Three Games In, A Tactical Look Back

Posted on 04 April 2011 by Breton Bonnette

This is the first entry of new ASN Philly contributor Matt Acciani. He’ll be posting throughout the season on the tactical side of all things Union although his scope may not be limited to just tactics. We’d love for this to start a dialogue so please share your thoughts, criticisms, and compliments freely, and welcome Matt aboard.

Two wins and a loss after three games is a deal I would have willingly taken prior to the start of the season. Tack on two shutouts and the realistic chance for a result in a loss at L.A. and I would have been ecstatic. After these results, there is a great deal to celebrate. However, as is often the case, winning tends to whitewash the cracks in the foundation.

This team possesses a number of flaws that could prove disastrous as the season unfolds. There are serious chinks in the defensive armor, specifically in the ability to track marks and individually defend. Each of the back four took turns being undressed by Galaxy attackers and Leonardo’s goal came on an inability to maintain marking throughout the attackers run. However, the team’s commitment to defending by committee, which saw plenty of defensive cover when the one v. one defending collapsed, and only allowing one goal in three matches, means that, for now, the defense is holding. The hope that defense would be the team’s strength that proved false last year seems to be a reality. The pressing issue is the offense. Despite six points from nine, the offense has not looked particularly dangerous. Despite having, on paper, a plethora of offensive talent, the ability to sustain pressure and create multiple quality opportunities is lacking. In my mind, the main problem is the disappearing act the midfield has pulled, which results from running formations that don’t seem suited to the strengths of the players. There are a myriad of ways to play and formations to choose from, but it seems obvious that the 4-4-2 that has been trotted out to start the past two games is not working.

The key to choosing a formation is playing to the team’s strengths. On paper, that would be putting out the three talented attackers, Le Toux, Ruiz, and Mwanga. While there is little argument that all three players are capable of starting in the league, the Union does not benefit from all three together. Perhaps time will create more chemistry, but other problems exist. The foremost issue is that the midfield seems incapable of both providing possession to the strikers, as well as support when they receive the ball. The result is an inability to maintain control of the ball and develop repeat goal scoring opportunities, which then creates more pressure on the defense. As of now, the starting midfield has Le Toux nominally deployed on the left flank, Nakazawa on the right, with Carroll and Miglioranzi in the center. In reality, Le Toux pushes inside and forward, and Nakazawa moves centrally as well. The result is essentially a scattered 4-3-3. Le Toux is without argument the most dangerous player the Union have. He needs to be moved forward towards goal. My main problem with Nakazawa is that he seems to primarily be present for providing service on set pieces. He has contributed little else in his minutes thus far. Carroll and Miglioranzi are both quality players, but both are more destructive than constructive. Combined with Le Toux’s ranging forward and Nakazawa’s ineffectiveness means that there is almost no connection between the midfield and the strikers and the Union resort to hoofing the ball up from the back for much of the game. The seeds for success are there, and every once in a while glimpses of quality play shine forth, but they are discouragingly few and far between. Plainly said, the Union must generate more chances to compete with the top teams in the league.

There are several formations that could benefit the Union more than the 4-4-2 has thus far. Either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 plays more to the players’ strengths. Le Toux should be put in the center of the park where he can be more directly involved in the play than he has been thus far. Remember that he was employed as a wide player in Seattle where he was unremarkable enough to be left unprotected in the expansion draft. More should be done to maximize his ability to affect a game. A 4-2-3-1 seems to play most to the players the Union have. Without touching the back four, Miglioranzi and Carroll can sit as holding midfielders which maximizes their strengths of winning possession, while both providing extra midfield options in possession and placing less pressure on them to create offensive opportunities. Le Toux should then play at the head of the three attacking midfielders, providing the creative link between defense and offense and allowing him to have more touches on the ball. To me Ruiz is the best option as the target. This formation allows him to hold the ball, release to an attacking midfielder, then turn and run. After watching his first three games, I think this would suit his playing style. Mwangathen provides a quality option off the bench as the game moves on. For those who hold a different view, I would not argue too strenuously against playing Mwanga over Ruiz as the starter, though I think Ruiz has more polish. This leaves the question of who to play on the wings, which has been the biggest weakness of the team so far. I have little confidence in Nakazawa, but this formation would allow him to start more withdrawn into the midfield, which may help his performance. Torres could be a great option on the left, adding some creativity and vision to a midfield that is sorely lacking right now. Keon Daniel looks to have the tools but was reticent about going at defenders on Saturday. Sheanon Williams looks like a born winger, but messing with the defense right now is unnecessary at best and destructive at worst. The sooner Mapp returns the better.

The other formation option is a 4-3-3. This could allow for all three strikers to be played together, and would draw Nakazawa into the center of the park, where he is obviously more comfortable, but comes with serious concerns. While the three holding midfielders would provide solid defensive cover in the center of the park the flanks would be exposed, which has already shown to be problematic against Houston, where Brad Davis tormented Williams all night as he had plenty of space and freedom to drive forward at him. Additionally, one of the central midfielders would be called on to be the playmaker and combine with the strikers. This brings us back to the problems we’ve already seen, where the nominal 4-4-2 has devolved into a poor man’s 4-3-3. Of course, another option could be to maintain a classic 4-4-2 and employ Le Toux back at forward. He, Mwanga, and Ruiz may be the best attackers the team has, but playing all three together from the start may not create the best 11. Additionally, a set with three in the back could be considered, but that would mean less cover for the defenders individually, and the weakness in one on one situations concerns me if this formation were to be used outside of having a man advantage.

The bottom line is that what we have seen thus far has worked narrowly twice, and failed to provide any spark in Los Angeles. There is a great deal of promise in this squad and with a few tactical tweaks to play to the strengths of the squad the Union could be a force to be reckoned with. Nowak would do well to bear in mind that the most talented 11 players on the squad may not make the strongest team.

1 Comments For This Post

  1. Io sono Unionista Says:

    Interesting assessment. I agree that the formation needs to change, but I think offense needs to start with the full backs. Why don’t we have fullbacks pushing forward? I understand why Harvey doesn’t go forward much (because he’s horrible at it), but I thought that is what Williams was supposed to be there for. With two holding midfielders (which I think is one holding midfielder too many, unless you don’t trust your back four), there’s no reason that the fullbacks cannot act as wingbacks. Getting the ball deep into the corners gives your attacking mids and forwards time to establish position.

    This is not a team that is going to “Messi” through the other teams’ defenses. The key is giving the forwards time to set up, and I think that begins with the fullbacks. Without a skilled playmaker or fullbacks pushing forward, you end up with aimless long balls, which is what we have been relying on. We did not win the first two games by dominating great teams.

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