I recently read a fascinating piece on pressing and defensive lines from American Soccer Analysis. For reference, I've included that here.
While the analysis that follows relates to the New York Red Bulls, the stats analyzed include all 23 teams and they demonstrate that the question of, "Does SKC still high press?" Which is definitely answered in the affirmative. Sporting Kansas City remain among the top teams in tackles attempted and made in the attacking third, and xG created as a result.
They also are high in interceptions in the attacking third, and resulting xG. Tactically, this is important, because attacking zone turnovers are created by "pressing traps." This classic part of the high press game works by presenting an "open" player by design, and then pouncing on that player when the ball is played to them. This results in either stealing the pass (and an immediate transition), or backing him into a corner where he either plays the ball out of bounds or lumps it long to waiting defenders.
With the 4th ranking in MLS for both attacking zone tackles and interceptions, behind the two New York teams and Orlando, it's clear that while Sporting have evolved into a possession side from the counterattacking side of the early Sporting era, the high press remains a key part of the club's DNA and the lynchpin of its defensive gameplan. To quote Jurgen Klopp: "The press is the best playmaker."
It's important to note on this point that of the three higher ranked pressing teams, only NYRB consistently makes turnovers higher up the field, and only they and NYFC convert them into higher xG. In fact, paradoxically, Orlando is among the lowest xG from turnover teams in MLS. The reasons for that would require deeper study of a team beyond the scope of this analysis. But it is, if not unique, statistically improbable.
While reviewing the above date, I was also reminded of this piece from the preseason by Robert Rusert. While written before the arrival of Felipe Gutierrez, the interview still gives a keen insight into the midfield plan of the club and the perceived value of Khiry Shelton. As to the midfield, the desire to move "vertically," rather than to simply recycle possession was cited. The evidence above bears out that change.
With regards to Shelton, there is no doubt we have had better finishers in the past. More to the point, I'm convinced we currently have better finishers on the active roster. However, the ability of his sheer physical presence to unsettle defenders returns to the front line what was lost when Dom Dwyer was traded. After the deal, our defense remained stout. But we were not creating attacking-half turnovers with the same frequency, meaning counterattacks tended to start from deeper, and thus with a lower degree of success. Add this to anemic set-piece production (another area of improvement--albeit slight--this season), and the opportunities for "quick" goals were limited.
To return to the analysis I cited initially, a common weakness of pressing teams is the long-ball. Sporting are second in the league in forcing long ball passes as a ratio of total defensive zone passes. That is to say, when Sporting press, teams launch long balls. Adrian Heath noted this when he talked about playing Sporting being like facing two banks of five, rather than 3 lines of attackers, midfield, and defense. That's another tactical key to the high-press, maintaining a compact defensive line that sweeps up lumped long balls and returns the ball to the attackers quickly. This also squeezes opposing forwards, leaving them little room to make otherwise lethal runs behind.
The danger of such a high percentage of long balls is when they become directed long passes. A false-9 system, or any tactical set-up with a deep-lying forward, can produce consistent effective attacking results. However, as a trade off the false-9 system will concede defensive zone passing at times. That's because the false 9 will drift out of position to close down the center backs as part of making space for himself to operate. At the vital moment, if the rest of the team is committed to pressing, but the false-9 is not in contact with the opposing defense, a directed long pass can bypass midfield, leaving the defenders under immediate pressure, and possibly outnumbered. This concern illustrates why Peter Vermes may use the false-9 as a club in the bag. But never as a normal choice. Not as long as he's committed to counter-pressing.
So we return to Khiry Shelton: the defensive forward, whose primary duties include preventing that outlet pass. That is a necessity to SKC's system. A forward who can finish is always welcome. But preventing goals by stopping long directed passes is tactically vital. Anyone who doubts whether Peter Vermes believes a clean-sheet is worth two goals (the cardinal rule of Soccernomics), should look no further than that emphasis.
Much has been made about SKC's increased love of possession, a trend going back to last season. But goals are still generated--and stifled--by the high press. Possession minimizes chances, allows the pressing team to catch its breath, and forces the opponent to choose between mental fatigue from frustration or physical fatigue chasing the ball. But ultimately, soccer is a game of capitalizing on mistakes, rather than passing the ball into the back of the net. More goals are scored by opportunism than crafted by intricate passing. If this weren't true, Arsene Wenger would still be invincible with Arsenal.
The defensive stats cited indicate why Khiry Shelton has value as Sporting KC's center forward. I agree with the interpretation that Shelton does not "create" goals in any meaningful sense. But he does prevent them. Daniel Salloi has admitted in multiple interviews that he is uncomfortable playing the defensive role of a center forward for Peter Vermes. And the manager has never been happy with how Diego Rubio attempts to perform that duty.
Even his harshest critics have to admit Shelton throws himself into the press with gusto. Thus, in the absence of the "perfect" defensive forward who can finish. One who doesn't regard himself as the end-point of every offensive move (which is why I believe Dwyer was regarded as expendable), Khiry Shelton remains the preferred starter for defensive, rather than attacking, purposes. And the defensive stats bear out his value in that regard.