Tactics Talk

The shape of the Union

Photo: Earl Gardner

There was a bit of discussion in the comments section of this week’s analysis/player ratings post about Philadelphia Union’s shape, and whether a two-striker set should be preferred to the 4-1-2-2-1 that has been the foundational team structure all season. Although there are good arguments for varying a team’s basic shape, Earnie Stewart and Jim Curtin have made it clear they believe a consistent formation is a key element to the club’s future success.

This brings up the obvious question:


A hallmark of the Hackworth and early Curtin-era Union teams was a willingness to shift players around the pitch and change shape to fit the opponent and the roster options available. But soon after Earnie Stewart signed on with the Union he told PSP:

Obviously, it’s good to have a couple of players that are very versatile. But if you have specialists in every area of your field, preferably two, that’s the best way to go.

So that’s one thing I can say, we’re working towards a system we’re going to play in, and I believe you have to go out and every single day in your job and work to perfect that system you have. And try to make the players that are in certain positions, make them specialists. Because they feel more comfortable there. The roles and responsibilities they have, the organization that they have, will make an individual a lot better. And he can bring out his specialities at the same time because he doesn’t have to think about the new role that he has for this game or last game.

Stewart’s comments raise a few questions.

  1. Is the 4-1-2-2-1 better than other shapes?
  2. Do the Union use a 4-1-2-2-1 because Stewart and Curtin believe it is inherently better than other shapes?
  3. Why prefer specialization to versatility?

To be clear, I don’t have any final answers. But the questions themselves make useful jumping off points for thinking about the Union’s tactics now and in the future.

A flat 4-4-2 can leave soft spots up the center (remember the Union's "empty bucket" shape?) that makes it easier for the opposition to retain possession in the most dangerous areas of the pitch.

A flat 4-4-2 can leave soft spots up the center (remember the Union’s “empty bucket” shape?) that makes it easier for the opposition to retain possession in the most dangerous areas of the pitch.

Is the 4-1-2-2-1 special?

Tactics tend to go through a life cycle that peaks just before someone (or multiple someones) discovers how to smother it defensively. Then the next big tactical idea slowly emerges as that initial defensive innovation is married to different attacking strategies and an ideal mix spreads, peaks, and is inevitably smothered. Eventually, an innovation pops loose one of the numbers in numerical formation descriptions and is arbitrarily treated as special.

But there is nothing significantly more forward-looking in dropping a striker into midfield versus simply switching left-footed wingers to the right side so they can cut inside and threaten the goal with their dominant foot. Both changes are brilliantly obvious in retrospect, particularly since data can show that they make teams more efficient and effective than the tactics that preceded them.

The 4-1-2-2-1 is a popular variant of the 4-3-3, which kinda, sorta replaced the 4-2-3-1 as the dominant team shape in soccer. If it seems like en vogue formations change much faster than they used to… you aren’t just more attuned to tactics than you used to be (though that touches on the real answer). The proliferation of video and data analysis, coupled with the ability to view and examine that information anywhere at any time, has increased the pace of tactical innovation.

Already, Thomas Tuchel is building on the ideas of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola by marrying intense counterpressing to a possession-based offense at Borussia Dortmund. Additionally, the most impressive variants of the 4-3-3 currently operating are the physically imposing Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich. This suggests that the foremost soccer minds running 4-3-3s believe the formation is evolving athletically, which means the overall shape itself does not need extensive modification.

The diamond 4-4-2 offers better central protection, but it can leave the wings free if it remains narrow. There is a reason few MLS teams have had extended success with such a shape: It requires an extremely specific and difficult-to-find skillset at both the attacking and defensive midfield positions. Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman being the obvious prototypes.

The diamond 4-4-2 offers better central protection, but it can leave the wings completely free if it remains narrow. There is a reason few MLS teams have had extended success with such a shape: It requires an extremely specific and difficult-to-find skillset at both the attacking and defensive midfield positions. Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman being the obvious prototypes. The d-mid in particular has to know when to step to an attacker and when to remain deep and central, and those decisions are often split-second.

Do Stewart and Curtin think of this shape the way Kanye West thinks of himself?

The answer is likely a ‘no.’

Philly is using the 4-1-2-2-1 because it’s extremely flexible, because it’s popular enough that newly acquired players have likely operated in it before, and — remember, defensive innovation often precedes offensive — because it is ideal for a counterpressing defensive system.

That last part is the key. High pressure has changed the nature of modern soccer as much as subtracting a striker or adding a midfielder to the formation. In fact, formation changes that created a deep-lying playmaker and double-pivot to protect the back line evolved to counterattack the high press, necessitated its evolution into the counterpressing so popular today. When Jose Mourinho and others gave brilliant passers extra time by moving them into deeper roles, it was like giving Nic Cage bad dialogue and a big budget: Ugly and a bit annoying, but also incredibly successful and somewhat likable. Counterpressing, then, is like putting someone with common sense between National Treasure scripts and the guys who greenlight films.

Counterpressure was mastered by Guardiola’s Barcelona, but deliberate buildup play meant it remained in the shadows while tiki-taka strode about in the spotlight (Pep Guardiola even suggests as much in the book Pep Confidential). It wasn’t until Jurgen Klopp showed that a team without Barcelona’s pedigree could have success by tying in ferociously quick attacks off turnovers that counterpressure systems were seen as a truly exportable product.

And now that it has been introduced to the big clubs by brilliant managers, and pushed out to the periphery by successful acolytes, counterpressure is finding its geometric home in variations of the 4-3-3. Stewart and Curtin are not betting on the 4-1-2-2-1 so much as on the pressing system it facilitates. The formation just happens to be the best tactical setup anybody has figured out to execute the overarching strategy.

So… is the 4-3-3 better?

So the 4-3-3 is not unequivocably better than the 4-4-2, but it does seem to fit the modern game better for a number of reasons.

The 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape aims to protect the space in front of the central defenders (which, statistically speaking, is key). It leaves soft spots around the opposition center backs, and quality technicians can stride into midfield to start attacks (remember Matt Hedges for Dallas in the season opener?) It also leaves soft spots in the channels between central defense and fullbacks, which is where you will see David Villa this weekend.

The 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape aims to protect the space in front of the central defenders (which, statistically speaking, is key). It leaves soft spots around the opposition center backs, and quality technicians can stride into midfield to start attacks (remember Matt Hedges for Dallas in the season opener?) It also leaves soft spots in the channels between central defense and fullbacks, which is where you will see David Villa this weekend.

First, the 4-3-3 adds an extra man to the center of midfield. This can be counterintuitive because numerical formation descriptions suggest a player is moving from the midfield to the front line (4-4-2 to 4-3-3). But the important thing to note is that ‘midfield’ is no longer defined by zones that stretch touchline to touchline in a 4-3-3. Instead, ‘midfield’ is only the central square of the pitch.

Why? Because teams realized that good tactics required battling over space in that central square and, separately, battling over space on the flanks. Thinking about those two areas of the pitch as a single ‘midfield’ doesn’t mesh with the way tacticians think about the team’s goals when they are applying defensive pressure. This is why 4-3-3 is a general grouping for many modern formations, but most of the time you’ll see it broken down even further into 4-1-2-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-2-1, and so on. While this four-line numerical description appears to offer more information, it still tells you almost nothing about the roles and aims within a team’s shape.

The big takeaway here is that teams are looking to more clearly define the important areas of the field, and the most important zones are through the center.

So ‘adding a man to midfield’ is another way of saying: Let’s define the midfield more narrowly as the center square of soccer’s Hollywood Squares board because that’s the most important space for us to control, then let’s concentrate our forces in that area so we can expand out from that space, and recover to it when defending.

The tactics boards in this post break the field into zones with vertical and horizontal lines. The circles show — very generally — the soft spots in each defensive shape. You can see that the 4-3-3 shape tends to allow more space around where centerbacks normally carry the ball, whereas 4-4-2 shapes tend to give up space in zones where more technical players usually roam. This speaks to why a highly technical central defender like Joshua Yaro is so prized in today’s game.

Overall, the extra man in midfield may be the biggest formational change in soccer since the sweeper stopped getting invited to parties because the new offsides rule made him seem like a real drag. The third man in the middle makes it easier to control the important space on the pitch, which is socc-o-babble for: Makes it easier to get the ball into dangerous areas, and more difficult for the opposition to do the same.

Space: The only frontier

Space is key for modern managers. In the same way moving a chess piece to a white square or an adjacent black square can completely alter how threatening that piece is and what it means to an opponent, forcing the opposition to play the ball slightly wider or slightly deeper than they prefer makes them exponentially less dangerous. This same logic can be seen in the move from man-on-man to zonal marking. “Marking Kaka” no longer means following him around like an imprinted duck; it means keeping him out of the specific areas where he is most dangerous.

Notably, adding an extra man to midfield could have come at the expense of the back four. Instead, it cost a lot of big strikers their jobs. If three-man midfields would have evolved in a different context (perhaps one where field quality was low and the ball was still too heavy to move quickly with single touches), managers may have preferred to have more players forward so quick outlets could be played aerially into wide areas. Tellingly, Marco Bielsa developed his 3-3-1-3 in Chile as a different response to still-common 4-4-2 formations.

A second reason to keep four in the back is that the fullback position has shed its defensive caterpillar and become an attacking butterfly (or moth-like creature, depending on execution). With three central midfielders and a single striker, wide midfielders are asked to do more work in forward areas, requiring fullbacks to provide outlets for the midfield on the flanks. In hindsight, many clear changes in how the game is played flow from just a few innovations.

And it is clear that few of those innovations favor the 4-4-2. It is a formation that leaves teams too defensively stretched to combat a quality central trio. Additionally, it tends to keep central defenders off the ball because strikers are always near them. Although that sounds like a positive, it ends up entirely removing one of the key targets of defensive pressure. If central defenders can’t get the ball, they cannot be pressed. Correspondingly, as long as two players are on the central defenders, more skilled players have additional space to operate. And that is rarely ideal.

Is the 4-4-2 dead?

Not at all. Premier League leaders Leicester City and surprise outfit Watford have both leaned on it this season, and West Ham have solidified their hold on the top half of the table with periods of 4-4-2.

The big question is how dual striker systems can succeed against packed midfields that keep the ball and close off ground routes to the front two. For Leicester, the answer has been to use a player who runs as much as two players (N’golo Kante) and strikers that are masters of the dark arts of forcing central defenders to turn and retreat. The pace of Leicester’s breakouts means defensive lines go into retreat too early, or don’t compress space in midfield enough to allow an effective counterpress. It should be noted that the only manager to defeat Leicester since Christmas was one of the Mount Rushmore heads of counterpressing: A certain Mr. Klopp.

For Watford, the innovation has been subtler. They find success when one of the strikers drops below the other and looks for aerial balls instead of the typical outlet passes on the ground through the center. The deeper striker then distributes with the head to wide areas and the entire team moves forward and looks to find the advanced striker behind opposition lines.

The point is that Philly absolutely could try to use a 4-4-2, particularly in MLS where fullback quality is disturbingly low and playing the ball into corners (as teams often did against the Union last season) is an effective strategy. But — and here we get to the final question — by pickin’-n-stickin’ with a shape, the Union believe they can more effectively build a productive roster long-term.

What’s so special about specialists?

On a podcast I barely remember, Jon Stewart said that the intensely structured day-to-day routine of The Daily Show was what allowed everyone to be creative. It is a sentiment that has been repeated many times in many contexts, but it still does not get the credit it deserves. Managers follow this logic without citing it when they keep a struggling back line together or retain a midfield trio despite early season struggles.

Automatizing the fundamentals of a system takes time. And though some players may thrive no matter where they are placed on a pitch, many struggle with changes as seemingly simple as moving from the left to the right. These adjustments, which seem minor on the surface, disrupt the nonconscious learning processes that players develop over time. There’s even an academic literature (well-known by the likes of Dortmund’s Tuchel) on how to use random variation in soccer training to speed up the automatization of movements that are seen to be taking up unnecessary conscious mental resources.

To be clear, the point is not that a player should be kept in the same position regardless of how well they play because, eventually, they will become a specialist and excel (though that may have been the thinking with Andrew Wenger last season). Instead, it is that when a player excels on the pitch, it is not only because they are confident, in shape, or ‘in-form.’ It is also because they have a basic level of comfort with the structure and requirements of their role that allows them the freedom to express themselves and interpret the position in unique and, hopefully, beneficial ways.

Keeping the same shape game-in and game-out assists in these automatizing processes because players learn to be where they and their teammates should be without thinking about it.

The counterargument to specialization is that playing the same shape makes a team easier to defend. You may see some people contend that Columbus and New York Energy Drinks are struggling this season because other teams have “figured out how to defend” their systems. It follows from this that teams should vary their shape in order to both keep the opposition off balance and adjust to each opponent’s tendencies.

New MLS managers like Veljko Paunovic and Patrick Viera have shown an incredible willingness to modify team shape each week. Paunovic has played around with 5-back systems and Viera even rolled out something resembling the once-revolutionary W-M formation.

Notably, both managers are working with rosters assembled via incompetence (Chicago) or marketing-related goals (NYC). And these examples highlight perhaps the biggest reason why Earnie Stewart insists on a single system come hell or high water: Ideally, it lowers the risk of investment on incoming players.

If a team can draft, scout, and acquire players to fit a specific system with well-defined positional roles, the front office can feel a lot more confident about how they spend their salary cap budget. Consider past Union forays into the transfer market.

  • Steven Vitoria: Not a terrible defender, but a terrible fit for the higher line Jim Curtin wanted to lean on as the season progressed.
  • Cristian Maidana: A very good player, but a horrific fit for a team that had nobody in defense with the passing range to find him on counterattacks.
  • Maurice Edu: A player who has never fit into a clear positional box, brought in to be the focal point of a team without a clear tactical plan. How do you build around someone who straddles the line between roles? The Union never figured it out, and that (along with injuries, in fairness) has contributed to using Edu as a gap-filler instead of a foundational piece.
  • Tranquillo Barnetta: A wide midfielder transitioning to a central role… or maybe not, because now there are needs on the wing… no wait, maybe in the middle…

Of these players, only Vitoria can be seen as an out-and-out misfire. The others are all good players who were acquired for their skills as individuals instead of how they fit into the team’s strategic goals. Each was brought in to be a “foundational piece,” but what they would form the foundation of was never that clear.

And this is likely why Earnie Stewart subscribes to specialization. Sure, players like Roland Alberg and Ilsinho can move between wing and central midfield, but that is because the system is built to make those roles fairly similar. Moving Sebastien Le Toux to striker, on the other hand, changes where the team can effectively press, and where the opposition can effectively attack.

Specialization is not zero-sum, in that a player only learns to play in one place. It means a player has an acute understanding of their main role on the pitch, and a solid understanding of what teammates want to do from their positions. This is the only way a defensive system like counterpressing, which relies so heavily on team-wide coordinated movement, can succeed.


Stewart, Curtin, and the rest of the Union have spoken often about clarity. Clarity in the overall vision of the club and clarity in terms of strategic and tactical goals on the pitch. Clarity can be achieved with shifting formations; players just need to know that their primary and secondary goals remain the same no matter the shape. But it is often easier to achieve by providing a constant structure within which players can operate on the pitch, and which can guide the risky business of roster-building.

Overall, this post is merely fanning the flames of a discussion PSP’s incredible group of commenters lit and nurtured. There are strong counterarguments against trying to counterpress (it requires incredible team discipline, for example, and can fall flat on its face if one player fails to perform their duties), and I am arguing that the counterpress (along with the ability to teach the same system at all club levels) is likely a major motivator behind a strict adherence to  variants of the 4-3-3.

So have at it! Agree or disagree, and if the latter: Explain why Philly should be more flexible with its shape going forward.


  1. MikeRSoccer says:

    Personally, I strongly support the adherence to variants of 4-3-3. I personally believe that it is more likely than other formations to create a fluid, attacking style. More importantly, establishing a system from your youth side to the senior squad creates clear positional and stylistic goals for the players. Right backs know they will need to get forward and be confident on the ball (rather than be a stay-at-home RB), CDMs know they will be sitting in front of two CBs who are confident passers (rather than being a roaming destroyer who needs to get forward), and STs know they will need to work on their strength and hold up play (rather than being pure poachers).

    With a strict salary cap, you do not want to shift between formations and end up having a player who is a stay-at-home RB eating up cap space. Same with a player who is truly a second striker. If you know that your team is going to be playing a 4-3-3 variant, you know that it’s a waste of money to sign an expensive second striker, etc.

    • Well said… couldn’t agree more.
      if the 4-3-3 and its movable parts was good enough for Johan Cruyff its good enough for me.
      Especially if you have a team with different skill set striker types… the hold up strong striker that possesses and the surly quite fox like striker that can run in behind yet still has the skill set to drop deep and really confound defenses.

    • I can agree with you. However, you just said indirectly then that this team should dump contracts like Gaddis, Pontius (who everyone said is more of a second striker), Le Toux (also stated to be a better striker), Edu and Crevealle both of whom do not sit in front of the two CBs.

      • yes, we should.

      • I mean I can agree with it however you gave Gaddis a long term contract for reasonable money to hold him here and have no viable replacements. I say let Le Toux play through till he retires as he seems to be fine with the off the bench role and he is still a fan favorite and offers late game goals and energy (he is likely to consistently take pay cuts (I think) if this team starts winning, since he loves Philly). Pontius, Edu, and Crevealle open up 1.1 million I think so that works for me.

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    It’s important to remember that the Union has at times shifted to other formations, specifically when chasing a late goal where they have pulled Fabhino. Granted this was a shift while a man down, but I think it’s something they are likely to do in the future at even strength as well.

  3. Let me use this as a forum to talk about Edu: exactly how and why does Edu “not fit into a positional box”?

    He is a CDM, correct? That is where he played his entire life, save for brief spurts of injury coverage or mad scientist tinkering.

    This concept that edu is a CB makes me mad to some degree, because we at the Union seem to have a disease where we fall in love with playing players out of position, and becoming infatuated with their honeymoon period. It happened with Okugo, with Gabe, with Hackworth. And probably others I forget.

    I don’t find it particularly hard to imagine what Edu can be, honestly. To me, he seems like a rich mans Craevalle.

    • pragmatist says:

      It’s a question of positional discipline. My opinion is that he was never an ingredient in a coherent plan. He was a part of the previous administration’s attempts to throw people at a problem, with no VPP.
      I am with you that he can and will fit with this roster in that spot. But it’s just not a certainty, since we haven’t seen it before on a consistent basis.
      It’s going to be really nice having a DP-level player entering the lineup in the middle of the season. The positives about his absence are that he will not have months of wear and tear on his body (assuming full recovery), which means he should have more in the tank when September rolls around than most other guys around the league.
      I’m excited for his return.

      • If Edu plays and displays that he is the 6 Earnie needs, in all honesty, I believe this team could make a deep run.
        I’m not crazy about Edu… but in a system that demands him to be disciplined I think he could be an MVP type player for this team.
        I agree wholeheartdely, having him come back, settling in, I hope, having the team gel around him, could bode magically for an interesting autumn.
        All this from a guy who wishes Okugo were here doing just that… so thats a big move for me.
        To be true, I hope Edu comes through in spades– I’d be fine if he has the last laugh in all this, as of yet though, that is not the case- IMO.
        As per the usual, this is simply excellent excellent work Adam.

    • Edu is going to drop into this lineup and either shift it into another gear or bog it down into an ill disciplined mess. I really don’t think there will be a middle ground. For the record I’m on the SellEdu bandwagon. We need a new true CDM.
      I believe our backfield has performed best when the CBs split and our CDM dropped into the gap. BC has filled this role well but a carbon copy ten years his junior would be even better. Yaro should be given a chance at CDM but we know that won’t happen. Edu won’t play sweeper like that. He gets forward too much and we’ve seen how mobility (WC) can negatively affect that positional mentality. Edu is amazingly athletic but his reliance on his ability to run down his mistakes is too much of a crutch.
      Let’s just wait and see.

      • old soccer coach says:

        Yaro has directly said he is a CB, and Curtin has publicly committed to the CB role for him.

    • Edu is a very talented player. The issue is that he can’t play box-to-box if Nogueira is also playing box-to-box. That was the issue in the all-too-brief times that they played together in the midfield last season.

      Personally, I’m of the opinion that we have not seen enough of the two of them playing together to really know how well it would work — and I am looking forward to seeing how well it could work. Imagine if Edu were in the Carroll/Creavalle type role.. but could ALSO contribute to the offense. That would make us a very difficult club to play. I don’t KNOW if he will play that role, but I’d like to see an attempt made. If he can’t fit into the system, then we are probably better off with Nogueira in that role, and he should be sold.

      • Personally and I’ve said this for awhile and feel I will continue to say this. Edu does nothing for this team in my opinion. If you have WC, BC, and Nogs all playing as they have been and you hit mid to late season and Edu is healthy why change things. He to me doesn’t add much. Yes, Edu is athletic, but he looks a first touch, discipline, and his choice of passing last year was questionable at best. Granted the team is not stellar, but its a vast improvement at this point I say stick with what you got and try to improve outside of the club. I personally look and say if he is health by the summer window can we sell him and get another piece that fits this team as well as Alberg, Barnetta, Nogs, Ilsinho. All to me were great pickups and work together well. Every time I look at this roster Edu is the odd one out looking in. Him and his $700,000+ contract can go and it wouldn’t bother me or this team one bit I think.

      • Well, I’d argue we have a similar problem with edu that we have with fabinho. Both like to attack and get forward when they can, to a fault at times. When he was playing CB last year, it forced him to be disciplined positionally. But when he plays CDM, he relies on his athleticism to cover mistakes he makes in his position. I think with understanding, experience, and a better defined role, we will see him grow under Earnie and Jim still.

  4. First, thanks for the link; Jonathan Wilson articles never go out of style! His recent article on squad rotation had me thinking of our Union. Formations are nice, but knowing which way your teammate likes to break can be nicer. We’ve seen more than a few errant passes born of misunderstandings between players who simply are not yet habituated. I hope that problem, which is definitely not solved by picking a system and sticking to it, clears up when the team has a solid starting XI week in and week out.

  5. NJUnionFan says:

    Great article. Arsenal beat Leicester City on Feb 14th, the only team to take two wins against them.

  6. Old Soccer Coach says:

    I had two immediate reactions as I read the piece, first, that I need to figure out how to forward the text to two former colleagues who are actively coaching – and a third who is long retired – as reading material for their rosters, and, two, that El Pachyderm will read this, grin slowly, sigh contentedly, and drift off into a relaxed nap as vision, philosophy and plan are expounded herein systematically and thoroughly.
    Keep it up, Adam, and you’re going to have to write a book!
    If some of us are too young for the Hollywood Squares reference, substitute tic-tac-toe.
    It is a good day when your reading includes such clear, succinct, systematic and thorough expositions of a problem.
    Excellent. Thank you.

  7. Your lucid explanation makes a couple of thing clear to me:

    1. The label “4-3-3” is a complete misnomer. It should be divided out more specifically (e.g. 4-2-3-1), because even though that isn’t perfect, it still gives you a fuller idea of what the setup is like.

    2. The problem I have — and that I think the Union have — with the 4-2-3-1 system is that your extra guy clogging up the middle puts a lot more pressure on the wing players — both up front, and in the back. It takes major energy to get up and down the sideline on the wing, and the wing mids are really needed both on offense and defense. It also takes a whole lotta judgment on the part of the fullbacks as to when to get up into the attack and when to hang back, and the two people we have exercising that judgment right now are a talented but inexperienced rookie, and a former Sun Rocket passenger. I would think that you would want to spend good money on some ace fullbacks to really make this formation hum. And even that is a challenge, given the paucity of good left backs in MLS.

    • You know where you could get the money for a good LB, from Edu’s contract. I’m just saying it could work wonders. Think any money left in the pool plus split his contract in 2 and you got $350k per OB to add to this team.

  8. Zizouisgod says:

    Great post, Adam. While I do think that formations are important, it’s just as important what roles players serve in those formations. We tend to get fixated on the numbers in each line of the team rather than what those individual players do in their respective role and how that gets coordinated into the team’s overall tactical game plan.

    Thought provoking stuff. Thanks again.

    • +1
      Look no further than this weekend’s opponent for the best demonstration of that. Pirlo will be listed as a CDM, but his purpose will be passes that unlock a defense. We will likely use BC in that same position, and the only thing we’re going to ask him to do is shield the back line and occasionally recycle play as a pivot.

  9. old soccer coach says:

    “Explain why Philly should be more flexible with its shape going forward.”
    In the tradition of PSP, at least as I have observed it since discovery, I will begin with a movie reference, to wit, the early scene of the Barbecue at the Tara from Gone With the Wind. I apologize for not being able to quote verbatim; the substance is, one Southerner can whip ten Yankees with one hand tied behind his back.

    For our purposes, in other words, it is all about match-ups. My experience in game management, be it diamond, cage or pitch, is that the first thing you must do is to evaluate those match-ups. Can your side – either individually through athletic prowess or collectively through shape and scheme – contain the other side’s major threats. Once “the Mountain” gets his hands on Oberon’s skull, Tyrion Lannister will be adjudged guilty even before the watermelon explodes; to survive you must avoid your opponent’s greatest advantage.
    Focusing solely on your own side’s development, honing each of the scheme’s component parts into the most automatic, polished puzzle piece possible, only wins games if it wins the match-ups. Ivanschitz’s perfectly weighted, sublimely curled loft to Morris beat Richie and Andre; we observers all sensed instinctively, as the curl on the ball began to arc, that the geometry of the defense was wrong, in that instant there was trouble. The unspellably-named Chicago striker’s choice away from his strong foot – and the perfect angle on his shot! – won his match-up against Ken in the moment. Those two match-ups are six points gone.
    And at the most fundamental level of game management, be the game on a large oblong space of grass surrounded by stadia, or one of the few larger flatish spaces among the mountains of ancient Hellas, or at sea, victory is a matter of improvisation in the moment as well as meticulous preparation. Whether it is Alexander’s timing of the Macedonian heavy cavalry charge at Chaeronea in 338 BCE, Nelson turning his blind eye to the “Line Ahead” signal flag at Cape St. Vincent in 1797, or Epaminondas of Thebes’s decision to make his right flank phalanx thirty ranks deep instead of the customary eight at Leuctra in 371 BCE, on field improvisation, the sensing of the match-up advantage, either during the struggle or just before it, is equally as important as its indispensable complement, meticulous advance preparation.
    Ancient Sparta’s peacetime preparation of its dreaded heavy infantry phalanx was so intense, it is said that its soldiers preferred war to peace because war was so much easier! But the Theban’s genius “out of the box” improvisation nonetheless ended the two and a half century Spartan winning streak. Over time the British Admiralty’s Fighting Instructions had gained those islands dominance at sea, but Nelson saw beyond their limits, disobeyed them, and won a sea fight in which the British were significantly outnumbered, earning his commander, Sir John Jervis, a seat in the House of Lords and avoiding a court martial for disobedience. Alexander ended Hellenic independence, made his father the peninsula’s hegemon, and took his first significant step towards conquering Persia.
    Earnie Stewart has mandated a system, as did the code of Lykourgos in Sparta. The system’s goal is to create a wonderfully coordinated organization that strongly enhances its collective chance of winning, in some ways calling to mind the principles behind the Spartan heavy infantry phalanx. Such a system heavily de-emphasizes individual – and collective! – improvisation in the moment. Yet such improvisation – please forgive my unimaginative reliance on the cliche – can as did Nelson and Epaminondas – snatch victory from the jaws of impending defeat. (Philip of Macedon’s professionals were likely to have beaten Hellas’s citizen soldiers even without his heir’s decision-making brilliance.)
    Is Earnie also subtly nurturing and empowering Jim Curtin to learn to improvise in ways that Nick Sakewicz did not? To quote Admiral Greer in the Presidential National Security Advisor’s briefing during Hunt for Red October, “the data do not warrant any conclusions as yet,” but there are one or two microscopic blips that offer me hope. First is the substitution against New England of Barnetta and Herbers for Alberg and Le Toux that shifted Sapong away from center forward onto the flank. And, second, from Bethlehem’s game against Richmond, the starting of Eric Ayuk as the attacking center midfielder instead of the midfielder on the right flank, the central midfield triangle of Akinyode, Jones and Auk playing a central role in the defeat of a very good USL side, one that had itself just beaten the defending league champs. Both Steel goals came from the triangle.
    Neither Brendan Burke nor Jim Curtin yet rank with Sigi Schmidt for tactical game management! But hindsight tells us that each of those improvisational adjustments outside the seemingly well-established patterns of apparent positional specialization had meaningful success. Now, two datums alone do not an hypothesis prove! Only time will tell whether Earnie’s vision includes not only the perfection of the Spartan phalanx but also developing the battlefield improvisational genius of an Alexander.

    • Systems do battle in the first half. Coaches do so in the second.
      I know that’s a bit reductive, but hopefully this quote coach curtin himself likes to use helps illustrate my point: ” everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” I gave him a pass on his tactical decisions last year because there was little to nothing he could do with his bench most of the time. So, bring on casey and lob balls toward his head became our idea of late game tactics when chasing the points. Hopefully the increasingly intelligent late game moves continue.

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