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When Real Salt Lake switch formations, we have to talk about it (a little)

Jul 1, 2013, 10:45 PM EDT

source:  No Major League Soccer team has become as synonymous with their formation as Real Salt Lake, yet Saturday at BMO Field, Jason Kreis temporarily abandoned his 4-3-1-2 (or, 4-4-2, diamond). Against a Toronto side that’s playing Ryan Richter and Darren O’Dea at fullbacks, the Real Salt Lake boss took the opportunity to try a 4-3-3 formation. The result was more typical than glamorous, Real Salt Lake grinding out a 1-0 win in Ontario.

Let’s leave aside the fact that TFC could have easily tied this late. Let’s talk about an experience that only comes along once every couple of years. With Luis Gil just coming back from Turkey and Ned Grabavoy getting a well-deserved reprieve (the under-appreciated midfielder was held out of the starting XI), Kreis deployed a midfield triangle with Kyle Beckerman and Yordany Alvarez at its base, Javier Morales at its top. Joao Plata (left) and Olmes García flanked Devon Sandoval up top.

Against a team that plays as conservatively as Toronto, it’s difficult to draw any broad conclusions about how the setup work. RSL survived the day, which is probably all Kreis wanted to do, but with few other teams across Major League Soccer likely to replicate Ryan Nelsen’s tactics, it’s hard to determine the extent to which a 4-3-3 would otherwise work for RSL.

The one obvious benefit would be getting the likes of Plata and García into the lineup. Along with Sandoval, Alvaro Saborío, and Robbie Findley, the duo help make up a one of the deepest forward corps in Major League Soccer. It doesn’t take a managerial genius to know finding room for talented players is a good thing, though with the depth of RSL’s midfield (Morales, Gil, Grabavoy, Beckerman), it’s unclear playing more 4-3-3 wouldn’t require benching a more talented player.

In addition to choosing the right talent, a coach has to maximize the output of the players he picks, and it’s unclear keeping a player like Kyle Beckerman as a part of a double pivot would leverage the all-star’s virtues. Part of the brilliance of a Beckerman is the fact that you don’t need two holders. He can do the job of two men, allowing you to commit another player higher up the field. Why have somebody play beside Kyle Beckerman when you could just have Kyle Beckerman?

If RSL were to use a 4-3-3 more often, it would make more sense to use Grabavoy or Gil as a shuttler and abandon the two holders, particularly with Javi Morales occupying the other midfield role. For the unmatched talent Morales has on the ball, he’s a defensive liability, and only against teams like Toronto can you play Morales above two holders without ceding the middle of the park.

Back up top, as Plata’s speed was drawing fouls from Richter, you saw an advantage that went beyond merely getting another player on the field. It’s one of the luxuries you have when strikers like Saborio and Sandoval are capable of occupying a central defense and a talent like García can occupy a spot wide.

If Kreis can use a formation change to create those kind of matchups, a three-front at least offers a late match option, if not a starting choice against teams whose fullbacks profile like Toronto’s. While we didn’t get any conclusive evidence of the setup’s long-term viability, RSL’s depth up top may make another try worthwhile.

  1. wesbadia - Jul 2, 2013 at 9:32 AM

    A few things.

    Firstly, RSL play formations other than a 4-1-2-1-2 almost every game. The first game against Colorado this season, Kreis switched to a virtual 4-3-3 in the second half and ended up tying the match because of the amount of offensive pressure. He’s also switched to a 3-5-2 and a 3-4-3 in a couple games in 2013 when they were trailing games. Additionally, Kreis is almost routine this season when they are up late in the game by inserting Alvarez as a second holding mid for the likes of Gil or Grabavoy or Stephenson. As Brian Dunseth has recognized, this may translate to a 4-2-2-2 or even a 4-2-3-1 formation, but it’s far from “bunkering”. Reason being that it allows Beckerman to press more, higher up in the midfield instead of in his own half so much. This usually creates more turnovers in attacking positions and seems to result in negating the opponent’s late push to tie or win matches.

    Secondly, and related to my last point, having two holding mids in a 4-3-3 is both commonplace in world soccer and is actually a more balanced approach to the match. Just like when Kreis closes out games with Alvarez and Beckerman, Saturday against TFC proved that Beckerman could press higher up the field, resulting in turnovers in TFC’s half. Because both Plata and Garcia love checking back into the midfield to begin runs and collect balls, this ended up generating most of RSL’s chances during the day. And, in fact, it’s how the play that resulted in the goal began — Beckerman winning a ball, working it up the two virtual wings (Garcia/Plata), Sandoval holding up play in the middle of the box, a penetrating play into the box that was rebuffed by a compact back line, and then a shot from distance from Alvarez. Even with two holding mids, the second, truer holder was able to score.

    I’d be concerned if Kreis tried the 4-3-3 with anyone but Garcia/Plata/Findley on the wings while playing two holding mids. There should only ever be one center forward in a 4-3-3 because the formation needs both its wingbacks and forward wings to enter into the midfield to give it width. RSL have the wingbacks to do this. But having Saborio and Sandoval as strikers would negate their ability to check back and play midfield when they have to. Could a midfield 3 of Morales, Beckerman, and Grabavoy work? Sure, because Grabavoy is a utility man that can hold, shuttle, and even score. Could that midfield combo be more successful than Saturday’s? Questionable. The only time I think it’d be better would be if you’d play two center forwards and no forward wings, which would end up pushing either Garcia or Plata back into the midfield more to provide support for the strikers. But then we’re essentially back to the 4-1-2-1-2.

    The beauty and genius of Kreis’s system is that it’s more flexible than people give it credit for. They are constantly adjusting to game situations. And the only times they don’t adjust properly are the times when individual players aren’t playing up to their expected caliber (that 2-0 loss to LA). Even then it’s for limited times during a match (usually first or last 15 mins). Kreis is very comfortable switching things up tactically if he doesn’t think his diamond midfield is generating enough attack and isn’t staying true in defense.

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