The top teams across Europe employ some variation of the lone-striker 4-5-1, whether they call it a 4-3-3, a 4-2-3-1, or what have you, precisely because having players attack from deeper positions allows for alterations in the point of attack and fluidity in transitions.
Somewhat counter-intuitively then, Seattle Sounders FC found that a switch to a 4-4-2 midseason has increased the liquidity of the attack significantly.
The lone goal against the San Jose Earthqakes on Saturday displayed this well. Fredy Montero dropped deep into his own half to instigate a move that surged up the field, with Montero eventually playing a ball into the path of Sanna Nyassi down the flank. Then Montero himself continued his run into the penalty box to head home the deep cross.
Certainly, Fredy Montero finding his mojo (a goal or an assist in eight straight games and counting) helped. The Colombian is the glue of the attack in the frontline, allowing the ball to cascade from flank to flank. But Montero's uptick in form is in large part a product of being freed by the newly implemented tactics.
A humiliating loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy kicked things off.
No, not the humiliating loss you're thinking of. The Galaxy swaggered into Seattle back in May and ruthlessly extracted a 4-0 result which prompted Sounders FC management to issue a partial refund to season ticket holders.
But in early July the Rave Green lost again to the Galaxy, this time in Los Angeles and at a more more forgivable 3-1 scoreline. However, despite nicking a goal and only conceding thrice this time around, the loss was far worse. The team couldn't contain its shape and held the air of a demoralized side, ready to ride the rest of the season out with D.C. United at the bottom of the table.
Head coach Sigi Schmid took pretty drastic action. Freddie Ljungberg picked up a mysterious ankle injury, Nate Jaqua was rushed back from injury, and Seattle reverted to last season's 4-4-2.
The move paid immediate dividends. A plucky draw with FC Dallas set the stage for three consecutive wins, two on the road. The side is unbeaten since the trauma in Los Angeles.
The decision to drop Ljungberg (since traded to the Chicago Fire for a conditional draft pick, or, for those keeping track at home, less than Anthony Wallace costs these days) was counter-intuitive as well. The Swede certainly can't be blamed for poor finishing on the plethora of chances he created throughout the first half of the season, and he was easily the most mobile of Seattle's players, popping up all over the pitch to get his foot on the ball and spray passes about.
However, without a fit striker to begin the season, Schmid stuck Montero at the top of a 4-3-3.
The 23-year-old's inability or unwillingness to curb his natural inclination to dip into deeper positions to collect the ball had two consequences. Firstly, it meant opposition defenses could step up and constrict the vertical space Seattle had to work with in attack. With Ljungberg pushing forward from his midfield role, there was no space between the midfield and forward lines to work; they were literally overlapping, leaving no space between.
The high defensive lines led to several Steve Zakuani goals in the early part of the season (three in his first six starts), as the winger used his pace to beat the offside trap. Which also shows the second ramification of Montero's inability to lead the line: the wide players had to pinch in remain high in his absence. This constricted the space horizontally. Seattle's fullbacks are serviceable, but you won't ever confuse one for a rampaging Roberto Carlos. (One gets confused for John Legend, but that's a different topic).
So with insufficient space both horizontally and vertically, Seattle matches became choppy and niggly, not at all suited for the flowing attack Ljungberg and Montero enjoy, as each would run into two or three markers within a few yards.
Dropping Ljungberg added creativity by subtraction. With a striker finally on the field there's actually space between the lines for players to surprise opponents by stepping into. Furthermore, with the wingers pinned slightly deeper, they can stay wide and stretch defenses horizontally (the pace of Nyassi and the youthful energy of Miguel Montano have proven especially telling in recent matches), causing even more gaps in the middle, such as the one Montero ran into to score the winner against San Jose.
Even in new designated player Blaise Nkufo's first match -- during which he lumbered about against the Colorado Rapids, clearly unfit -- Montero benefited.
"With Nkufo playing a little bit more up front I can come back and play a little deeper and set up plays," Montero said through an interpreter following the match.
Yes, Fredy. Partially because now Schmid will let you drop deep and partially because there's more free yards in the middle thanks to a tactical shift.
Of course, a switch to the rigid 4-4-2 might not have worked in the top levels of Europe where three-man midfields can swarm and smother the more stale tactical alignments. In Major League Soccer, however, Schmid's counter-intuitive tactical gamble is paying off handsomely in the form of some rather fetching attacking soccer.
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