Formations have evolved, but have we kept up in how we analyze them?
I first heard the refrain pop up in press conferences a few years ago.
A reporter would ask a question about the formation. A coach would counter by saying formations don’t matter.
“I think the trend is definitely you're going to [get] away from a systems discussion,” former U.S. men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann said, for example, in 2014. “It doesn't lead you anywhere. … It all changed over the last [few] years. It sounds always cool when you talk about 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 or 4-4-2 diamond, but it's actually useless.”
It’s a refrain so often heard around the world. You’ll hear U.S. women’s national team coach Jill Ellis talk about “systems” and not “formations,” and new Real Salt Lake coach Mike Petke discuss fluidity.
“Formation changes in the course of the game,” he said. “It’s more important to lay out the style that you want the team to play and holding them accountable to that.”
We at FourFourTwo have been thinking: Should media start thinking differently about formations? Should we be writing about them differently? I’m certainly guilty of breaking down formations and what it might mean for the team’s structure. I, along with so many others, did so with Klinsmann, and recently with new U.S. coach Bruce Arena.
“It’s the backbone of the structure you want to employ on the day. I don’t think it necessarily means that it is directly tied to your style of play. I don’t think you can tell what style of play a team is based on their formation, but I think it gives the players a good reference point."
Clearly, I believe formation discussion and tactical analysis is valuable, but I don’t totally disagree with what Klinsmann and other coaches believe. Formations are so flexible in modern soccer that it’s difficult to have a clear discussion about a team’s style of play through only formation talk. A team might set up in a 4-2-3-1 when defending and also look more like a 3-4-3 when attacking. The U.S. men’s national team’s 4-4-2 against Honduras might have a different philosophy than a New York Red Bulls team that starts in the same formation.
That doesn’t mean formations aren’t still important, worth debating or analyzing.
“I think they’re really important,” Columbus Crew coach Gregg Berhalter told FourFourTwo this week. “It’s the backbone of the structure you want to employ on the day. I don’t think it necessarily means that it is directly tied to your style of play. I don’t think you can tell what style of play a team is based on their formation, but I think it gives the players a good reference point. And for me, especially for teaching, it’s extremely important when I have a base. And especially when I talk about defensive structure, having an identifiable formation that the guys can refer back to, it gives them balance.”
Berhalter explained, for example, that his favored style of play was conceived out of the structure of the 4-2-3-1, but that it can change and adapt based on the opponent or his team’s personnel. Sometimes it may look like a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3 or a 3-3-4, but the concept of what he hopes to accomplish and how he wants the team to play doesn’t change.
Formation talk can be a crutch, but it can also provide valuable insight into how a team approaches the game. It’d be silly to pretend you can’t learn plenty about how a team wants to play if it approaches a game in a 3-5-2 versus a 4-4-2 versus a 4-2-3-1. The Fire started in a 3-5-2 this weekend to crowd the middle of the park, for example, and then changed to a 3-4-3 in the first half to pin Columbus’s fullbacks deeper in their own end. It had a direct impact on the flow of the match. To nix formation talk would mean you must ignore the obvious.
So, no, I don’t agree with the idea that media needs to change the way we talk about formations. At least not when that talk provides the right context. It’s not solely about which players are starting in which formation. The focus should be on why those players and those formations might be the right choice for that team, and what might be accomplished by playing in those formations.
A coach’s deflection at a press conference will not convince me otherwise.
Appreciating Altidore’s growth
Arena has three forward options – Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood and Clint Dempsey – and likely only has two starting jobs. Who should sit? Many of you voted for Altidore. It surprised me – well, kind of.
I was surprised, because Altidore has been such an important part of the U.S. men’s national team, as evidenced by his injury during the 2014 World Cup. Yes, the U.S. got out of the Group of Death, but there was no clear replacement for Altidore. Last year, he led the team in goals with six, including four in World Cup qualifying, and he added two assists. I know Altidore is a polarizing player among fans; I just don’t get it.
One reason why is that Altidore, who has always been fantastic in hold-up play, has also become a much better passer. It’s a skill he’s honed while playing alongside Sebastian Giovinco up top in Toronto – he went from zero assists in 2015 to nine assists in 2016 – and that newfound attribute was again on display this weekend when Altidore settled a ball off the outside of his foot to set up Giovinco’s first goal of the season.
Altidore also had a brilliant assist in the Americans’ 6-0 win over Honduras last month.
Wood has been fantastic in the Bundelisga and with the United States. Dempsey has been phenomenal and on a hot streak and probably can’t be benched right now. But after another strong outing from Altidore, it feels like he’s once again among the most underappreciated members of the U.S. squad.
The Final Third
The fantastic Dax McCarty
I’m just going to go ahead and drop this here.
— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) April 8, 2017
Dax McCarty had a standout game for the Chicago Fire on Saturday. That pass, as good as it was, may not have even been his best of the game: His lifted ball over the top to Michael de Leeuw later in the game was gorgeous.
It has been fun to watch a player like McCarty come into his prime in the last couple of years. The Red Bulls clearly miss him in the middle of the park, and as he continues to thrive you have to wonder if he’ll get a chance to play a bigger role with the U.S. during the Gold Cup this summer.
Sporting Kansas City rounds into form
Sunday’s 3-1 win was the most complete performance of the season from Sporting KC, and it is a sign of what this team is capable of doing as it starts to put the pieces together.
Before the season started, SKC coach Peter Vermes was very up front that it would take time for the new additions to fully integrate into the side. Early on, it looked like goal-scoring was going to be the biggest issue. A dominant performance against Colorado may be a sign that things are starting to come together for Sporting KC. Dom Dwyer got his first goal, and SKC looked to be in a real rhythm.
It’s early in the season, but I still like Sporting Kansas City to make some noise in the Western Conference.
Crazy close table
After six weeks of MLS play one thing stands out to me more than anything else: The margins in this league are closer than ever.
Surely teams will start to distance themselves in the dog days of summer, but after the first month-plus of the season, three points separates the top eight teams in the East and three points separate spots five through 11 in the West.
Read of the week
I absolutely loved this feature on Sporting Kansas City defender Ike Opara by the Kansas City Star’s Sam McDowell. Opara decided on retirement before changing his mind. Now he’s one of the top defenders in MLS.
Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. He works as a freelance reporter on Fire home TV broadcasts. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulTenorio.