The 4-1-4-1 served the Impact well for the first four games of the season, but after last weekend's resounding loss to KC, the team is looking to add more variety to its game.
When you’re on top, everyone wants to take you down - that was the gist of Marco Schällibaum’s message to reporters two weeks ago when his Montreal Impact side withstood heaps of pressure to beat the New York Red Bulls 1-0. The win extended the Impact’s perfect start in MLS to four wins from four games and naturally, when a team is winning games and sits in first place in the standings, every other side will begin to give that team added consideration.
Sporting Kansas City certainly did their homework last week as not only did they did give the Impact their first loss of the season they also dominated every aspect of the game. KC head coach Peter Vermes really seemed to have found the formula for stifling the Impact: close out the middle of the field, force the Impact out wide and persistently press Patrice Bernier so as not to give him any time on the ball.
Teams across MLS will have surely taken note of KC’s dominant performance and the concern for the Impact this week has been that other teams will now have their number. As Bernier explained to Grantland in the offseason, the Impact were certainly figured out by the end of their expansion season last year, as they were never really able to find sufficient tactical alternatives.
“I think at the end of the [last] season, teams found out what our strengths were and how to play against that, and we never really found a Plan B. Teams were sitting back and we weren’t able to have another route to score,” Bernier said.
This year, Montreal might again be faced with a similar problem. Up until the KC game the Impact’s strength had been the ability to play right through the middle of the opposition, and Bernier told reporters that now that teams have taken notice of the team’s strengths, it really needs to find more variety in its play.
“We have to find solutions to increase our movement," Bernier said. "We have to find other options than going through the middle. Everybody now knows that our goals are built through the middle, so we need to find a Plan B or other openings to score differently.”
That Plan B could mean a change of formation. The 4-4-2 didn’t work all that well last season with Marco Di Vaio and Andrew Wenger leading the attack, but it could work better with new signing Andres Romero who can play as a second forward.
Bologna forward Daniele Paponi, who joined the Impact on trial on Thursday, could also give the team some added attacking variety and the 24-year-old could form a strong partnership with Di Vaio, who he already played with during their time together in Italy.
But assistant coach Mauro Biello doesn’t feel that the Impact will have to change their formation necessarily. Biello explained that the team's main focus is working on the current 4-1-4-1 formation and improving the movement in midfield.
“When you play three in the middle, the opposition looks to clog that area," Biello said. "So you’ve got to play quickly and know how to play out of tight spaces. When things don’t go so well, doing that gets more difficult.
"That’s what we have to work on, one or two touch soccer in the midfield to open more space."
One factor that has also hurt the Impact’s attacking play has been Felipe’s slow start to the season. The Brazilian midfielder was one of the Impact’s best players last season, but he has been very in and out of games so far this season. Biello admitted that Felipe still hasn’t really adapted yet to the new system adopted by Schallibaum.
Felipe also explained to reporters that he’s still recovering from his hernia surgery that he underwent at the end of last season and still needs time to regain his full strength.
“I have a little bit less muscle on my left side,” Felipe said. “I have to work hard. I can’t buy muscle at the supermarket.”
With Montreal off this coming weekend, Schällibaum will have another week to get his team sorted for its fixture against the Columbus Crew in the opening game at Saputo Stadium, a venue where the Impact enjoyed most of its success last season.