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Embracing narrow play could improve Sounders’ fortunes

The Christmas Tree could be the answer to the current problems in defense.

Whenever a seemingly talented team falls on hard times, the topic of discussion will invariably turn to potential fixes, both quick and otherwise. Tactics are one of the more frequently debated topics in the former category, and it’s easy to understand why — changes to strategy and formation don’t require new players, coaches, or front office personnel and when a team isn’t playing up to its potential it’s a tantalizingly simple solution.

It’s also quite easy to overstate their importance. The single biggest contributing factor to success is talent, and it’s not particularly close. Genuinely bad teams aren’t going to suddenly become good by switching from a counter-attacking 4-5-1 to a high-pressing 4-3-3, and genuinely good teams aren’t going to plummet down the table by going in the opposite direction. Still, in a sport — and league — where the margins are so razor-thin it’s important for teams to get as much out of the players at their disposal as possible, especially when they’re stuttering as badly as the Seattle Sounders are right now. A new approach isn’t likely to be a panacea but it can have a significant benefit, especially for teams whose major strengths are being nullified by real and easily exploitable weaknesses.

With all that in mind, a humble suggestion: maybe the Sounders should think about playing in a Christmas Tree?

The Christmas Tree (or 4-3-2-1 as it’s less festively known) is not exactly the most en vogue formation. A fairly common shape from the late 1990s through the mid 2000s, it’s popularity waned as the decade drew to a close. It’s not especially difficult to understand why; there are much better ways to construct and set up a team with a heavy midfield presence that don’t rely almost exclusively on fullbacks to provide width. And while the 4-3-2-1 can be very effective, it’s difficult to argue that a formation including 7 primarily defensive players is especially adventurous.

However, given the talent the Sounders currently have on hand there are some strong arguments in favor of at least giving it a shot. This isn’t to suggest that it’s a long-term fix, only one possible solution that may help maximize the team’s strengths while minimizing their weaknesses until reinforcements arrive in the secondary transfer window. Bringing in another impact player and upgrading elsewhere is obviously going to have a much bigger impact, but unless things turn around quickly it may very well be too late by the time July rolls around.

Here’s one suggestion:

One potential look

There are two immediate concerns that need to be addressed right from the start. For one, this shape is entirely dependent upon the fullbacks providing width. In theory, that’s not all that different from where things currently stand. In practice, losing even nominal wingers like Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris will make the attacking contributions of the fullbacks even more important — a pretty terrifying thought if Jordy Delem is in the team.

The other major concern, arguably even more significant than the first, is the potential for Clint Dempsey and Lodeiro to clog up the center of the pitch in the final third. This is something that’s been an issue at times throughout Dempsey’s entire tenure in Seattle, so it’s admittedly rather strange to suggest setting up the team in a way that puts him even closer to another attacking player. However, it’s important to remember that when Seattle has experienced issues with overcrowding in the final third it was generally because the actual tactical plan was breaking down and functioning incorrectly.

Dempsey was frequently forced to drop deep into midfield in order to provide the link between attack and defense, through no real fault of his own. In other cases he was deployed in a role that required him to stay much higher than he’s ever been comfortable, which isn’t exactly setting him up to be successful. The key difference is that in this formation Dempsey can function more or less as a withdrawn forward, exploiting pockets of space just outside the 18 and making the late runs into the box he’s so well known for. Dempsey inhabiting the space in which he thrives is key to making this formation work rather than something that has to be planned around.

Meanwhile, Lodeiro can do more or less what he does now, moving from flank to flank in a free role and occasionally popping up in the center to release Morris behind the defense. Nico’s ability to read the game and find the correct space from which to operate is one of his biggest strengths, and this formation not only allows him to float about freely but requires it in order to function correctly.

The benefit to the Sounders attack is clear in that it puts their two best offensive players into the roles for which they are best suited. While the team would lose a player from the attacking band, the freedom afforded to Dempsey and Lodeiro combined with ability of the defensive midfield band to join the attack from multiple directions would stretch the defense in the final third, potentially clearing out space around the top of the 18 and opening up space on the flanks for inside-out runs from the attacking three or overlaps from the fullbacks on either side.

The addition of a third central midfielder could also go a long way towards addressing the Sounders’ glass-like vulnerability to counter attacks, eliminating a great deal of the risk involved with pushing the fullbacks so far up the pitch. The band of three in defensive midfield is also quite fluid, allowing the Sounders to move pieces in, out, and around depending on the opposition.

Gustav Svensson would likely be the first choice as he would bring even more of a defensive presence to an already terrier-like Seattle midfield, and his long passing could help to spring counter attacks and potentially take a bit of the playmaking responsibility off of Lodeiro’s shoulders. Alvaro Fernandez doesn’t have Svensson’s physical presence, but his ability to cause serious problems by clogging passing lanes was impressive against Sporting Kansas City on Wednesday night and he brings steady, possession-oriented approach in attack. Harry Shipp would be the best option for games requiring a bit more incisiveness and in games he isn’t the starter would give the Sounders a real attacking upgrade off of the bench, something they don’t currently have given their shape.

To be certain, there are drawbacks to this approach. The 4-3-2-1 is generally a formation that emphasizes possession, and as has been demonstrated so far this season that’s not always a recipe for goals or results. It can also be, to put it bluntly, pretty damn boring. It’s narrow — narrowness is in fact its defining feature — and when utilized against other teams that crowd the midfield it can make for some very trying 90-minute slogs. But boring and effective is significantly better than mildly interesting and terrible, so if it were to end up working it would certainly be worth it.

This team as constructed isn’t nearly so bad as their results would indicate, and their roster is almost certainly going to get better (possibly much better) in the secondary window. But what they’re doing right now isn’t working, and if it isn’t time for a radical new approach then it’s certainly close. The Christmas Tree isn’t a magic bullet, and the fact that it’s even worth mentioning as a possible solution does not say very positive things about the way this roster is constructed. But right now, all that matters is staying afloat until July 10. A switch to a 4-3-2-1 may not be enough, but there is ample reason to think it might be worth trying.

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