Is a fluid attack all just free flowing "joga bonito" or does structure lead to fluidity?
This could be considered part 5 of my tactical analysis of the Sounders. Parts 1-3 were a review of the first two seasons and part 4 was a look into the CAM role (or lack thereof). Parts 5 and 6 begin to tackle the issue of where creativity comes from within an otherwise "rigid" system...
A couple posts ago I suggested that perhaps Sigi is more system-driven than player driven as a coach, and yet, system-driven teams are usually more rigid in their approach, whereas player-driven teams more fluid. This begs the question, what is Sigi's game?
As we have seen in the past, the Sounders attacking 4 generally takes a very fluid approach to the game. The top man in the formation, whether it be Nkufo or Jaqua, has license to drift a bit more than a prototypical target man may in a more rigid system (this was taken to the point of Jaqua lining up as a nominal right wing in late '09). Montero comes close to replicating the "trequartista role", and Zakuani is a great example of an inverted winger, roaming centrally and even switching to his "natural side". Unsettled was the right wing, manned by Ljungberg in what was best described as a "free wing" role up until his departure. Sigi then eventually settled on Nyassi, who was certainly more than capable of following the inevitable coach's instructions to "just get out there and run!" When Nyassi took the curious turn late in the year of being a goal poacher - a trait he may have learned from Nkufo in training - it actually demonstrated the fluidity of the attacking 4. But even so, he was far more of a "true" winger than Ljungberg ever was and this fit the system pretty well.
It was frustrating to many Sounders fans as to why the seemingly limited Nathan Sturgis was essentially given a default XI spot in the second half of the year. A capable and dependable defensive midfielder with a previous fullback pedigree with the team, many pulled their hair out trying to understand how he was supposed to fill the central midfield playmaker role. Of course he wasn't, that was never Sigi's intent, and the real reason was that the Alonso-Sturgis pairing gave the side a bit more of a rigid support behind the fluid attack.
This is, more often than not, the very heart of the plethora of contemporary systems which involve two, at least nominal, holding midfielders. Holding midfield pairings have evolved just like striker pairings have, as inevitably one will shade higher and to one side, the other deeper and to the other [as a whole, there is very often inherent asymmetry in formations which are symmetrical in theory]. Some holding midfield pairings have split into a DLP and ACB (auxiliary center back), others have the two essentially split the field and both operate as hybrid DLP/ACB's. The concept is not unlike the myriad approaches to how a striker pairing will operate.
The very idea of this pairing can Enhance fluidity. As we see with teams like Barcelona, an ACB allows the fullbacks to be more marauding, to push high and apply pressure or take attacking risks. But more than anything, it keeps capable ball winners and passers behind the ball, to help aid in re-establishing possession, or keeping it in the first place. Players like Xavi exemplify this, he is perhaps the best passer in the world and plies his trade primarily lying deep in the midfield and makes relatively simple 5-10 yard passes a lethal weapon.
While a fluid attacking 4 can make runs and wide, attacking mids push into forward layers, these two more withdrawn central mids can provide necessary defensive cover. It all breaks down to the simple fact that, in many cases, it makes no sense to saddle a player like Steve Zakuani with too much defensive responsibility.
Future attacking fluidity
The expansion draft protection list offered some possible insights into what we may see from Sigi next year, and the most intriguing possibility is Mike Fucito as the wing opposite Steve Zakuani.
The whole idea of the inverted winger is that he is not content to hug the touchline and boom in crosses - frankly, any more, that's what fullbacks are for - but that he is going to cut inside, to his preferred foot, and attack the goal. An inverted winger starts wide and aims towards the goal, to put it most simply. Anyone who has seen the exploits of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben at Bayern Munich should be familiar with what a pair of inverted wingers is capable of. For the most part, the Sounders have employed Steve Zakuani as in inverted winger on the left, but there has rarely been a similar counterpart on the right [and this speaks to the inherent asymmetry I spoke of earlier].
It is entirely possible that Fucito was protected merely because the team didn't want to risk losing a capable deputy to Montero before a season in which they could play as many as 46 competitive matches. However, the intriguing possibility exists that the plan could be to utilize him on the right, as a second inverted winger, forming a highly fluid attack with inverted wingers free to swap sides to their "natural" wings, push centrally as a 2nd striker, and overall make it impossible for the defense to really know where the next push will come from.
This is the other essence of an effective 4-2-3-1 system, the idea that the attacking three will keep the opponent guessing. There are examples of wingers in these systems essentially being a team's highest attacking player. It is a very fluid approach.
What, then, of Alvaro Fernandez? It troubled some that the summer signing, a DP at that, couldn't really break into the starting XI. The fact is, he could play either wing or the DLP role in this system, giving the team a versatility that doesn't come cheap. Over the grind of the season, such a player is likely to start as many matches as a first XI player.
Great teams are said to be built from the back. In Sigi's case, this holds true in an intriguing manner. A rigid foundation can make fluidity possible, and such as it is, this is a team that is rigid at the back and fluid going forward. This may explain why the team seems so susceptible to disruptions of their center back pairing, and certainly is exemplified in just how much they miss Alonso when is is not out there.
As a generalization in all of soccer globally, you could say that defending is about discipline, effort, organization, shape, systems. These are inherently rigid concepts, while attacking is more about intangibles like creativity. This is true, but with a team like the Sounders we have also seen it demonstrated that attack also requires organized roles.
Let's take a look a Barcelona, a team widely perceived to play the best football in the world. Their system uses what is nominally the "V" version of the 4-3-3, which if you remember from my formation piece looks like this:
Although, with the roles of the CM pairing of Xavi and Iniesta differing slightly - Iniesta likes to push higher than Xavi, a true DLP - and the lack of a true "target man" center forward, and their CDM Busquets playing like a "stopper" (or 3rd CB) I would be tempted to list it as this:
the Barca system is really so fluid, it actually defies graphical description. You could say that only a team as prodigiously talented as Barca could pull this off. It is not to say that they aren't organized, the truth is that their seemingly simple "pass-first always keep possession" style requires a great amount of tactical discipline. They can make mincemeat out of a side too eager to attack and looking to create an opening, as they themselves will simply apply pressure to win the ball back as quickly as possible, and proceed to simply play keep-way until an opening presents itself.
It's silly to draw parallels to the Sounders' system, because for the most part the talent at the MLS level just isn't the same. There are systemic differences as well. Barca are not in need if a target man, with Messi playing as a "false 9" abetted by David Villa playing as a very high winger. In fact, its either Messi or Iniesta - the higher of the two CM's with Xavi - who would fulfill what would be thought of as the "playmaker" role in the traditional sense (as trequartista or enganche). All that being said, I hardly hear much hand-wringing about who Barca's "#10" is. (it so happens that shirt is worn by a Messi, an inverted winger turned false 9)
Lesser technical ability is generally going to mean a need for greater rigidity in organization and tactical discipline. Although at some point what these things mean are arbitrary and the discussion becomes one of semantics. As mentioned, as fluid as they are, I would say that Barca is one of those most tactically drilled teams on the planet; it isn't all free-flowing and seat-of-your-pants creativity. The 1982 Brazilian World Cup team was perhaps the greatest exemplar of "free-flowing" football ever but they were beaten by an Italian side following the stereotype of staid discipline and the legacy of catenaccio. What makes Alves' daring runs and positioning as an auxiliary winger from his nominal right back position is Busquets or the left back staying in to form a solid back three. Xavi's sublime touch passes are only possible with a center forward who understands there is no point in staying high and waiting for service.
The lesson learned for an MLS team like the Sounders is clear: It's not necessarily all about pushing players up the pitch to try to create openings, but rather more about roles and organization in the attack, and the tactical discipline to control possession. Fluidity can spring out of a proper structure with the right players with the correct mindset. The Sounders clearly work better with a target man, and running two CDM's was largely a better tactical option than using a 5th attacker. It's also been clearly demonstrated that the 2nd CDM limited creativity, however, which is why the ultimate key to the Sounders puzzle is the DLP.
It is from the Italians we can borrow an appropriate term, as not only did they understand the role of trequartista but also the regista, or "the one who starts the play."
coming up later this week I pick up where I've left off in here with part 6,
and after that, I will address the target man, and why he is so necessary to the Sounders approach.