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On the "regista" and wingers...

more thoughts on Sigi's Arrow

this picks right up where I left off yesterday

The search for the "regista"


We aren't going to find a true "Xavi" because this is the MLS.  The closest we have right now is probably Brad Evans, who unfortunately was almost ruined this last year before his injury with the tragicomic attempt to play him at center forward or right wing.  


A lot of the echo chamber consensus seems to be that Fernandez won't or can't fill the role (although I disagree), and with Alonso the only true ball-winning CDM-ACB on the team, it seems too much to ask to have him evolve his role into a true B2B CM.  


As I mentioned in Part 4( the CAM) , it's not so much about one designated playmaker, but rather about playmaker by committee, of sorts, and having inverted wingers helps this.  The Sounders achieved some good results with the "speed-on-the-wings" approach of getting the ball wide to move it into the attack.  A determined and disciplined side can man-mark any individual out of a game, and setting someone out there as your designated "playmaker" in a central "free" role in many cases is akin to putting a target on his back.  A player like Ljungberg wanted the ball at his feet, and was too often done in by his need to get in a dribble or two.  He did suffer a lot of fouls, but at some point even winning free kicks didn't seem to accomplish much.  


As good as Xavi is, he has the fortune of playing with some pretty talented players for both Barca and Spain who share much of the playmaking duties.  His ability to make a 5-yard pass lethal is not only due to his own vision and understanding but also that of the players around him, and this type of chemistry can only be achieved through players spending enough time in a system together.  In this light, the Sounders system may still be evolving,  recall that we really don't know what this team looks like with two "true" wingers (whether inverted or not) and Evans (or Fernandez or Seamon) as a central midfielder.  We caught glimpses of midfields with Seamon in the center and true wingers in Open Cup and July League matches, but it wasn't much to take from.  


Is the "playmaker" obsolete?

Maybe, but the telling element in applying the argument that the playmaker still exists is that in our system it would be Montero, as the center of the attacking band of 3 in a 4-2-3-1 - which is a valid interpretation of the team's usual shape.  There are probably those that doubt his ability to be a "#10" but in fact no one is asking him to.  


It may help to look at Argentina under Diego Maradona this last year for an answer to this question. It was a surprisingly rigid side, with Messi given free reign in the true enganche style.  And of course they were crushed when they finally met a side they couldn't overcome on pedigree when they went out to Germany in the quarterfinals.  The Germans, playing out of their 4-2-3-1 system, perfectly demonstrated fluidity flowing out of an otherwise rigid systemic foundation, with multiple players with playmaking ability applying their craft from different areas of the pitch.


If Sigi is system driven it is in the need for continuity.  Putting aside his stubbornness to stick with certain lineups - it has to be said that this has had much to do with player availability - the Sounders will play as many as 46 - or more - competitive matches next year, and that is simply far too many to ask any one man to play.  In his defense there was a considerable injury crisis to deal with this year, and MLS rosters simply aren't deep enough to adequately deal with such issues.  It could be said he knowingly fielded broken teams so that he could keep the system intact, fully aware of the generous playoff system which gives all but the lowliest teams a chance, particularly with half a season remaining.  Once the proper players were slotted in, things took off, and the quest may very well be this offseason to find players who can add depth to this, and within that depth a little flexibility.  


If you were hoping to see a hero swashbuckle into town wearing a cape and a rave green #10 shirt, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed this winter.  It looks as though you may have to settle for a rehabilitated Brad Evans, which is sure to cause some moaning as next year approaches.  I'm just afraid that it's clear to me that those who do are missing the point.


"True" wingers


What a winger is any more is open to considerable debate, and seeing as how the very idea of "wingers" almost disappeared for a time, and then when they did re-appear they were often in the form of attacking midfielders who were placed wide to have more room, it seems strange to speak of "true wingers" when the old notion of high and wide forwards dribbling up the touch line and booming crosses is all but antiquated and obsolete.  


To put it most simply, a player like Ljungberg was shoved out to the right by systemic necessity (at least at the MLS level - its worth noting that for Arsenal he played primarily as a right attacking mid or 2nd striker in their "loose" 4-4-2/4-2-2-2/-4-2-3-1 system, whereas a player like Nyassi was a winger by physical necessity.  Quick, but far less than physically imposing, he was mostly incapable of surviving the central midfield meat-grinder and thus was perfectly content making brash (if not a touch naive) runs along the flank.  


In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that Nyassi fit better on the right than Fernandez, despite the fact that the echo chamber seems to regard the latter as the slam-dunk right wing starter for next year (and the stories that Fernandez prefers the freedom of the wings).  


In essence, "true" wingers replace midfield dribblers.  In fact, with the central "playmaker" role of 4-2-X-X formations - be it a CAM or 2nd striker - more often than not spending as much time drifting horizontally as well as vertically, and the number of converted wingers playing in those spots, there has arisen the idea of the "central winger." 


What does it all mean?  Consider that in many 4-4-2 formations the 2nd striker and wingers (ie outside mids) are often nearly interchangeable.  Two American stars, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, exemplify this.  On most of the teams he has played for, Donovan is the most skilled player on the ball - a player most people would idealize as a 4-diamond-2 style CAM.  And yet, more often than not as his career has evolved, he has found his place on the wing for club and country.  Diego Maradonna employed Lionel Messi as a 4-diamond-2 CAM for Argentina, and he was completely swallowed up by Germany in the quarterfinals.  


And what does the 4-diamond-2 notably lack?  Wingers.  In classic 4-diamond-2 parlance, the nominally outside mids - generally playing at "box-2-box" midfield depth - are "shuttlers" and are really almost central mids.


why not 4-1-3-2?


By now, there reaches a point where the argument could be made that this is all rationalization and nonsense.  There is no reason a CAM and 2nd striker can't play together, and the Ljungberg problem wasn't systemic, it was personal.  If it isn't obvious by now that Ljungberg just had the wrong attitude, then there's no helping folks like me...


The Sounders have a strong defensive midfielder in Alonso, and in light of this why couldn't they run a true 4-1-3-2?:








It looks good to me, but there is one problem: everything we know about Fredy Montero.  We know he isn't going to stay on that high a vertical axis.  We know he is going to drop off, and it will end up looking more like this:









I would be tempted to call this a 4-1-4-1, but fine.  It could work.  Find the right player to man the CAM and there's no reason it couldn't be a lethal attack.  


There is still one issue: it is about spacing.  Defenses hate space and attackers love it.  Attackers love space so much that strikers have turned themselves into CAM's and wingers just to get away from brutish center backs or CDM's who revel in dishing out abuse to the limits of the rules (or beyond).  Defenders have no issue bunching together, attackers generally hate the idea.  


Those three central attackers all lined up look awfully bunched.  Someone is going to drift wide, except that they will then invade the space of the wingers, and this will displease the wingers.  Steve Zakuani was a striker once and is quite happy at his wing, where he has room to run at fullbacks and be unencumbered by brutish central defenders following central attackers.


This means that someone is going to drift back, and in all likelihood the onus will fall on the CAM.  If he is a dribbler, he is quickly going to realize that in the deeper central midfield, there suddenly isn't room to dribble, and he is either going to adapt into a passer or ask his coach to play him on the wing.


The coach will say that's fine, and eventually come to the conclusion he's better off with a second holding midfielder, someone who is going to help win possession and not even have it in this head to start up with this dribbling nonsense.  


And this overlooks what happens when this team doesn't have the ball.  Someone is going to drop back and help the CDM clog the middle, searching for 50-50 balls and distributing to help win and maintain possession.  Again, the most likely candidate is the CAM, and given his defensive responsibilities he is going to need to have the mental acuity to survive the meat grinder.  Given all this, it is pretty unlikely that he will be able to really push high enough to play between the wings, unless his team has possession deep in the opponent's end.


It doesn't take too long before one realizes why someone like Sigi would decide to just run out two CDM's.  Does this have the potential to stifle creativity?  Of course, but Holland were able to overcome this until they met Spain in the Final - who frankly were the better team; and likewise the Sounders were able to largely overcome this until they met L.A. in the playoffs, who frankly were the better team.  


There are times I have to remind myself that this is the MLS.  Sigi has been coaching in this league for a while, and has a pretty good grasp on how good a player you are going to get at this level.  I think he has developed a pretty good understanding of the structure that is needed to help launch individual creativity, and he will probably err on the side of caution, which is a likely criticism of most managers who don't work at places like Barcelona or Manchester.  


Sigi's Arrow is the approach to defining roles and spawning fluidity, it is an adaptation that is appropriate to not only the level of play but the personnel at hand.


Up next, it's time to circle back and try to answer the burning question of just why is the target man so important in this system?

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