Tactics Talk

What’s the right formation for 2015?

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

With only a day left until the season opener, PSP writers Eli Pearlman-Storch and Adam Cann have a conversation about the Union’s options with regards to formation and personnel.

Eli Pearlman-Storch: Adam, it seemed to me (and I believe many others), that Fernando Aristigueta was the final necessary piece in the 4-3-3 (yes, it’s an actual 4-3-3!) formation that Jim Curtin wanted to play in 2014. However, in the preseason he switched to a 4-4-2 which at times looked a lot like a 4-2-4 (his words not mine).

Why the change? I’m struggling to see the benefits of the formational switch.

Adam Cann: I remain convinced that Jim Curtin simply wanted to see more of Conor Casey in a playmaking role now that there is another viable striker on the roster. Curtin said on the podcast that he considered using Pfeffer against New York but picked Casey instead. And I think that if the Union coaching staff review the New York game without thinking about the scoreline, they will see a giant hole in the midfield from which Red Bulls built attack after attack. And they will see their own side playing a long ball-knock down game with nobody around to recover loose balls in the middle.

But while the 4-2-4 (which is what it was, you cannot convince me there was anything midfield-y about Le Toux and Wenger in that match) was not a success, I agree with Curtin that the team needs to explore alternative formations. Once opposition coaches learned to sit deep and frustrate the Union’s counterattack, the team was notably bereft of ideas. Introducing an alternative early in the season – even if you only use it late in games – could be very beneficial down the line.

Looking at this roster, what choices does Curtin have aside from the 4-2-4 approach we saw against New York?

EPS: Variation is important, absolutely, but the one thing the 2014 team didn’t have was a striker like Aristigueta. Casey is always going to be a physical, aerial threat, but El Colorado (I like it too much not to use it once) will live in the box, attacking high and low crosses, as well as looking to run in behind. By the end of last season, teams had very little fear of the Union attackers because, simply put, Brian Brown and Pedro Ribeiro lacked the polish to threaten consistently, and Casey lacked the legs.

Teams can no longer afford to simply drop off of the Union and absorb Wenger and Le Toux’s charging runs, because Aristigueta and CJ Sapong, when he is deployed as a center forward, CAN make those critical runs and find that yard of space that Ribeiro (not a striker) and Brown (not experienced enough) simply couldn’t.

How about this for a wild idea…

The Union experiment with the 4-4-2 diamond. Mo Edu sits at the base, breaking up play and distributing. Vincent Nogueira (right) and Zach Pfeffer (left) as the wide (narrow) midfielders and Chaco Maidana at the tip of the diamond. Possession? Check. Defensive cover? Check. Chances created? Absolutely check. The issues I see are:

1. What do you do at left back? That narrow formation requires the fullbacks to make up the width and while Ray Gaddis has many skills, providing width in attack from the left flank isn’t one of them.

2. What about Wenger and Le Toux? This is a tough one. I’d try Wenger in a free roll up top, running off of Aristigueta. He could drop into all the spaces he wants to in order to find the ball and it might even help some of Gaddis’ weakness on the left, because Wenger could look to those spaces to find the ball. As for Le Toux, well, that’s why you’re here.

Is that a crazy idea?

AC: I laugh, sir,  laugh at the idea of using Andrew Wenger in a central role. Wenger linking and playing with his back to goal is not where I want a guy with a high ceiling but a very rickety ladder with which to reach it. It would take a lot for me to consider Wenger in any role other than this high winger spot he is in now, simply because there are too many people who think he has All-Star material and I have seen him disprove those prognosticators as a central striker over and over again.

However, I do not disagree with your basic premise that fitting as many playmakers as possible into the midfield is a net positive. All four midfielders you named can possess, pass, and dribble. My main reservation is tied to the subject of your first question: Left back. Teams that successfully fill the midfield with offensively-oriented players excel when the outside backs offer consistent outlets that stretch the field and provide that space the midfielders need to tap into their creative strengths. But while I certainly think Ray Gaddis has a place in MLS, I do not think it is as an outside back in that kind of system (Sheanon Williams? Absolutely).

My proposed solution is to – and judge this proposal on its tactical merits, not on the name I’m about to attach to it – use the type of system Madrid used under Mourinho to let Cristiano Ronaldo treat the rest of La Liga the way Russell Westbrook treats the Philadelphia 76ers. Essentially, stick Andrew Wenger high and wide as an outlet and let the midfield use him as an emergency valve when necessary, but otherwise keep him out of the middle and out of El Colorado’s way.

This is a very unbalanced system, but it plays to both Gaddis’ and Wenger’s strengths. It does not, however, provide a role for Sebastien Le Toux. But, in truth, there is no place for both Wenger and Le Toux in a 4-4-2. You could plug Le Toux into my proposal without missing a beat, but putting either vertically-oriented player into a diamond midfield is like giving a child candy and caffeine then asking them to color within the lines: You won’t get the result you want.

And in both the current 4-3-3 and your proposed 4-4-2 formations, I’m curious as to how the Union can make in-game adjustments. As of now, who do you see as the team’s best options off the bench either a) with a lead or b) tied or behind? To me, this is the biggest argument for giving Jimmy McLaughlin playing time. He seems like one of the best fits as a change of pace out wide should the Union want to go a bit less vertical. Otherwise, I don’t see many players you can bring in as a like-for-like sub. Maybe Lahoud for Edu or Nogueira? What do you think?

EPS: Before I answer your question, is it fair to just acknowledge that we are taking these flights of tactical fancy because the 4-3-3 is so clearly the correct answer for this team? In the past, arguments on PSP and all over Union-land have focused on which is better, an ideal tactical setup/formation or simply getting the best eleven players on the field. With the arrival of Aristigueta, Curtin is set up to check both boxes at the same time. That bears repeating. Curtin has the ability to put his best eleven players on the field in a tactical formation that is also best suited to his style and his roster.

So, back to in game adjustments. If the Union have a lead, a midfield shuffle is probably the way to go. Michael Lahoud takes off the most advanced playmaker, be it Maidana or Pfeffer, and slots into a defensive midfield role alongside Edu. Not only does that allow for two defensive midfielders to cover more ground, but it also means, perhaps more importantly, that the guy harassing an opponent’s deep-lying playmakers is Nogueira. The Frenchman is ideally suited to buzz around, rushing play, closing down space and also offer defensive support to the Union’s wide men.

With so much more depth in 2015, Curtin can call on a few guys who can play multiple positions to maintain or improve upon his team’s position in game. This should finally be the year where Pfeffer plays significant minutes and he can spell either Maidana or Nogueira in midfield. And while Curtin has two center strikers in Casey and Dzenan Catic at his disposal, he also has CJ Sapong, who can do a job at almost any attacking position.

Depth becomes more interesting defensively, because injuries, suspensions, dips of form, etc., will still dictate a shuffling of the roster. Should Ethan White go down, for example, it is far more likely that Edu slides back and Lahoud comes on than that Curtin would throw in an untested Richie Marquez.

You still with me? I get a little gun shy because there have been plenty of times in the past where the Union have thumbed their nose at the obvious and logical thing to do.

AC: Is it fair to acknowledge the 4-3-3 appears to fit this team very well? I say it is. Last offseason we praised the signings and slagged off the setup. The past few months we have griped about a lack of signings but said very little about the formation. I think the team’s success with the 4-3-3 last year was, like most things, a gift and a curse. It was all-systems-groovy to see a dynamic attack and a reasonably solid defense (very solid compared to March through June). But it was a gut punch to find out that everything stuttered to a halt if any team shrugged their collective shoulders and sat deep.

Any way you look at it, the overall effect of having a team that almost undeniably matches the coach’s system is a big one. It’s something that Portland has spent a lot of money trying to achieve with Caleb Porter, and the Union did it with a trio of loans (one of which they turned into a purchase) and the capture of a sneaky-good Frenchman.

On the in-game adjustments topic, I’m going to cautiously disagree with you, mainly because I have no numbers to back up my position. While I see a lot of value in the changes you propose, I think it can end up causing more harm than good if you change formation simply to add a defensive player. If Edu is getting overwhelmed, sure. Let Lahoud help him out. But if it is simply a case of the Union being ahead and sitting too deep, then I might opt to add a more attacking player to the mix when subbing off someone like Maidana. If the opposition is leaving space, I want to exploit it. I will never, ever, ever cease to wonder at the logic of subbing on Danny Cruz late in a match and then asking him to play deeper than the player he is replacing. Danny Cruz has many good qualities, but defense – and defensive positioning in particular – is not one of them. That’s like replacing my beer with water for the last 20 minutes I’m drinking it and telling me that since I still have the same amount of liquid, it will have the same effect on me.

Now the depth issue is a very interesting one to me. Because I see plenty of potential depth, but until Curtin shows he is willing to lean on younger players, I will remain skeptical. If Fred and Cruz are consistently preferred to Pfeffer and McLaughlin, it would not blow my mind. And I think this speaks to your Marquez question as well. Will the coaching staff finally utilize a player that has impressed two preseasons in a row?

In the end, I think the secret sauce is simplicity. The Union went on a run using a very straightforward, compact defensive shell that had a hair-trigger breakout attack. When the midfield lost shape, the team lost momentum. With the additional options available to him this season, Jim Curtin may be tempted to keep poking until the whole jenga tower falls down. Plenty of adjustments can be made within a successful formation. And while the casual fan may not notice those adjustments, they should make up the majority of what a coach is paid to do. The formation is the easy part. Figuring out how to organize and simplify defensive responsibilities so players are in ideal positions to counterattack? Deciding when and who to substitute? Deciding between pressing the center backs or just cutting off passing lanes to the midfield? Those are the little things that Jim Curtin can tweak.

The overall formation? I think that Curtin picked the right numbers early, so he can take his chips from the roulette table in the formation casino and put his time into the less visible tactical work.


  1. I’m a fan of the 4-2-3-1 they played a lot last season. We have so much talent at midfield it would be painful to see some of them sit out. I can see this lineup working well with a 4-3-3 as well, but puts some of our midfielders out of position a bit pushing wider than normal. Ideal set up here would be; Gaddis-Vitoria-White-Williams in the back line with Edu-Nogueria and Wenger-Maidana-Le Touex as the 5 midfielders, and Aristigueta as the lone forward. M-bohli in goal of course. Pfeffer, Catic, Lahoud, Fabinho, Blake, Sapong, and Marquez on the bench.

    • Totally agree. Nogueira is not a wide player. He doesn’t have the speed, or the speed you want in a wide player. Though even in this formation I think Nogueira should play slightly in front of Edu as the play maker, and allow Edu to sweep in front of the back line. But that would also depend on Edu actually staying at home, which seems to be against his nature.

      • The Black Hand says:

        There lies the problem with Noguiera. He likes to sit deep, keeping the game in front of him. It makes it very difficult to position a cohesive central midfield around him. Edu will be the X-factor. Can he quickly advance play…or will he sit on the ball, keeping Noguiera on his hip and clogging the middle???

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Good trick to have seven on the bench if you can get it to work!: ). And one of them is recovering from surgery.

      My guess is the 4-2-3-1 is the basic formation, my guess stemming from Jim Curtin being a defender, with the 4-1-3-2 as the alternative when you need to score. Lahoud is first sub at DCM, Pfeffer is first sub at ACM. Unless Colorado’s flank mids are really big and strong, I’d make McGlaughlin or Ayuk the first sub at flank mid because you’ve got to find out whether either can play with first team this year. If not they need to play down a level. Sapong is the first sub at striker because Casey lacks the wheels to play any form of high pressure defense, and because Sapong could relieve on the flank midfield. Marquez is the only sub at center back that leaves Edu in the midfield. McCarthy is the #2 keeper.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Forgot to clarify, the formation switch moves from the midfield triangle of Edu, Nogueira, and Maidana, to a central channel Y of Edu, Nogueira and Maidana with Aristigueta and Maidana as the two highest vertices of the Y. The key to both formations, and hence to some degree the season in general, is Edu’s discipline in covering the two center backs, controlling what a former colleague referred to as the critical area.

  2. The 4-4-2 doesn’t make sense if all systems are go, as it doesn’t put our best XI on the field, and doesn’t use people’s talents (e.g. Wenger’s) ideally.

    HOWEVER, it may become very useful in case of winger injury. It is not clear to me that the Union have terrific options to replace Wenger or Le Toux. Maybe, maybe not. Considerations are: Can Pfeffer play on the wing? Can Sapong play on the wing (with better results than he had in KC)? Is McLaughlin ready for prime time? Is Danny Cruz improved? (He actually looked so in the last several games of last season.) If the answer to all of these questions is “NO”, then an injury or suspension to Le Toux or Wenger might be best dealt with by switching to a 4-4-2 of the kind Eli and Adam suggest.

  3. Off-topic here, but kind of secretly excited and happy that EVERY SINGLE season preview I’ve looked at (like every last one I saw/received in Morse Code/heard aside from our beautiful and loyal PSP writers) have the U missing the playoffs.

    Not trying to be a homer, but I definitely see us holding our own in the East and potentially surprising plenty of folks.

    Beyond CB, I think our depth issues may be overstated with the versatility of Pfeffer, Ayuk, Lahoud, McLaughlin, and co.

  4. Great One says:

    I think we would be crazy, or have injuries, to not play the 4-2-3-1 at least several games to start the season. It allows our best players to get on the field at the same time, and allows for like to like switches off the bench. Most of the 2 striker variations put our best guys out of position, which is what we killed Hackworth for last year. For my money, the bench would be Pfeffer, Lahoud, Sapong, Casey, Mccarthy, Fabinho and Fred.
    I would say Catic and Mclaughlin on the bench as well, but I’m not sure that they would get many minutes at all, and may be better served in Harrisburg.

  5. 4-3-3 is pretty much the only way to go with this group, although a 4-2-3-1 may be a little bit better depending on who’s available on any given day. I think the late game adjustment if we’re winning is to take Nando off for a defensive option (I hate that Lahoud is really our only other defensive mid), push our center attacking mid (whether it’s Maidana, Pfeffer, or Sapong) out to the wing, and switch to a more defensive 4-5-1 with Edu, Lahoud, and Nogueira in the middle, and let Le Toux’s legs do the work up top.

  6. Great insightful discussion gents. Adam’s last point is the key for me. More important than formation, and even player selection, is the way Curtin gets each player to understand his role and play with a cohesive plan about balancing a coordinated attack and defense. As it seems Curtin will have more options than last year, I think this will really be a proving year for his tactical coaching abilities.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      I agree with Spugger’s interest in Adam’s descriptions of the individual tactical subtleties of the various positions. I’d love to see him develop those potential coaching points further sometime, should he have time to do so. E.g., how do you simplify a defender’s role so he will be in position for a counter-attack?

      • Alicat215 says:

        That’s what your two holding mids are for if you get caught….they slide and shut things down, because generally….your flank backs will be up the pitch too……

  7. I’m thinking 4-2-3-1 with this squad. Having said that, a 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid also could work well with what we have. Benfica, Basel, and even Chelsea run this to great effect. It’s a counter attacking 4-3-3 where you sit back at midfield in a 4-5-1……then counter fast in the 4-3-3. Not a real a pressing out and out 4-3-3…….but gives teams fits if done well and disciplined. We have the pace to use it………

  8. pragmatist says:

    one game in the books, and we can safely say the 4-4-2 is not the right lineup.
    2 identical strikers is not helping us. Get the creativity of Chaco back out on the field from the start.

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