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A case for a 4-2-3-1

It's not time to abandon our beloved Wide Attacking Midfielders just yet.


Back in October I wrote about the Sounder's newly minted diamond formation, and how the true sparkle comes from the CAM.  Sure, it doesn't hurt that a diamond happens to fit players like Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans into ideal roles, but it was pretty obvious from day one that the diamond was conceived as an attempt at maximizing Clint Demspey's skillset.

It's somewhat odd that Sounderland seems to have moved forward under the impression that the Sounders are now a diamond team, considering that the late-season tactical switch smacked of complete desperation, and could even be said to have been a total failure.  What resulted from the new formation was a 5-1 aggregate deficit to our most hated rivals, before Sigi was forced to sub on more attacking players in an attempt to save face.

I could go even farther, and suggest that playing a diamond CAM is actually not even the best use of Dempsey's *innate* style and skill; but rather a coached adaptation here in Seattle.  But first, let's do some review.

When Dempsey first arrived a startlingly large segment of Sounderland seemed to believe that he was meant as a "cut and paste" replacement for Evans at CM.  This myth perpetuated despite the simple fact that Dempsey had never been - nor was there any real reason he would ever become - a true central midfielder.  Dempsey, throughout his career, had demonstrated a skillset, style, and role more attuned to that of a 2nd striker, or withdrawn forward.  When deployed as a wide attacking midfielder he was primarily serving a role as a mezzala or interiore.

The best way to understand Dempsey's ideal role would be to take a look at his role with the National team.  Back in the 2010 World Cup USA coach Bob Bradley's basic "on paper" approach was to play a 4-4-2/4-2-2-2, which was basically an extremely empty bucket 4-4-2, with Dempsey and Landon Donovan as WAM's playing somewhat as interiores.

It is also worth noting that in each of the 3 matches against Slovenia, Algeria, and Ghana, Bradley made a tactical switch at halftime, bringing off the forward who wasn't Jozy Altidore and bringing on Benny Feilhaber as a left attacking mid; subsequently switching the shape to a 4-2-3-1 with Dempsey as the central attacker.  Keep in mind that these changes were made down 2 goals to Slovenia, drawn 0-0 at halftime with Algeria needing to score to qualify for the knockouts, and down an early goal to Ghana. In all three cases the change was successful: getting a draw out of Slovenia, beating Algeria, and forcing extra time against a Ghana side who were committing only one player to the attack.

Current USA manager Jurgen Klinsmann has deployed Dempsey almost exclusively as a 2nd striker/CAM in a 4-2-3-1; its safe to say that going into this Summer's World Cup this seems to be the set formation with Dempsey in the critical role.  It is from this, I suppose, that has lead some people astray into thinking that Dempsey is a CAM - which of course is a term that includes the words "central" and "midfielder".

This may be splitting hairs, but Dempsey's effectiveness in the 4-2-3-1 does not necessarily translate into a similar effectiveness as a CAM in a diamond.  Soccer is a holistic game, and a player's role is as dependent on the players around him as it is his own skillset. There are numerous examples of this: the distinction between wingbacks and fullbacks being a prime example, as is quite different expectations of wide midfielders in a diamond compared to a bucket 4-4-2.  In the 4-2-3-1 - or it's close cousin the 4-2-1-3 - the CAM (for lack of a better term) is as often much more of a "false 10" instead of a "true" 10 - aka the "classic playmaker" who adds the sparkle to the diamond.

There is another narrative to the conversation and that is one of the "running through walls" that seemed to become de rigueur after Joe Roth's statements at the year end meeting.  It is perhaps the impression of many Sounderland residents that the diamond is perhaps somehow more symbolic of this allegedly new, "grittier" approach the team is undertaking for 2014.  There is just one problem with this line of thinking.

If "wanting it more" is a narrative we would like to push about the Sounders, few elements would suggest such a trait as a team's ability to grind out results in a high-parity league like MLS.  Indeed, from the beginning of April through the end of September the Sounders managed to accomplish just that; and as demonstrated by a lead in the Supporter Shield standings despite only grabbing 1 point through their first 4 matches.

I would refer you to the assessment of the 2013 Sounders, who excelled at, among other things, "coming back from losing positions", "creating chances through individual skill," "aerial duels", and "protecting the lead".  Winning individual battles and earning results, are these not attributes of a team that "wants it more?"  Furthermore, the Sounders finished the season 2nd in MLS in both tackles and interceptions - aka taking the ball from their opponents.

In fact, during that April through September stretch the lineup constantly shifted and -  despite constant howls from Sounderland denizens that the constantly shifting XI was detrimental to the team - they continued to string together results.  Does this not sound like a team that showed "grit" and players who were willing to "go through walls" to get results?  In fact, in that stretch 6-month stretch, in games where Alonso played 90 minutes, the Sounders garnered 37 points through 17 matches, allowing just 10 goals.

Perhaps what *really* happened to the 2013 Sounders is that the Soccer Gods simply shrugged, and could no longer deliver the results from just hard work.  By the stretch run, the Sounders seemed to be a tired bunch getting simply out-played by teams who had spent the season perfecting their tactics.

At any rate, it strikes me as odd that the team would be looking to double down on something that didn't really work.  It could also be that I'm reading far too much into this.  But what I do know is that there is still a chance the Sounders could become a 4-2-3-1 team next season.

What would obviously need to happen is the bulk of the money the Sounders have in the bank to acquire talent would need to be spent on creative midfielders comfortable in wide positions.  With what appears to be the nearly-certain return of Mario Martinez, it may already be starting.  On the whole, much discussion of the midfield shape is purely speculation, as the current roster contains very few MLS starting-calibre midfielders of any variety, the roster is still very much a blank slate.

We have seen what a creative, dynamic, fluid midfield can accomplish here in Sounderland.  It was not a fluke the 2011 team scored the most goals in MLS despite having a notable shortcoming of talent at forward.  This little lesson, an important piece of the team's history, seems to have been completely overlooked.  Maybe this needs to be the narrative, that maybe rather than going through walls the Sounders need to find the players who were so good at finding a way around them.

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