Analysis

Dinosaurs and dynamism: The tactical case against Brian Carroll

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Last week, a post on PSP caused considerable discussion in laying out the thesis that Brian Carroll is the best player on the Philadelphia Union.

The arguments for Carroll ride the straight line of a familiar and laudable logic train: 1) Brian Carroll is an out-and-out defensive midfielder, 2) Defensive midfielders have a relatively specific job description, 3) Brian Carroll does the job of a defensive midfielder very successfully (success being defined as a low number of clear errors).

An important point to recognize is that there are no flaws in this particular measure of contribution to a team. If we believe that specific individuals are given clear parameters of contribution, there is no reason we cannot judge them on their ability to fulfill those parameters.

Where we run into problems is when we take our focus from the low-level “what does he do?” level to the more global “does he provide what the team needs?”

The evolution of the deepest midfielder

The traditional defensive midfielder role developed as a one-for-one response to the recessed forward (which grew into the attacking midfielder, or trequartista). As creative players dropped deeper to find space further from the stout central defenders, defensive tacticians responded by pulling back a midfielder to zip up the gap between midfield and defense. As wingers seemed less useful in the middle of the 20th century, offensive midfielders tucked in centrally and strikers stayed high to pressure the back line.

The dribbling heyday of Maradona produced thug-sweepers at defensive midfield, players who cleaned out quick-footed technicians as efficiently and painfully as possible. Eventually, the wingback and the 4-5-1 brought width back to the game and defensive midfielders were asked to take a more cerebral covering role, drifting laterally, covering for the assist-hungry wingers, and playing short restart passes to the creative player, who was now drifting even deeper to escape the pesky attentions of the opposition’s defensive middie.

The interesting, and perhaps inevitable, tactical change occurs here. Packed midfields force coaches to seek new ways to restart attacks. Midfield defenses have grown into complex zonal spiderwebs designed to trap creative players in their sticky nets. Which player still has space to operate? Why, it’s the defensive midfielder! Shadowed by the stereotypically lazy trequartista, the deep-lying midfielders are ready-made solutions to the packed midfield problem.

Solving the packed midfield

But just as the outside backs of the 1990s couldn’t sprint endlessly up and down the touchlines a la Dani Alves (Cafu and Roberto Carlos aside), most defensive midfielders were not playmakers. Two solutions have developed over the past decade: The upside-down triangle and the triangle. The UDT leaves a nominal defensive midfielder in the back, and while this player shares positional and defensive duties with the traditional defensive mid, he takes on a variety of additional offensive duties.

As usual, examples speak more clearly than explanations. Sergio Busquets and Jon Obi Mikel (especially for the Nigerian national team) are obvious prototypes. These players sit deep and break up plays, but they drop even deeper to start the offense. Busquets moves between the center backs to receive the ball, escaping pressure and allowing the wingbacks to push forward. These players have the passing range and technical ability to play a 40-yard aerial ball or a 25-yard ground pass, and this keeps the defense honest.

Blitzkrieg pressure will leave the opposition high and dry when the defensive midfielder has the footwork and movement of a competent playmaker. Essentially, the midfield expands to the point that the defense can no longer cover all their gaps. These base-of-the-triangle midfielders cover a continuum from more defensive (Mikel) to more offensive (Pirlo), but they all are quite different from the typical midfielder.

The triangle features two recessed midfielders and a more advanced player. Manchester United use Scholes and Carrick in these roles, while Real Madrid is fortified by Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso. These duos operate like central defensive pairings in that they cover for each other and push forward only when their partner is entrenched.

Xabi Alonso is no defensive midfielder, but Javier Mascherano is

Alonso was mentioned in the article about Brian Carroll on this website, and examining his career path (and contrasting it with his former midfield partner) offers an interesting segue into how these tactical developments have spilled over into MLS. Alonso played as a more traditional playmaker in England. Given cover by Javier Mascherano, the Spaniard used his passing range to force defenses deep and keep them from exposing the scurrying, positionally questionable Mascherano. In Madrid, Alonso has developed a defensive side to his game. While he is more offensive-minded than Khedira, they both compensate for the lack of a traditional defensive midfielder by covering for each other.

Contrast Alonso with Javier Mascherano, who went to Barcelona for a similar price as his Spanish partner. The Argentine is now deployed almost exclusively as a central defender, as Barcelona has found little need for a midfield sweeper with limited offensive upside.

Changes come to MLS

MLS took its time catching up to the modern game, and midfield sweepers were common for many years. The league relied heavily on attacking midfielders, and defensive middies were a resulting necessity.

But times change. MLS is relying more on triangle midfields and dynamic deep-lying playmakers.

Of the ten teams in playoff positions after the first month and a half of the season, Philadelphia is the only one using a player like Carroll. Those that use a pair of deeper middies deploy flexible players capable of joining the attack. Those that use a single deep player ensure that he has the passing range to move a defense around quickly.

To compare directly with Carroll, look at Patrice Bernier in Montreal, Rafael Baca in San Jose, Andrew Jacobson in Dallas, and Nigel Reo-Coker in Vancouver. Just outside of the playoff picture are Kyle Beckerman of Real Salt Lake, Diego Chara of Portland, and Perry Kitchen of DC United. Bernier and Carroll are the only two players working that deep-lying position in the Eastern Conference, and they are doing it quite differently.

Carroll_Bernier_NY

In the graphic above, you can see how Bernier and Carroll each performed against the New York Red Bulls. Montreal won 1-0, the Union lost 2-1. The two midfielders put in a similar number of passes in the offensive half, but the depth of Bernier’s passing shows why he is more of a threat on the ball.

In addition to keeping defenses from organizing against short passing, this passing range helps structure the Montreal midfield. Bernier can give the ball to Felipe, but he can also act as an offensive hub against a well-organized defense. In the age of high pressure defense, Bernier’s flexibility has gone from a perk to a necessity.

Carroll_Bernier_KC

For further evidence, observe how similar the two midfielders appear against Kansas City, a team that defeated both Philly and Montreal. When Bernier could not provide depth and range to the Montreal attack it was considerably less potent, even with weapons like Felipe and Marco Di Vaio.

What is a modern deep-lying midfielder?

The article praising Carroll noted that a defensive midfielder’s duties include tracking defenders, reading the game, pressuring the ball, recovering second balls, and jamming the passing lanes. All of this is accurate.

But in the modern game, these attributes describe every midfield position. High pressure zonal defense requires a level of team coordination that forces every player into a destroyer’s mindset on defense. And overcoming that pressure requires every midfielder to possess, in some quantity, the attributes of a playmaker. Passing range, smart movement, and a strong first touch define even the defensively positioned standouts of the modern era.

Where does this leave Brian Carroll

Brian Carroll is not a bad player, but he is a dinosaur in the deepest midfield position. He leaves gaps between himself and the rest of the midfield, he takes extra touches on the ball because he has limited vision, and, yes, he has lost a step. Still, there is nothing about Brian Carroll that prevents him from being a successful defensive midfielder. But there are plenty of reasons to think he doesn’t fit into a modern game plan.

And, yes, Carroll’s lack of offensive prowess contribute to the messiness of the Union midfield. He often doesn’t know where he’s going with the ball, yet he spends the most time on the ball. Attributing the goopy midfield play to the bad positions of those around Carroll should not simply imply that Carroll is capable but restricted by others, it should also raise this question: Does anybody know where they should be when Brian Carroll has the ball? Jeff Foxworthy redneck logic states that if you can’t answer the above question quickly, you probably have a disorganized midfield.

Now remember: Carroll is a competent player and an above-average defensive midfielder. And he was a consistent performer on a poor team last season. So why scrutinize?

The clear answer from Union fans is: Amobi Okugo.

What type of team are you?

In Okugo, the team has a player for whom the modern midfield mold was created. Physical, technical, and aggressive, Okugo’s ceiling as a midfielder is extremely high. And he needs minutes as soon as possible.

With players becoming more athletic, and game tape broken down by the second, will the tactical side of soccer plateau? In his seminal book on soccer tactics, Jonathan Wilson concludes that it is unlikely that any major surprises will catch the world of soccer off guard going forward. But within formations like 4-5-1, 4-4-2, 4-1-4-1, there will be significant shifting of duties.

Wilson doesn’t state it explicitly, but Juanma Lillo does, via Phil Ball at ESPN: “Dime con que mediocentro andas y te dire que equipo eres.” Or, Tell me who your central midfielder is, and I’ll tell you what sort of team you are. Ball mentions the quote to highlight how irreplaceable Xabi Alonso has become, but it speaks to the point made in last week’s article about Brian Carroll. A good defensive midfielder will go unnoticed, but the best player for that lynchpin midfield role should define a team’s style.

Is anybody happy with the Union’s style right now? Is there a clear alternative available? Is there evidence from the national level that the alternative is more suited to the modern game of soccer?

Is there really an argument here?

37 Comments

  1. JediLos117 says:

    Im pretty sure everybody including myself thought that Soumare was brought in to push Okugo into the midfield during the preseason. I’ve often compared Okugo’s potential to be of Makelele (best ever DMid). I want to be clear that Okugo’s reputation (my thoughts included) at Dmid is solely base on national team kids (think Adu) play and limited sole Dmid MLS experience. It is very much assumed and perceived ability and potential.
    .
    But that didnt happen. And now it appears that Soumare is out the door. He did ask for a trade.
    .
    So that being said. Should we move Okugo to Dmid who slots into his CB spot? Williams long term?
    .
    With the current state of the Union, do you think moving Okugo NOW to DMid is a realistic sane decision? Or most likely to happen when Valdes returns?

    • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

      Hackworth should eat some crow over Soumare and slot him in next to Parke. That would solve things easily. I’m not holding out much if any hope of Valdes ever returning. If Colombia qualifies for the World Cup and he features prominently, the Union won’t be able to afford to keep him.

      • JediLos117 says:

        Crow aint happenin…and I agree about Valdes…which infers that we are gonna have the same dilemna next off season.
        .
        With the current state of the Union, it appears that the defensive six is set in stone…it may just be the most logical at this time…Im even starting to think G. Farfan is more valuable in MF

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        The managers strong inflexibility aside, I agree with Adam whole-heartedly. The problems with Union’s midfield is entirely of their own making and Carroll is doing more harm than good. As far as Farfan goes, I like him in midfield as well though he’s still the best left back on the team. it’s not even that close right now.

      • agreed

      • JediLos117 says:

        While the Union midfield problems may be of the Union’s own making…I disagree that Carroll has been more harmful than good.
        .
        I cant really find an example where Carroll was solely responsible for a goal conceded or a goal scored for this season…he is being forced to play more defense than has chance to play offensive.
        .
        I maintain that our Midfield issues stem from our attacking midfielders…and their inability to contribute offensively. Five game and only Cruz has an assist. No midfield goals this year.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Watch the replays again Los. Carroll mark has been involved in many of the goals against. The most recent would be Columbus. The player that touched-on to Oduro (Gaven, I believe) was marked by Carroll. Instead of sticking with his man, he jogged back and allowed separation. Parke was committed, so that mark was solely Carroll’s.

      • JediLos117 says:

        Nope…Carroll’s man was Higuain for that play. Trust me Carroll was left to cover 3 Crew players (Higuain, Speas and Orduro) on that goal.

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        This article isn’t about defensive responsibility, that part is not worth arguing here, in my eyes.

      • The Black Hand says:

        I don’t see it. Oduro was Okugo’s, after Parke committed. Amobi actually backed off, instead of tracking to Oduro. Carroll was in stride with Gaven, then allowed separation.

        Granted, both players might have backed off thinking cross but the reality of the situation is; both Carroll and Okugo (and MacMath) got it wrong.

      • JediLos117 says:

        Of course you didnt see it, you were too busy watching how awesome Cruz’s game was.
        .
        Gavin passed the ball to Orduro. Again Carroll was tasked with watching Higuain all game, but I guess for that one playe he was suppose to cover both Speas, Orduro and Higuain.
        .
        Seriously do you think a Center back is suppose to cover a striker or a Dmid? In this case Orduro was the striker.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Carroll being detrimental offensively is not even an argument. He is a black hole, at a crucial position. Given our midfielder’s lack of vision, we need a CDM that can contribute in transition. Carroll’s inability to progress play is a huge factor in the lack of offensive quality. My argument is: Carroll’s defensive contributions have not been big enough to offset his offensive detriments.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Los, I have admitted that I was overvaluing the play of Cruz. Kudos on the dig.
        .
        On that play, not the entire game, Carroll’s mark was Gaven. Orduro was the CB’s (Okugo, after parke commited) responsibility. Carroll backed off and Gaven got the touch. It led to a goal. Higuain was behind play, at that point.
        .
        The CDM should slot in to cover attackers if the CB has committed to another player. That said, I did not say that Oduro was Carroll’s responsibility. I said that Gaven was.

    • The Black Hand says:

      Soumare slots in, for Amobi. Okugo replaces Carroll. Pretty easy, actually. However, this will never happen.

  2. To add even more to the fire. Check out this article

    http://www.goal.com/en-us/news/66/united-states/2013/04/11/3873371/alex-labidou-predicting-the-us-2013-gold-cup-roster?ICID=AR_AT_next

    Projected starters (4-2-3-1):

    Midfielders: Amobi Okugo (Philadelphia Union),

    Seems like US National team feels he is a midfielder

  3. The Black Hand says:

    Thank You Adam!!!

    • Really, I know TBH and I come on here to beat the anti-Carroll drum, but it’s not out of malice for the man; he may be a classy professional, but this article sums up my issues with him being anything other than a late-game sub.
      I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: Hackworth is going to regret naming Carroll his captain. It may eventually cost him his job if he’s to remain this inflexible going forward.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Exactly. I don’t hate Carroll. I hate Carroll in the Philadelphia Union midfield. I’m sure that a better structured club could really use the skills that Carroll brings to the pitch. If there is a midfield of composed, playmakers who can play quality football then Carroll’s defensive stability would be a welcomed addition. His defensive nature would support a cohesive midfield unit. His lack of offensive contributions would have little ill-effect because there is already an established trio in front of him.

        The trouble is; we are not that club. We need everyone and anyone to assist in making plays, because we have no composure and no ability to orchestrate fine play out of our midfield. It’s because of this, that Carroll’s style brings about a detrimental effect on our midfield. Carroll is DEPENDED on to link play and he just can’t. Looking ahead, I see no use for Carroll in the Union midfield. I think that his presence is locking us into a certain method of tactical play that provides no growth for our club and brings us no closer to finding the quality play that we are desperately lacking. The stunting of the club’s overall progression is what leads me to disapprove of Carroll, and Hackworth even more.
        I would like to see our club competing with the top clubs. Right now, that quality is lightyears away.

  4. @Los I want to emphasize that I’m not arguing that Carroll is a harmful presence on the field in the sense that he is not playing the way a good defensive midfielder would play. I’m arguing that the net effects of keeping a guy with a limited ability to move the ball with speed or range in the middle of a clearly discombobulated Union midfield when a more technical player is available are negative.

    • JediLos117 says:

      I understand.
      .
      But given and assuming that Soumare is out the door and will not suit up this year for the Union.
      .
      Is it even worthwhile discussing this any further?
      .
      Everybody wants to see Okugo there but he remains our current best option at CB alongside Parke.

      • And here you make my argument for me, re: the negligent composition of the roster. Whether it’s through incompetence or insolvency, the back half of the roster as currently constituted is barely USL Pro-level. Hack has to keep playing Okugo at CB because now that he’s burned the Soumare bridge, who else is left on the roster?
        The same goes for MacMath; if you wanted to give the kid a little break, what other option do you have? The Red Bulls signed Hartman off the scrap heap for peanuts, why couldn’t the Union have done the same? It’s embarrassing.

      • JediLos117 says:

        Exactly what Ive been saying since my 1st post at 12:34pm.
        .
        Our options are limited. Our defensive 6 is set in stone. Specifically the Okugo/Parke pairing.
        .
        Its trully funny to me that since we acquired Kleberson, everybody still argues for Okugo to be our DMid when yall anti Carroll folks should be pro Kleberson Dmid supporters.
        .
        So I think its more pro Okugo Dmid drummers than anti Carroll drummers.
        .
        I have not yet read one comment advocating for Kleberson to take Carroll’s spot which in my mind make a hellava lot more sense than moving Okugo from his best 11 performing CB role.

      • Had we signed the industrious young man that starred for Brazil in the 2002 World Cup, and not the version that’s a decade older, perhaps we’d advocate for that change. At age 33, he’s a more limited player, and he needs someone more dynamic to pair with than the moribund Carroll.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Don’t think of Kleb as a Dmid. I think his strength could be in possession and through balls to our forwards. I don’t know if he will have the wheels to be a true box2box mid, but I think he would be our playmaker. If he’s not, we’re screwed…expensively.

      • JediLos117 says:

        Hand isnt that what everybody wants from Carroll? More possession? More through balls to our forwards?.
        .
        And to not think of Kleberson as a Dmid is to not think of him at his best as BThomas has noted.
        .
        With the current state of our Union, the most logical replacement for Carroll since we currently need Okugo at CB, would be Kleberson.
        .
        In the end, I do think Kleberson will end up playing a more advanced role with the Union…but it should be noted that he has struggled when played in a more advanced or outside position.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Yeah man! I would love for Carroll to display more vision. At least look upfield and make a positive play. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen.
        .
        Kleberson, to me, would be more of an overlapping central midfielder, allowing him to push up to aid the attack. A pairing with Okugo would be ideal.
        .
        The NEED for Okugo at CB shouldn’t have to be. I think that a Soumare/Parke CB pairing and a Kleberson/Okugo CM pairing would improve our club incredibly, as a whole. It is unfortunate that our manager doesn’t think the same. As it stands, we are a poor club.
        .
        If Kleberson is played at the CAM position, with Carroll behind, I see our struggles continuing.

      • Sure. As long as you have a mid/late 20s former All-Star on the bench, it’s worth discussing. Soumare wants to leave because he wants to play. Do you get the impression he would refuse a spot in the lineup?

      • JediLos117 says:

        Thats the thing, was he even on the bench? He aint even being included in the 18 anymore…I dont think he has been on the bench since New England, pre trade announcement.
        .
        I think its a non-issue.
        .
        Hack would have to eat crow and so would Soumare for him to make the 11.

  5. IMHO I think Carroll is too defensive minded. We might as well play with 5 defenders when he’s back there. Williams and Gaddis get forward just as often as Carroll does.

  6. No way Hack moves Okugo to mid and puts Soumare on the back line. Soumare has as much a chance of featuring as Torres does. NONE. Hackworth values neither. It’s a shame too. Hack just refuses to put the best players on the pitch together. Very, very frustrating.

  7. Thanks Adam! You phrased this all so perfectly with what I was thinking. I don’t know that I’ve thought that Carroll is playing BAD, he just doesn’t fit what the Union need. This is only made more noticeable and such a large outcry because WE HAVE A READY-MADE SOLUTION.
    .
    Can anyone (besides Jedi Los) argue that the best option for the Union right now OVERALL would be for Soumare to slot in CB, with Okugo at DM with the Farfans on the wings and Kleberson/Torres (Ok Hackworth would never go that outside his box, put Daniel at CAM)?.
    .
    The bottom line here is that everyone knows exactly what Carroll is bringing to the team, and as currently constituted, it is not enough, and not the best option. As long as Hackworth trots out a similar lineup, we will have similar results. And not all the teams we play will be as stupid as Columbus and play such a high defensive line, bc as of right now our entire offense is counter attacks or over the top balls.
    .
    Preferred Lineup: 4-4-2
    Macmath, Williams, Soumare, Parke, Gaddis (Garfan)
    Marfan, Okugo, Kleberson(Torres), Garfan (Letoux)
    Macinerney, Casey
    .
    Probable Lineup: 4-4-2
    Macmath, Williams, Okugo, Parke, Gaddis
    Marfan, Carroll, Daniel, Garfan
    Macinerney, Letoux
    .
    Oh, and Carroll is abolutely directly and indirectly responsible for defensive breakdowns, he is not ALWAYS hung out to dry by someone else (Sorry JediLos)

  8. I’m sure it’s been said, while we may want Soumare to play – Hackworth isn’t going to play him unless it’s an emergency. Ever. People need to get over the “Amobi to midfield” as it isn’t going to happen. Who is to say that Amobi playing in place of Carroll will even help out? I really find it bizarre that our defensive midfielder is being blamed for Marfan, Cruz, Lahoud or Daniel not being good enough to create.

    • JediLos117 says:

      +1

    • The Black Hand says:

      Our attacking midfielders have been awful…No doubt about that. They should be taken to task! That said, Carroll’s complete lack of transitional play has not helped. A lot of the plays have died at Carroll’s foot, before there was even an opportunity for attackers to be involved. Turning play back and meaningless lateral passes can give opponents time to set up a defense of our inept attacking mids, rendering them useless. Given the lack of creative play in our midfield, a quick counter may be all we have. Carroll inhibits that a bit. Kleberson may be able to help change that, if the weather ever becomes favorable enough for Hackworth to play him.

    • @Barry – Nobody is blaming Carroll. Calling him what he is isn’t “blaming.” I don’t think I said Carroll is/isn’t anything he isn’t/is. So look at the trade you’ve proposed: You can assume the blame all lies on the shoulders of Marfan/Cruz/Lahoud/Daniel/Garfan, in which case the team needs three new midfielders. Or you can ask whether changing the one midfield constant might help the others. Would a deep-lying midfielder who makes quick decisions fit the styles that the rest of the midfield better? If so, isn’t it worth a try? Even if Carroll is a good player, he could be the wrong fit. That’s not blame, that’s just an alternative explanation for the team’s current situation. And it’s one that tries to incorporate the current trends in MLS midfields and the long-term future of a club that is still in a rebuilding (or, at least, soul-searching) stage of development.

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