot alongside Brandt Bronico. These types of changes could also lead to more diagonal long balls to playmakers on the wings. Devine, Bull, and Woosnam pointed out in their discussion that Vieira’s Crystal Palace liked to play diagonal long balls to switch play out of the back.

A Momentous Saturday

This Saturday's match against the New York Red Bulls will be a physically demanding first test for Lattanzio to solve tactically. He made his intentions clear in his recent press conference. “We want to respond to the physical challenge but at the same time to try and impose our game” is what Lattanzio said regarding Charlotte FC’s approach to playing the Red Bulls.

While the Red Bulls’ test appears to demand extreme physical prowess, Lattanzio’s greatest strength as a coach appears to be his focus and care on the mental aspect of the game. This is what he highlighted during his time developing players at Manchester City, and continues to be something he discusses now as the coach of Charlotte FC.

He wants to provide a caring environment for his players to succeed and build confidence within his system and process. “For me what comes first is the person, then the player. And therefore, I have to make sure that the person is fine, that the individual is fine,” Lattanzio said in his recent presser.

This focus on the individual people that make up a successful squad, is what presents Lattanzio as a soccer psychologist. The desire to help his players grow through the process of living as professional soccer players, as well as the understanding that they are people who will also live their lives off the pitch is a very psychological approach.

On Saturday, the players will have the first opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of Lattanzio’s coaching methods. Making Saturday’s match a monumental moment for both Lattanzio and for Charlotte FC.

*Average age of OGC Nice found on