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Experimentation with the 3-5-2 yielded mixed results for the Sounders

There were flaws and issues all over the team, but the 3-5-2 had some interesting and valuable tactical lessons for the Sounders and those might be worth pursuing.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Preseason is the time for experimentation, outside-the-box thinking, and tactical whimsy. It's a concept that Sigi Schmid embraced with wanton abandon in the first half of Saturday's 3-2 loss to Sporting Kansas City when he rolled the Seattle Sounders onto the pitch in a traditional 3-5-2 tactical formation.

The 3-5-2

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The generalized 3-5-2 uses two defensive midfielders in conjunction with a central attacking midfielder and two strikers. Many modern variants use everything from a regista and dual box-to-box style players complementing a trequartista, to just simply three non-specialized central midfielders.

Sig Schmid opted for the former option with Gonzalo Pineda and Michael Azira as the defensive midfield pairing and Marco Pappa in the central playmaking role. With Pappa building through the middle, this left Clint Dempsey to play off Lama Neagle's runs against the Sporting KC center backs.

Giving Dempsey the creative license to pick the zones to attack without having to worry about dropping deep to facilitate linkup play was an experiment with mixed success. In some attacks Dempsey would be crucial in shifting play and creating through the middle, yet at other times he would be completely invisible as Pineda was relegated to the heavy-lifting role as Pappa flighted around with creative abandon. It was a formation that didn't seem to suit Dempsey, and may be best utilized when he isn't available to the Sounders. We should temper that expectation with the reality that it was a formation the team admittedly hadn't played before, had only even trained in a day or two earlier and it was only 45 minutes.

Weaknesses

As the Sounders went into the halftime break down by two goals, the choice to use a three-man backline was an obvious issue for the Sounders. Schmid in his post-match comments ascribed the issues to a lack of familiarity with the formation and that was as plain as day in the first half. While the first goal came after a flubbed header from Zach Scott (and that type of goal can happen to any player or formation, especially in pre-season), it was the second goal that exemplified the communication troubles the Sounders had with the three-man backline.

In the buildup to the second goal, Chad Marshall, as the central center back in the system, steps up as Sporting KC plays the ball back toward their own goal. This is the correct  behavior for a two-center back system, but it's an issue in a three-man system with the ball on the wing. The central center back in the three-man backline has to be tethered in line to his far side partner to prevent a huge pocket of space to develop in behind; Marshall steps up, the space opens, and Sporting KC exploited it ruthlessly. This was a common problem for much of the evening as the trio frequently played like they were individual halves of a two-man team and not a three-man team.

This style of play was also an issue for Scott and Leo Gonzalez on the left who were constantly attacked for much of the first half as Gonzalez's lack of recovery speed left gaps in transition, drawing Scott high and wide away from his partners. Gonzalez in particular had a very rough game on the left as he frequently found himself isolated with two Sporting KC players pressing for possession. That type of double team is standard defensive practice and one of the main weaknesses of the 3-5-2 when up against the 4-4-2. Play down the wings has to be fast, deliberate and penetrating otherwise the wing backs are outmanned and turn over possession. To his credit under the circumstances, Gonzalez did a very solid job and at times when Neagle drifted wide left up top (as is his predilection), the Sounders even created solid, sustained attacks without having to put the ball back into central midfield.

Strengths

While the Sounders struggled from a defensive perspective, they came on leaps and bounds with regards to their possession game in this match. The midfield trio of Pineda, Pappa and Azira moved the ball flawlessly through the Sporting KC midfield for much of the first half and in particular worked wonders in playing off and advancing Gonzalez on the left, drawing the KC defense left, before switching play to the right for Mears to exploit the space with his pace and technical ability. It was certainly an attacking tradeoff for the Sounders, though, because as previously noted there were defensive concerns with Gonzalez on the left.

It was a powerful formation that drew on some of the best pieces of Pappa and Gonzalo Pineda's skill sets. If the Sounders had Osvaldo Alonso also fully healthy, the first 45 minutes could well have been one of the most dominant midfield performances from the Sounders in recent memory. In conjunction with a back line that moved the ball fluidly, the Sounders controlled the tempo and flow of the game (which is something that they have struggled with in the past against KC), neutralizing the Sporting KC press, and shutting down Benny Feilhaber in the middle for long stretches of the game.

Takeaways

The 3-5-2 formation performed about as well as any branded with a giant "EXPERIMENTAL" label could have. There were communication and linkup issues in each part of the pitch and the only real advantage over the 4-4-1-1 was how impressive Pappa and Pineda were at controlling the midfield. The strength of that partnership and the man advantage in midfield inherent in the 3-man midfield (at least against the 4-4-2) gave the Sounders an enormous amount of control in this match and is worth further exploring. However, the rest of the team needs a ton of work if Schmid wants to make this a viable mid-season tactical choice.