This is part 4 of an ongoing series. Parts 1-3 reviewed the first two seasons, and now I'm going to explore some ideas in a little more depth. I start with a look at the issue that simply won't go away among segments of the Sounders fan/supporter community.
The playmaker, the #10, the CAM, it is widely believed that this is the role that drives attacking soccer. A team without a such a player is seen by many as elementally lacking.
The dominant contemporary systems in global soccer involve at least one, and in many cases two, primarily central defensive midfielders. As I have discussed, with one CDM he usually will sit very deep, almost as an auxiliary center back, and with two they will, together, play a more hybridized role of CDM and box-to-box (b2b), if not have split roles of a "bulldog" ball winner and deep-lying playmaker.
Whether they be 4-3-3 systems or 4-4-2 systems, outside players are either attacking mids or withdrawn forwards, with fullbacks pushing high as needed to help in the attack. The most distinct difference between a 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 in many cases is the location of the "playmaker." In 4-4-2 systems the playmaker is often the 2nd striker, and in 4-3-3 systems - with notable exceptions - he is often a CAM.
The idea of a 2nd striker as playmaker probably started with Diego Maradona, who lined up as Argentina's #10 at forward in the 3-5-2 system which won the 1986 World Cup. Since then there have been many who flourish in the role, such as Francesco Totti, who for years in Roma and for Italy was neither and both a CAM and 2nd striker. There is a rich tradition in Italian football for this role, known as the trequartista, and luminaries such as Roberto Baggio have filled the role. Maradona could be said to have been filling the traditional role in Argentinean soccer of the enganche, literally "to hook", which is best described as that culture's interpretation of the #10 role.
In a contemporary context, the finest example of such a player may be Wesley Scheijder, who for both Inter Milan and the Dutch National team operates as CAM operating almost as a 2nd striker. It is in such a role that the 4-3-3 blends into the 4-4-2, via the 4-2-1-3 (from 4-3-3) or 4-2-3-1 (from 4-4-2). In fact, in the 2010 World Cup Final this last July, the systems of Spain and Holland were essentially the same, despite embarking from different nominal starting points; the only substantial difference being in how the holding midfield pairings approached the game.
It is in the more withdrawn center of midfield that Sounders fans may find their answer to what they feel is a CAM. With the presence of a true target forward to partner with at forward, Fredy Montero has flourished as a 2nd striker/playmaker in the 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 system under Sigi Schmidt. While many Sounders fans may balk at the possibility of Montero as a #10, it is indisputable that when the Sounders did have a #10 in their lineup, the results were mixed, at best, and mediocre for the most part.
Freddie Ljungberg, beyond the convenience of having the correct jersey number, was installed as a CAM for much of the first part of 2009, to fulfill the inevitable role most saw for him from the day he signed. That the results were disappointing, and the chemistry with Montero often quite deplorable, is often overlooked when Sounders fans call for a CAM in the lineup. The outcome is often blamed on personalities, and while that may be a contributing factor, there is clear evidence for it to be systemic in nature. The brief flirtation with 4-3-3 aside, Ljungberg fit in better as a 2nd striker or wide attacking midfielder, where he played almost exclusively after May of '09
The CAM appeals lead me to look into the individuals paired with Osvaldo Alonso in the center of midfield. As we have seen, Brad Evans has excelled at times in the B2B role in the "Sigi's Arrow" interpretation of 4-4-2/4-2-3-1. Mike Seamon was also used in that role this year, after Evans was lost to injury. As has been discussed, Sigi ultimately decided that Sturgis was a better fit to go alongside Alonso once he returned in July, and it was a system that worked quite well, Montero acting as the definition of the striker/playmaker through July and August.
The B2B link was clearly missing at times, as against L.A. in the playoffs, and it made one long for the days of Brad Evans at his finest. Various possibilities have arisen, among them Alvaro Fernandez, who was utilized in that role to a limited extent. But talk always circles back to the "need" for a CAM, the cognoscenti demanding to know who will be the #10 in the system. Unfortunately, it is too simplistic a question for a problem that doesn't necessarily exist.
Going back to the W.C Final this last July, the Spanish used Sergio Busquets - almost an auxiliary center back - and Xabi Alonso - a gifted passer and deep-lying playmaker (DLP) in their holding midfield pairing. The Dutch employed two destroyers, Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel. The Dutch system had essentially 6 defenders and 4 attackers, with fullbacks helping to link. Spain, meanwhile, had that additional link in Alonso. The Dutch certainly did well, scoring plenty of goals on their way to the final, so it is all perhaps a bit counterintuitive that the greater positivity of Spain - who scored only 8 goals in 7 matches in the tournament - could be said to have won the day, but on this day it was clearly true. Soccer is about winning, and winning trophies, and Spain claimed the biggest of them all.
It is the DLP that I believe Sounders fans seek, and it may be Evans in his B2B role, it may be Fernandez or it could be Seamon. There is the possibility that the team may look elsewhere this off-season, but I fear many fans may be disappointed if they do. There are probably illusions of a de Rosario or Schelotto type, but I just don't see that happening. More likely would be a Dax McCarty type, but we have one already in Brad Evans.
There is of course the potential to call for an entirely new system, but one struggles to really find the steady rationalization for such a drastic measure. As glaring as the weaknesses were against L.A., these problems really speak more to personnel changes and system tweaks more than a complete overhaul. On the whole, an unimpassioned glance at the major metrics of performance of the last two years: points, wins, goals scored, goals allowed, and losses, shows this team to be solidly above average in all categories except for goals scored, in which they are only very slightly above average. This is hardly the roots for panic, and rather than obsess over their lack of being truly "excellent" in any of these categories, its better to look at the team as having built a solid foundation of success as they go forward in pursuit of domestic and continental glory.
But let's go ahead and do the exercise anyway. Given the foundational personnel, what kind of switch could work? I think the most likely adjustment is subtle, and involves the MLS Cup runner up FC Dallas.
The key men in the Dallas shape are CDM Daniel Hernandez and 2nd striker/CAM David Ferreira. Hernandez sits very deep, the type of "auxiliary center back" I have talked about, shuttling between them is Dax McCarty, the system employs wings who may be seen as virtually forwards, and a classic center forward or target man up top. It is often described as a 4-1-4-1 and could be said to look like this:
I show the CDM level with the fullbacks to illustrate his fundamental defensive role, and the same could be said of Osvaldo Alonso when he has been paired with someone like Brad Evans. The only real difference between this system and the Sounders system with a b2b CM is the relative spacing of the 3 central players at 2nd striker/CAM, b2b, and CDM. David Ferreira is considered an attacking midfielder who plays almost as a striker, and Fredy Montero is considered a striker who plays almost as an attacking midfielder. At some point, the line gets blurred and the distinctions nonexistent.
Other than that, its a matter of telling Ozzie Alonso to play right in front of the center backs, as a fifth defender free to go forward, much like the fullbacks. And as we have stated, this team has options for a b2b, or otherwise relatively more attacking, central midfielder.
Let's review were we started, by looking at the "Sigi's arrow" formation:
Perhaps it is becoming clear that we never really got to see this truly come to fruition without Ljungberg and with Evans. It is entirely possible that this is what we were missing all along. As I've mentioned, in a vacuum, its absurd to think that Sanna Nyassi is better than Ljungberg in any context, and yet within a system it is undeniable. Nathan Sturgis fit into the system as well, but he is a player with a defender's pedigree.
Another approach is to ask for more push out of your fullbacks. Barcelona has taught us the value in a high pressure approach, and their fullbacks push forward to an almost absurd extent, to the point where they are not even really fullbacks any more, but really 3-5-2 style wingbacks. As a result, the CDM drops deep and what results is a system that is neither, and both, 3 at the back and 4 at the back.
Whether or not the team's current fullbacks would fit this system is worth considering, as both Gonzalez and Riley have proven themselves adept at pushing forward in their normal roles as fullbacks. A certain bold and marauding type of player is really needed to fit the bill for this "ultra-high-pressure" scheme, and such a player may simply not exist at the MLS level, leading to the possibility of employing true wide midfielders in such roles. It is a risky endeavor, though, and in the Sounders case employing such a tactic would be largely an in-game management issue, urging your fullbacks to play high and take risks. It is, in this light, really a system tweak and not necessarily a personnel shift.
If it comes right down to it, a fundamental system change more than likely represents a pretty major team personnel overhaul, and as I've said there seems to be very little we have seen in the last two years to support such an argument.
Fredy Montero is going to play a feature role in the Sounders attack, and it is a system that will need a capable target forward, flourish with wingers like Steve Zakuani, and beat with the heart of Ozzie Alonso. Players like Fernandez and Fucito can find ways to contribute in more than one role, and Brad Evans can hopefully work his way back in. Along with a solid center back pairing and decent fullbacks, this is a system that should continue to see domestic success.
But who is the #10? it is a question best answered by looking back on the extreme fluidity of the Sounders attack from late in Season One, and remembering that iconic first goal of 2010. The #10 is the man with the ball, it is a duty shared by every player on the pitch, and as such simply doesn't fall on the shoulders of one man. This system, in a way, employs 4 or 5 playmakers, and therein, if properly executed, lies the difficulty in stopping it.