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The recent addition of Yedlin has been a major boon for SSFC. It is even more impressive considering that he is replacing such impressive veterans as James Riley and Johansson. With that said, Yedlin’s amazing talent – along with the addition of some other new personnel – has led to a formation shift (to the 3-5-2) that is at odds with SSFC’s fundamental approach to the game.
That might seem like a lot to say, but with a start as dismal as we’ve seen this season, it becomes a bit easier to do a bit of soul searching. In Seattle, we’ve seen a great deal of soul searching lately, and it seems as though some more is required for us to actually find a "New Way Forward." So first, to the formation changes that highlight Yedlin and some of our midfielders so well.
The major change has been from the traditional 4-4-2 we are so used to seeing, into a 3-5-2, as described in "Believe it or not, Seattle is using a 3 man back line." The 3-5-2 is capable of doing a couple things, but one of them is to give talented attacking defenders the freedom to attack on the counter. In a counter-attack 3-5-2, wingbacks are positioned deep and central to help cover some of the defensive load, but their primary goal is to break forward into space on a counter attack. This space is available because the attacking players are positioned centrally (just think of how Alonso, Shalrie, Rose, Johnson, and Evans play centrally...this provides space for wide players like Yedlin and Zakuani). The philosophy goes like this: you might concede possession, but you will do so by creating space to attack into when the opposing team is unbalanced on a counter attack. Another non-counter way to do this is to have an effective central playmaker to draw out central defenders and allow wingbacks to overlap to draw out outside backs. When they do, that makes space for other mids/forwards to slide in behind the defense. This is a great formation, but it is designed for a counter-attacking philosophy.
The problem is that Seattle has never played a counter attacking style. It is core to the club’s philosophy to play an exciting, attack oriented brand of soccer. Seattle fans and the front office want to see possession, dynamism in the final third, and hopefully some beautiful goals. That is who we are; it’s why we loved Montero. It is a great philosophy and it is the sort of thing every fan wants to hear. But, we would all prefer to win every game.
My solution can’t promise that, but I think there are some changes that we could make that will help.
First, I think that our philosophy (possession, dynamic passing in the final third, etc), is at odds with the personnel in our formation. We have players designed for a counter attack 3-5-2. Shalrie, Alonso, and Rose are great defensive midfielders. Zakuani, Martinez, Evan, Johnshon, and Yedlin are great at a counter attack. We are trying to play a 3-5-2 with the old 4-4-2 version of possession, instead of working toward effective counter attacks. Right now, we are attempting to posses the ball through Alonso and the left side. As we possess up the left side, we create space on the right where Yedlin can break and dish off to Rosales for a cross. The problem is that this possession on the left means that Zakuani is always contending with multiple defenders...defenders drawn over to help deal with Burch and Evans as we move up the field through short passing possession on the left. We don’t have an effective central playmaker and we don’t have any effective overlaps on the left to help Zakuani isolate a single defender. This slow building possession also means that the opposing defense is balanced and ready to shift when Yedlin runs into space. Hence the problem: a counter attack formation with philosophy of possession makes a team in two minds. Just look at this diagram. The team is positioned left, but it is possession oriented, which means Yedlin's attacks will be easy to handle.
I think we could go two ways to solve this. The first is to go back to a 4-4-2. It would mean that we can’t play our best 11 in every game (Shalrie and Alonso might be redundant in a 4-4-2). It would also mean that Yedlin would have to attack less, and do it differently. Otherwise, in a 3-5-2, we need to find a way to get the ball to Johnson’s feet so that he can give some hold-up play. We would also need Zakuani to pinch in, which neutralizes is ability to to go one on one with defenders, and ask Burch to overlap, which we don’t want to do because he is slow.
I know that this analysis is pretty general and idealistic, but I think that it describes some of our problems. Our philosophy and formation needs to be brought in line. I’m not sure how that will all work out. It will probably be a combination of the two plans depending on the opponent. Regardless, it is clear that the possessing attack kills the counter and a formation designed for a counter makes possession attacks difficult: one has to yield to the other.