Match analyses: Minnesota and Nashville

Photo: Stephen Speer

I’ve been struggling to decide whether it’s best to take these games separately or together. For, while the outcomes of each match were quite different (to say the least), from a Union perspective, they were actually quite similar. Were it not for a series of almost inexplicable individual defensive errors against Minnesota (go watch the highlights—first José Martínez, then Olivier Mbaizo, then Kai Wagner makes a poor decision with the ball at their feet and puts the team under totally unnecessary pressure), the two games would have looked largely the same, tactically. Which I suppose answers my question; let’s look at them together.

Christmas comes early

Jim Curtin has employed the 4-3-2-1 “Christmas tree” formation before, though it wasn’t until this past week that the team seemed to execute it effectively. Formations are often given too much credit for how a team performs. And when the overall level of the players involved is high enough, formations are largely irrelevant—good players make plays, regardless. But even good players can benefit from the structure and memorized rotations and ball movements of a strict formation. The Union, with their 4-4-2 diamond, have one of the most consistent team shapes in MLS, and derive a lot of their success from the platform it provides.

However, if a team becomes reliant on a particular shape, and builds a roster around the attributes necessary to make it work, problems arise when the players available don’t match up with the expectations of their roles. The Union have been dealing with this all season, struggling to replace the buzzing industry of Brenden Aaronson at the No. 10 spot. Neither of the nominal 10s on the roster, Jamiro Monteiro and Dániel Gazdag, seem truly suited to the role. Paxten Aaronson, who does seem like an actual 10, is still very inexperienced and struggles to consistently influence games, and so far does not have the same relentless physical drive of his older brother. Further, the Union have often been unable to field two healthy strikers, instead inserting converted midfielders like Gazdag or Quinn Sullivan into the second striker place, with limited results.

In years past, the team’s second formation was 4-2-3-1. With a healthy Ilsinho of two or three years ago, this shape became a devastating late-game changup with which few opponents could cope. Without Ilsinho, that shape has not been nearly as dynamic, and so we arrive at the 4-3-2-1, perhaps out of desperation.

Positives of the Christmas tree shape

In the Union’s case, the primary positive effect of the new shape is that it seems to have unlocked Dániel Gazdag. He scored twice against Minnesota (and came one misplaced header away from a hat trick), and was more effective against Nashville, as well. In these last two games, we have seen glimpses of what the Hungarian league’s reigning player of the season could bring. It seems strange that Gazdag has struggled so much as a second striker but suddenly is blossoming as a dual 10 with Monteiro. After all, there was nothing stopping him from taking up similar positions while playing as a second striker.

However, as my colleague Tim Jones noted in his comment on the Nashville match report, the formation shift gives Gazdag mental permission to be a midfielder, but requires that he cover only half the pitch. (Seriously, Tim, if you’re going to write the whole match analysis in the comments, just let me know and I won’t bother writing an extra thousand words.) So, Gazdag and Monteiro are on the same plane with roughly half the field to occupy, but knowing that the other is nearby to interchange with. The result is more midfield creativity and cooperation.

There are trickle down effects further back, too. With Monteiro pushed over a little bit closer to the sideline, Leon Flach had a very good offensive game, linking play and making several passes that shoulda-coulda-woulda led to shots if Kacper Przybyłko had been a little more on/the Nashville defense wasn’t so alert. There’s also a little less ground for the 8s, in Flach and Alejandro Bedoya, to cover, meaning that Bedoya wasn’t totally gassed by the end of the games, and able to use his intelligent positioning to break up opposing attacks and make interceptions.

Negatives of the Christmas tree shape

The biggest negative associated with the shape for the Union is fielding only one striker. Now, if only one striker is healthy (or trusted—whither Matheus Davó?), that is less of an issue. When Sergio Santos is fit, though, he brings attributes of strength and speed in behind that the Union could really use. Przybyłko does a lot of things well, but he is not fast, and neither are Monteiro or Gazdag (or Flach or Bedoya . . . you see where I’m going with this). That means that transition opportunities become more difficult to execute, and the propensity of some in the midfield (*cough* Monteiro *cough*) to step on the ball means the Union leave chances on the table. It’s not as simple as swapping Santos in for Przybyłko, though, as Przybyłko links with the midfield much more effectively and is better at defense/is taller than Santos. It might make sense to make the switch at times, but it creates new problems while solving others.

The other negative, which is related to the single striker issue,  is that the 4-3-2-1 is, like the 4-4-2 diamond, a narrow formation. But without a second striker to be an outlet up high, it puts even more pressure on the fullbacks to be dynamic going forward, and provide width. That’s a big ask.


We’re more than 900 words in, so let’s wrap this up, shall we? The big takeaway for me from the switch to a 4-3-2-1 is that it is the best way to make use of the Union’s personnel. It gets Flach, Bedoya, Martínez, Monteiro, and Gazdag on the field together in ways that make proper use of their skills, and there are roles that the Homegrowns could fill there, as well. It creates an issue at striker, where the team either loses dynamism and team speed, or loses a focal point in possession up high, but either problem seems secondary to the utter lack of offensive coherence that has been the result of other options.

Thankfully, I don’t expect to see a recurrence of the brain farts that led to all three Minnesota goals. And we now have two games’ worth of evidence that the formation works. It allows the Union to press, but gives their 10s a little less ground to cover. Seeing it with a speedster like Santos at striker would be good data, but even without that, this is a formation that deserves to see more time heading into the playoffs. Perhaps we will see it as the starting formation moving forward, with a reversion to the 4-4-2 when a midfielder is subbed out to bring Santos on later in games.


  1. Vince Devine says:

    I like the idea of the 4-3-2-1 formation. It was a creative way to address the lack of available forwards and put you midfielders in their best positions. However I’m not ready to call it a success until I see better offensive production as a result.

    • Obviously, I want to see more goals. And I don’t know that this shape is “The Answer” forever and always. But it does seem like the team has functioned better in attack in these last two games, even against the best defense in the league. They could have, and probably should have, scored another against Nashville, which is significant.

  2. I can’t recall where I read this, it was a great football manager discussing how many great teams, regardless of the formation with which they take the field, attack in what is essentially a 2-3-5 shape, which the Union did pretty regularly against Nashville, with the two centerbacks holding the backline while some combo of Martinez, Bedoya or Flach and one of the outside backs held the middle and the rest attacked.

    Problem was, of course, that Nashville was usually defending with what was a backline of 5 and 4 in front of them. Tough to work through the lines with that sort of glut in the back, particularly in the first half in which the Union had plenty of possession but couldn’t really create any serious chances.

    Ultimately, like Vince says above, this is all academic without a better attacking output.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      I like that, and it makes sense. Formations are theoretical, and only rarely in the run of play do all the players actually line up in the actual shape.

      And yes, breaking down Nashville when they are set is very difficult, regardless of who is trying to knock down the door, or how.

    • formations describe how teams defend, not how they attack

  3. I’m expecting that when Santos is ready to go 60+ minutes the Union will go back to a 4-4-2 for at least as long as he is in there.

    • This does seem likely, but Santos was available against Nashville and didn’t come into the game, so perhaps his reintroduction will be slow/piecemeal, at least.

  4. Chris Gibbonds says:

    This formation might be really useful in NYC on the season’s final weekend. They’ll need to be clever in that bandbox and two 10s ought to help.

  5. Nice insight Jeremy.
    You’re right about the extra pressure and demands on the fullbacks in the 4-3-2-1. I love the fullbacks but they will need to be fully fit and firing for 90+’.

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