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The Sounders and the lack of wing play

Sanna Nyassi: a winger...
Sanna Nyassi: a winger...

First of all, let's make an honest assessment about the month of May for the Sounders.  Eight points through 5 matches isn't bad, in fact it is pretty decent.  1.6 PPM would put them 5 overall on the League PPM table right now.  By way of comparison  to the last two season, 1.6 PPM though 30 matches is 48 points.  Not bad at all.


Of course, this is all tempered by the disappointing draw at home to the Portland Timbers and then the maddening loss to FC Dallas, but they saved their month, so to speak, with the huge win over RSL and the "fortress" of Rio Tinto.


Results speak for themselves, and they speak louder than style ever will.  Just ask the Philadelphia Union or even the Timbers about that.  But let's also not kid ourselves here; 1.6 PPM is hardly breakthrough stuff. It will fall well short of the Shield, and it will likely place the Sounders around 6th on the overall League table at the end of the year.  While this is a marginal improvement over last year (6th out of 18 is a bit better than 6th out of 16) it still has them flirting with a dreaded "wild card" playoff spot, given the silliness of the League structure.  


In short, if you want to make the playoffs, 1.6 PPM is fine.  If you want to be top of the table, it falls short.


But the injuries… yes, the injuries.  When the month started, injures were a big problem, really nearly a crisis.  We were not able to field our best side against Portland because of injuries, and this certainly had an effect.  But against Dallas we fielded one of the most attacking lineups of the year, and against RSL we were fit and deep enough to keep a DP on the bench to start and not have it seem shocking.  Despite all the injuries, we are still fielding teams composed primarily of players deemed good enough to protect last November, or go out and sign from other teams or even leagues last offseason.  Aside from perhaps Carrasco, Sigi hasn't been forced to dip into what could truly be called reserve players (keep in mind that Neagle appeared in each of the first two matches this year).


So, yes, injuries have been a problem.  But are they an excuse to be boring?

"the death of football"


One of the bullet points of the tactical evolution of the game over the last century is that wingers were once critical, then all but disappeared, then started to re-emerge in the last couple of decades.  By the 80's the traditional 4-4-2, in which outside mids were more shuttlers than attackers, came to dominate and the 3-5-2/5-3-2 came in to counter it as "the last great tactical revolution".  The 3-5-2 came about specifically because of the lack of wing play, the logic being what good are fullbacks if they have no one to cover.  Instead we had wingbacks, and the pyramid had become inverted, the old 2-3-5's of the 20's eventually become the 5-3-2 of the 80's.  It was enough for Johann Cruyff to declare it the "death of football"


It is unfair to castigate any particular formation on simply its nomenclature grounds.  I have been guilty of seemingly simultaneously warning against it while doing it myself.  But when it comes to Sigi's tinkering with the diamond lately, I am certainly prone to express alarm, because as it turns out, the 4-diamond-2 lacks wingers.


The best way to describe the wide midfielders in a diamond are that they are "shuttlers" to either side of a CDM and a CAM.  They are no more similar to the wingers in a "bucket" 4-4-2 than they are to the two holders.  The easiest comparison is to the two CM's in a 4-1-2-3 version of the 4-3-3: they are two possession-oriented players generally expected to split and cover the pitch between the two of them; operating in front of a deep-lying CDM, and in behind some form of tridente.  If that tridente involves a "false 9" style center forward between two wingers - what some may call a "concave 4-3-3" - a nexus is reached between 4-diamond-2 and 4-3-3.  


Furthermore, in a well-run diamond system, with its narrow midfield, the fullbacks are expected to push forward and provide width to the attack.  In this sense, they can be seen to often be ahead of the CDM in terms of average position.  The CDM may sink so deep as to be nearly a 3rd center back.  In the end you may end up with something very near a 3-4-1-2 (another nexus); two marking CB's with a third "free" CB able to push into the midfield when needed (indeed, the very spirit of the "sweeper" made famous by the likes of Beckenbauer). The two fullbacks have essentially become midfielders, i.e. "wingbacks" virtually level with the two shuttlers, and false 9 or CAM pushed up high in support of a pair of strikers.


None of this, by definition, is boring.  Barcelona manage just such a system with their nominal 4-3-3 which actually manages to be all three of the above rolled into one.  Very few will ever accuse Barca of being "boring"


But what of those wingers.  In the above "concave 4-3-3" they will naturally push centrally a bit as the "false 9" drops off, looking more like a traditional striker pairing playing up on the same vertical axis.  But such systems also thrive on adaptability.  A player like David Villa can operate as a winger or a center forward.  Thomas Mueller helped Bayern Munich to the Champions League Final in 2010 as a 2nd striker, then won the Golden Boot in South Africa as a right wing in Germany's 4-2-3-1.  This leads me to ask of Fredy Montero: can you play as a winger?


inverting our own "pyramid"


Well, it's tough to call it a "pyramid" when it is really just a triangle, but from where I sit one of the key elements to what the Sounders have been doing lies in the shape of that "tridente".  Going back to the idea of the two "shuttlers" sitting in behind a trio of attackers, in the diamond that shape is a CAM in behind two strikers.  It could be said that the 4-diamond-2 is two triangles, one balanced above the other, both pointing back towards the defending goal. So what if we "inverted" that top triangle, in the process giving it a bit more width?  The result is what most people would consider a 4-3-3, and quite a departure from everything we have done.  But the shape of the back 3 midfielders remains the same, the idea of having a top forward - familiar in the tactical history of this team - is brought back, and we can get back our wingers.


As to whether or not this makes for less "boring" soccer is certainly up for much debate.  The question of who exactly occupies the winger spots is certain to cause a bit of its own controversy.  But from where I sit, players like Montero and Mike Fucito really ought to be easily adaptable to those roles.  Steve Zakuani certainly excelled in making the switch to the wing, a spot where he had the freedom to run with the ball and directly challenge opposing fullbacks.  Then, of course, there are the litany of young attacking players who litter the bottom end of our roster, mostly toiling away in reserve matches.  Are we to believe none of these are deserving of a chance?


After my latest write-up I will admit to having had a moment or two of reckoning.  It occurred to me that I was probably too negative, I had probably come down too hard on the team for being "boring".  But it is what it is.  I think it is quite justified to ask where the where the wing play has gone.  We only lost one winger on this team, and while it may have been our best attacking player, I have a hard time believing that means we need to give up on wingers altogether.

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