Sounders tactical and system review, Pt. 1

The armchair managing of the off-season has just begun...

 

We have already heard a lot of chatter about the next steps that Sigi, Adrian, and Chris need to take to push this team to the next level, and guard against the type of injury and bad chemistry induced purgatory which doomed the first half of the 2010 season.  

 

The wish lists of the supporter and blogger echo chamber are sure to include the usual hyperbole and questionable demands for drastic , and perhaps unreasonable or unfeasible improvement.  As usual, we have heard the cries for the team to sign a CAM to alleviate the perceived offensive woes.  

 

Before we can have a serious discussion about how to improve this team, it would help to glance back and look over what we have learned from the first two years, in terms of personnel, formations, and tactics.  Short of completely blowing the team up and starting over with a new system (a solution for which there is no cause), the way to improve this team is by tweaking what is there, and finding ways to upgrade certain aspects, rather than start over.  So the question is, What do we know about the Sigi's System?

 

I have been directly inspired by the work of Jonathan Wilson, and if you have not read his stuff, I urge you to read his work.  Among other exploits he undertakes unlocking the mysterious of the Beautiful Game in a semi-regular column he writes for the Guardian UK sports blog called "The Question". Inspired by this, I ask the following question:  What have we learned about the Sounders system?  The answer will take a while.  This will be a multi-chapter piece, which I will run between now and Christmas, and by the end I hope we can come to some conclusions about what we can reasonably call for in 2011.  Part 1 follows:

 

...And in the beginning, March of '09 to be exact, the MLS Sounders used a 4-4-2.  Well, except for the fact that "4-4-2" is such a vague description; there are at least 4 widely recognized interpretations of the "4-4-2", the most popular of which is best described as 4-2-3-1.  But at any rate, in those early days, it was a 4-4-2.  The forward partnership paired a center-forward/target-man type with a 2nd striker/withdrawn striker type, as is so typical in 4-4-2 systems.  The outside mids were attacking, the central mids holding, with one being the slightly more advanced of the pair, playing as a true "box-to-box" CM.  It could be said to look like this:

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-------X-------

--X---------X--

-------X-------

-------X-------

-X----------X-

------X-X------

Montero and Jaqua up top, Zakuani or Le Toux on the left, Le Toux or Nyassi on the right, Evans and Alonso in the middle.  It was "Sigi's Arrow" and whether or not it was a "4-4-2" or a "4-2-3-1" is beside the point.  What it was would stay with us for a while, although there would be a few derailments.

 

And among those derailments was a player named Freddie Ljungberg, an aging attacking midfielder/withdrawn forward of tremendous pedigree, a prominent figure in the "Invincibles" unbeaten Arsenal side in '03-'04, and a former captain of Sweden.  The story of Ljungberg is intrinsic to the story of the Seattle Sounders FC in their first two seasons.  

 

It's important to remember that Freddie's first start didn't come until the third match of that first year, against Toronto, when he slotted into Montero's spot, who hadn't made the trip.  The Sounders were 3-0-0, 7 for and 0 conceded.  Then something interesting happened.  With Montero back and Ljungberg slotted into the midfield, the Sounders suddenly lost their next two, and immediate problems began to show, issues that would never be fully resolved, but for a scintillating run at the end of the '09 season.

 

With Jaqua and Montero continuing to do their thing up top, Ljungberg played as a CAM, with Alonso as CDM, Evans on the right, and Zakuani on the left.  The back 4 had been settled, with Hurtado and Marshall in the middle, and Riley on the left.  Left back was unsettled, and would be until Leo Gonzalez came to town in August, but in the meantime Sigi was making do with either Sturgis, Zach Scott, or Tyson Wahl.  Le Toux would deputize for either outside mid position, usually Zakuani, and occasionally as a forward.  Sometimes we'd see Nyassi or Levesque.  In League play, this was more or less the team.  

 

The Sounders broke into a funk of mediocrity.  After the 3-0-2 start, they would draw 7 of their next 10, against 2 wins and 1 loss.  By the Summer Solstice, with half of their first MLS season under their belt, they stood at 5-7-3, good for 22 points.  Certainly not bad for a first-year club, but something seemed unsettled for much of that time.  

 

For much of this span, with Freddie in the lineup, the Sounders played something that looked like this:

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--X----X------

------------X--

-------X-------

-X-----------X-

------X-X------

It was, for lack of a better description, an asymmetrical diamond.  A typical diamond includes a CAM, and CDM, and two "box-to-box" mids in wider positions.  It is typically seen as a narrow formation through the midfield.  In the Sounders case, with Evans on the right, he was a "box-to-box" midfielder, but the left mid, usually Zakuani, would be attacking.  Ljungberg and Montero, seemingly crowding each other, would drift right as needed.

 

The results on the pitch were far from stellar, and while disciplinary problems certainly weren't helping- the team was showing an alarming propensity to have players sent off - it was also true that the Sounders largely seemed to grind out results, and did so while lacking real offensive firepower.  

 

Ljungberg was having health problems, and would miss a fair number of matches as the season went along.    This started in late May, and without him the system fell back into something more like the "Arrow".  It was at this time we first saw Pete Vagenas, who had missed the early part of the season with injury, against Colorado on May 23rd.  This would actually be the start of the first real simmering ongoing team selection controversy amongst the supporters.

 

Vagenas was a favorite of Sigi's from their days with the Galaxy, but in the supporters eyes he was seen to lack the abilities of either and both Evans and Alonso.  His play was noticeably conservative, although this was seen by some as an example of his cool leadership ability.  Sigi unleashed, for the first real time, two true holding midfielders, in the form of Vagenas and Alonso (who gave way to Sturgis early on due to injury).  It was something of a more "pure" 4-2-3-1, like this:

-------X-------

-------X-------

--X--------X--

 

-----X---X-----

-X-----------X-

------X-X------

 

 

The end of Freddie as CAM:

 

On May 30th, in a home match against Columbus Crew, we saw Freddie on the right for the first real time.  Alonso was out, and Vagenas took his place in the middle, with Brad Evans in his old role.  It was the first time we would see the "Arrow" with Ljungberg in the lineup.  The match ended 1-1.

 

Through June and July we continued to see Freddie on the right.  Against the lowly Red Bulls on June 20th, a disappointing 1-1 draw, he was out, and Le Toux took his place; but for the most part, the basic shape remained.  Either Alonso or his replacement at CDM, with Evans at "box-to-box", were in the middle.  

 

On June 30th the Sounders dominated the Rapids, winning 3-0, in a match that saw Ljungberg switching to the left for Zakuani, and Nyassi on the right.  Also, in the first half, Alonso would go down with an injury.  In addition Brad Evans was soon off for National Team duty, meaning that for their next League match, July 11th (a fortuitous win over Houston) Vagenas was paired with Stephen King - as a replacement for Evans - in the middle.

 

The Sounders had a dearth of League play in July, being occupied mostly with Open Cup matches and the Chelsea friendly.  On July 25th, in a disappointing 0-0 draw with Chicago (a match marred by Ljungberg's controversial sending off), It was back to the "pure" 4-2-3-1 shown above, this time with Alonso and Sturgis (giving way to Vagenas in the 2nd half) in the middle.  We would see more of this... but not against San Jose in the horrible 4-0 away loss to start August.  With Ljungberg ill, that match saw the the Freddie-less "Arrow" with Evans in the middle.

 

The Sounders were suffering through a rough patch.  A 1-0 loss to RSL saw Freddie back in on the right and Vagenas once again paired with Alonso.  A surprise 2-0 away win to the Galaxy on the 15th - due mainly to Beckham's 17' red card - saw the same basic lineup, this time with Evans filling in for a once again ill Ljungberg on the right.  This remained the case for a 1-0 home loss to the Revolution on the 20th.  With a congested schedule, Sigi changed things up a bit for the away match in Houston just three days later.  Freddie played in Montero's usual spot, Le Toux deputized for Zakuani, Levesque started on the right (giving way to Zakuani in the 2nd half) and Evans and Alonso were back in the middle.  In the midst of some troubling play, the Sounders did well against a formidable opponent, and deserved no worse than the 1-1 draw.  Unfortunately, just 6 days later we saw another desultory 0-0 home draw against Toronto to close out August, a match which saw a return to the usual "Arrow" with Freddie on the right.

 

There was something wrong with this team, or so it seemed.  Ljungberg and Montero were widely seen to have no real chemistry, and in their respective desires to drift they all too-often only appeared to step on each other positionally.  Evans was not his same self, apparently thrown off by his mid-summer national-team duties which saw him play right back, and was more often than not replaced by Vagenas in the middle; and he just wasn't the same as a right midfielder.

 

Then, of course, we won the U.S. Open cup, away to D.C., on Sept 2nd.  This was accomplished with the 4-2-3-1.  Alonso and Vagenas as holders, Freddie on the right as usual, and Le Toux in for Jaqua at forward.  Second half substitutions saw a slight change to the shape, with Levesque essentially replacing Montero up top (the start of a late-season trend) and Evans coming in on the right, switching Ljungberg to the left.

 

Ten days later the Sounders returned in League play, with the same basic shape.  Ljungberg was out, and Le Toux took his spot on the right, with Jaqua returning up top.  The result was the same, 2-1, and things seemed back on track.  

 

Or so it would seem.  Once again the Qwest field faithful suffered through another excruciating 0-0 draw, this time to Chivas, a week later.  For the first time, we saw Freddie and Fredy paired at forward, with Montero ostensibly the target man.  Again, Alonso and Vagenas manned the middle, with Le Toux on the right.  Second-half substitutions saw Jaqua and Evans come on, and eventually the shape shifted back to the "Arrow" but not until it was too late.  

 

Late season tweaks eventually pay off:

 

At this point in the season, an intriguing thing happened.  Going back to the abandoned "asymmetrical diamond" formation from early in the season, the right wing position had been in flux all year.  Although it was nominally manned by Ljungberg, it was his propensity to roam.  So called "Free" players are usually nominally listed as central players, but in this case, the Sounders had a "free" right wing.  This type of "total football" approach may work at a place like Arsenal, where Freddie often occupied right-sided positions, but at the MLS level regimentation is more important, as is usually the case at comparatively lower skill levels.  If anything, Montero could be seen to spend as much time on the right as Ljungberg, either nominally or practically, as both seemed primarily motivated to stay out of each other's way, rather than develop true understanding.

 

And such that it was, on Sept 26th, away to the Revs, Nate Jaqua was lined up as the nominal right wing, with Freddie and Fredy once again occupying dual free, nominally central roles.  It was the "Arrow" with Evans and Alonso in the middle, but it was also something close to the legendary "4-6-0" or "strikerless" formation, a brand of the 4-2-3-1 without a true top forward, or "target man", as it had been the week before. It was a notable experiment, but the result wasn't particularly encouraging, a 2-1 loss.

 

At this point in the season, after the first 17 matches had seen the Sounders compiled a 7-7-3 record, they had since gone 2-3-4 and only scored 6 goals.  

 

A week later, to start the final month of the season, came a shocker.  The Sounders ended the Crew's 22-match unbeaten streak with a hard-fought and somewhat fortuitous 1-0 win.  It was the "Arrow" but with Jaqua suspended, Levesque came on, and the only way to adequately describe the right wing and two forward positions were that they seemed to be constant rotation.  It could be said that the Fred[y][die]'s once again occupied dual "free" roles, with Levesque shifting centrally when necessary.  

 

This was again the case for a 3-2 away win over K.C., with Vagenas as a second holder in for Evans, and Jaqua back at "right wing".  In this and in the season finale against Dallas a week later, Levesque come on as "closing striker".  The Dallas match saw Evans instead of Vagenas in the middle, but the same basic forward and right wing shifting.  By granting Ljungberg a true "free role" and asking Jaqua to help fill in on the right, The Sounders had won three on the trot, scored 5 goals in their last 2 after months of offensive struggles, and Ljungberg was MLS player of the month.

 

Unfortunately, whatever had clicked didn't last.  With the "fluid Sigi's Arrow" employed as the starting XI against Houston for both playoff matches, the Sounders failed to score in 210 minutes, losing 1-0 in extra time of Leg 2.  But hopes were high heading into season 2.

 

What did we learn from this season?  First of all, in between a 3-0-0 start, and a 3-0-0 finish, this team was an exceedingly mediocre 6-12-7, and demonstrated extended periods of an inability to score goals.  But clues as to what worked and what didn't could be found.  Even though Sigi demonstrated a willingness to play with two holding midfielders, the team often seemed a bit better with a true CDM and a "box-to-box" type in Evans.  But what was evident is that there was no real room for a CAM.  In the first three matches, Ljungberg was either absent or playing as a 2nd striker, and the "Fred"s weren't together for all but 20-some minutes of the RSL match.  Ljungberg as a CAM or right wing just didn't seem to work as well, and it was only when Ljungberg was returned to a nominally central, 2nd striker "free" role late in the year, and Evans was in the middle, that things seemed to really click again.  There was a great amount of fluidity that evolved into the system, as all 4 attackers, including Zakuani on the left, had freedom to roam, and all seemed to share in playmaking duties.  For the most part, it was an attacking 4, a back 4, Alonso as a CDM, and either a 2nd holder or Evans as a "box-to-box".  This was, for the most part, Sigi's system.

 

It also wasn't particularly effective offensively.  In that 6-12-7 middle stretch, with limited exceptions, the Sounders mostly ground out games, rarely scoring or conceding more than 1 goal a match.  They would finish exactly average with 38 goals scored, 13 of which were scored during the bookending 3-0-0 runs to start and finish, meaning that they scored 25 goals in the 24 matches in between.  The Sounders would finish tied with Houston for fewest goals conceded, which was really a testament to Alonso, the back 4, and Keller.  But more than that, what had emerged was a team with a clear propensity to control possession, and thus they could limit opponent's chances; but they weren't particularly adept at finishing chances themselves.  

 

The following offseason would be a troubling one for fans, but as the season neared, optimism reigned.  Next up we'll dive into what we learned from Season 2...

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