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How to unlock the full potential of Nicolas Lodeiro

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What’s a free eight? Quite possibly the best position for Nicolas Lodeiro.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

While trying not to do anything over Christmas break, I came across a Twitter discussion that began with this tweet from Michael Caley.

The conversation is interesting, and for the record I prefer the term “Free Eight” (as suggested by Kevin De Bruyne), but that isn’t what really got my mind racing. Since the Colorado match on July 5, I’ve become fairly convinced that moving Lodeiro to a deeper position might be the best use of him.

I’m not suggesting Nicolas Lodeiro is in the same class as any of those aforementioned players, and I’m not suggesting the Seattle Sounders approach the quality of any of those teams. However, the way those teams use a player who would traditionally be thought of as a No. 10 could be applicable to the Sounders.

The Sounders played all (or a large portion) of five matches this year with Lodeiro lined up deeper. They didn’t really change much of their standard 4-2-3-1 to do so. With the current roster, a first choice version of that would look something like this:

4-2-3-1 with Lodeiro Deep

In those five games, the Sounders were 5-0-0 with 15 goals for and a +14 GD. Of course, there are caveats — two of those games were against the woeful Rapids, four of the five games were at home, one of them included a big batch of 10v10, and it’s a very small sample. We don’t have xG data for the playoffs publicly available, but for the three regular season games the Sounders were 2.06 xGF and 1.75 xGA. Again, this is a small sample size and the majority of the xGA was accumulated in the game at Colorado, which also has some game state issues. There isn’t enough data to proclaim that this lineup is the best use of the Sounders’ talents, but it does suggest that it’s not a ridiculous lineup to use.

The primary issue with that lineup that I see, is you aren’t getting all of your best players on the pitch. You’re sitting Ozzie and Svensson to put Will Bruin on the field, essentially. You could play Dempsey up top, but then you have Harry Shipp or Aaron Kovar on the wing. This might be a viable way to play if you sign another wide attacker or a new No. 9. But as the roster stands, I’d rather see them line up in their standard formation with Lodeiro on the wing. They could also play a sort-of 4-3-3 with Lodeiro and Roldan both as box-to-box center midfielders behind a front three of Morris, Dempsey, and Rodriguez; but that really isn’t functionally much different than their standard 4-2-3-1.

Let’s get back to the original thought that started us down this rabbit hole, though. The idea was to use Lodeiro as a ‘free eight’ in the way that Liverpool used Philippe Coutinho or Manchester City use Kevin De Bruyne. Both of those teams have been playing what amounts to a 4-1-4-1. This is how you would put the current Sounders players in that formation:

Tottenham use Christian Eriksen in a similar way, but play out of a ton of different formations. The exotic ones I think are safe to ignore as neither Schmetzer nor Lagerwey seem apt to favor them. Their standard lineup is not much different from what Seattle would be expected to use. Eriksen is part of an attacking band that includes three players who are more forwards then midfielders. He pinches in and plays behind the more attack-heavy players. Of course, if he’s going to play in that space anyway, why not line up that way from the beginning? Tottenham have also used a 4-3-1-2 that Seattle could mimic quite well.

While there haven’t been a ton of rumors about the Sounders and new signings, what rumors there are have linked the club to more attacking midfielders and wide attackers. Given the current make-up of the team, that wouldn’t seem to make much sense as that would be forcing one of Lodeiro, Dempsey, or Rodriguez to the bench; or moving Dempsey to center forward with three attacking midfielders behind him. However, if you are moving Lodeiro back, then all the pieces start to fit together nicely and suddenly the team has a lot of flexibility to play in different ways with much of the same personnel.