On the season so far WhoScored.com lists Seattle Sounders FC with several different shapes (4-4-2 v Kansas City, 4-2-3-1 v Toronto, 4-3-3 v Montreal/Columbus, 4-3-3 that shifted to 4-4-2 v Portland and a 4-4-1-1 v Dallas). Some of these created holes in places that are creating some worry. A couple matches put a hole right at the top of the box in-between Alonso and the two CBs. A few others saw space behind Yedlin allowing a cut-in or cross.
Every shape has weaknesses. Every version Sigi runs out has a thought on how to cover those gaps (a mid covering for Yedlin's surge forward, or Alonso sitting back, or a CB stepping up). One of the most popular activities leading up to every match is figuring out which 4-X-X-X and lineup is going to match the best with the opposition.
This ignores a couple founding elements of Sigi Schmid's system.
- Self-Definition - It is a rare moment when Schmid talks about countering specific tactics of the opponent. Although this happened for all three matches that started with a 4-3-3, that was not a primary choice, but one forced by injuries and absences. It may be a shape deployed again in the future with an Ideal XI, but if so it is because that's what the coaching staff feels best suits those players, not as a response. Sigi's rare use of the bunker is an example in self-definition as practice.
- Rapid Transition - A hallmark of Seattle over the years is a generally solid defense, particularly in midfield ball-winning, that powers a transition to the final third. It is a high-tempo game that in some years is defined by a long ball ('12 & '13), in other years by speed (Zakuani/Nyassi in '09 & '10) and this year by rapid passing (as in 2011). Top Assistant Coach Brian Schmetzer laid out Seattle's pace of play and how it works this year:
"You don't have to be fast to be good in transition. If you look at Pineda and you really think about smart he is and how he reads the play, both offensively and defensively, you can gain a half-a-step or a full yard just by out-thinking your opponent. So yeah, Zakuani was blessed with God-given talent... DeAndre for godsakes chasing back on that one break-away. He's 10 yards behind the guy and he still catches up. I think Castillo had the ball and that's God-given talent, but you can still be an effective transition team by just reading the game. I think Dempsey, Oba, Lamar, Cooper those guys, it's natural for them."
- Non-Central Creation - The idea of Wing 10s and Central Wingers is not new to soccer fans, but Seattle's creation is even less traditional. The unique version of the 4-3-3 deployed for three straight matches did not have a #10, or two attacking mids as most teams use in that shape. Instead all three CMs were tasked with defensive work and shuttling the ball to one of three creative players - Oba, Dempsey or Yedlin. Martins is clearly having a strong year as a creative player. Clint and DeAndre are both in the top four of current starters for Key Passes (Oba is as well). The other man in the top four is Pineda, who is using long balls as part of his creation.
This means that there are times when Oba is dropping back to create as a if a withdrawn forward or with little flicks as minute target man. Transitioning from the space where a normal 10 works Clint is now creative from a high left wing or that same withdrawn space. Yedlin, of course, is a right back that runs endline to endline.
- Personnel over Nomenclature - Sigi and the staff are clear that they are playing the players that suit the system best (defense starts in midfield, rapid transition to attack) rather than those that fit the best formation. That's lead to the experimentation in general shape as noted in the intro, but also maybe a focus on nomenclature over tactics. Schmetzer told Sounder at Heart that the team is focused on how to use the best available players in their best spaces.
"Look at our lineup with Dempsey and it was a 4-2-3-1 or whatever you want to call it. That could be a 4-5-1; that could be a 4-4-1-1; that could be a 4-3-3. In reality you're almost dictating the positions by their personalities. You know where Ozzie likes to play - he's a true number six. Pineda's a true number eight. That's his position. Dempsey's a withdrawn forward but he can go forward. Those are almost their positions based on their personalities not a number on a chalkboard."
An absence of chalkboard schematics is not an absence of system. It does confuse labeling, but the tactics used maintain consistent core concepts.
Schmetzer also thinks that the quality in depth may be a cause for the strong attack so far this year.
"This year with Dempsey fresh, Oba fresh, Pineda, Lamar, Cooper, Pappa and the competition for starting spots that might be the underlying tone of why you see guys playing a little faster. Uh-oh there's Marco Pappa. Uh-oh there's Mike Azira off the bench or guys like Cooper and Lamar those guys are fighting for spots. Evans! What's Evans going to do when he comes back. Oh, we've got a national team guy on the bench in Brad Evans and he's going to come on and play. You've got to do your job."
That level of competition and the lack of a consistent shape may frustrate the lineup guessing game, but it is also the fuel that is seeding an offense that is setting the league afire.