The 2019 season is officially upon us, which means that in addition to rosters, line-ups, jerseys, and sponsors, we can now obsess over how the players who give those items meaning are spatially arranged on the field.
Based on the preseason, the Seattle Sounders will line up in their usual 4-2-3-1 to kick off the year. Last preseason, the Sounders tinkered with a 4-4-2 diamond in multiple matches, sparking intrigue about the ways a secondary formation could affect the overall campaign. This year, there has been no such tinkering. Brian Schmetzer has run out a 4-2-3-1 in all five of the team’s public warm-up games.
Combining the so far singular use of last season’s most prominent formation with the fact that the roster has undergone very little change in the last three months, the easy assumption would be that this season’s tactics shouldn’t change much from how they looked at the end of last year. But as any part-time tactician will be (sometimes annoyingly) quick to advise, formations and tactics are not the same. Here’s a breakdown of how this year’s 4-2-3-1 figures to play out.
The are many aspects of the Sounder’s 2019 4-2-3-1 that will work similarly to last year’s set up. In particular, the way the team builds out possession down the left should look familiar.
One of the core advantages of a 4-2-3-1 is that by deploying five midfielders, teams can create numerical advantages in a myriad of ways. The idea of creating numerical advantages is paramount to the Sounders identity. Since the Sounders have had left midfielders such as Victor Rodriguez and Harry Shipp who can tuck inside with ease and left backs such as Brad Smith and Nouhou with speed to burn on the overlap, the team has been particularly adept at creating overloads and successfully building out down the left the last two years.
That part of the Sounders tactical identity should remain the same this season. In fact, if anything, the volume of fluid attacks down the left in only likely to increase as Smith and Rodriguez now have a full preseason under their belt while Nouhou’s offensive game has improved every day and Shipp’s sharpness and confidence look sky-high. Meanwhile, the free roaming Nico Lodeiro provides a perfect third option to create triangles down the left, and Rodriguez and Shipp are prepared to do the same if needed at CAM. Not to be left out, Handwalla Bwana has provided moments of flair down the left throughout preseason as well.
Down the right, the addition of Jordan Morris changes the Sounders attack dramatically. Unlike Rodriguez, Lodeiro, Shipp, and Cristian Roldan (who played the second half of last season as the Sounders first choice right midfielder), Morris is better attacking big spaces with speed than working out of small spaces with precision. As such, the third year pro is less likely to check back into half spaces and work intricate combination plays when the Sounders build methodically out of the back.
What Morris does bring to the midfield is the ability to break with speed on the counter. Where attacking transitions down the left are more likely to involve an extra pass or two in order to get the outside back involved in the play, transitions down the right can begin and end with Morris, requiring fewer passes and giving defenses less opportunity to find their shape.
The key to unlocking Morris in transition will be getting him the ball before defenders can organize themselves. That means finding him immediately after a turnover, as the team did against San Jose, or playing him on a quick switch from left to right when the opposition has committed too many defenders to slow down the Sounders overloads down the left.
An added benefit of Morris’s ability to counter down the right is that it allows Kelvin Leerdam to hold a more defensive posture in transition. When Leerdam can stay home defensively, Roldan has more opportunities to maraud into the attack and create central overloads, even if Smith has committed himself into the attack as well. Last year, Smith or Nouhou often moved into the attack simultaneously with Leerdam, requiring both holding midfielders to hold a defensive posture. This year, with Morris’s speed allowing Leerdam to keep his defensive shape, there will be more opportunities for holding midfielders, particularly Roldan, to make bold runs forward.
Though the addition of Morris allows Leerdam to play more defensively, the right back will still have opportunities to join the attack, particularly when the Sounders create sustained possession and force defenses into a deep block. In these instances, Leerdam will have the opportunity to play down the right wing while Jordan slides centrally in a forward line with Ruidiaz. When the Sounders have the opportunity to pin teams in their own half, expect fluid interchange from the midfielders and outside backs while Morris and Ruidiaz create chaos in the box.
Overall, this year’s 4-2-3-1 figures to be more asymmetrical than the one the Sounders finished with a year ago. The team will likely commit more numbers and start the bulk of their build out play down the left while creating space for Morris to exploit on quick counters and switches down the right. Should the Sounders want to flip the lopsided formation to exploit a match up, Morris can slide to the left and reprise his role from the 2016 playoffs.
Most importantly, whether overloading down the left, attacking space down the right, committing Roldan forward centrally, or creating havoc in the box with Morris and Ruidiaz, the Sounders have options in the attack. Options create goals.
Similar to last year, the Sounders have defended in a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 shape for much of the preseason. Usually, the midfield and defensive lines are set up in organized, narrow-leaning banks of four in the middle third of the field. Done correctly, that middle block allows the team to stay compact while still leaving room for them to press in certain moments.
This tactical approach relies on patience and organization. The Sounders will allow opposing teams’ center backs and keeper to possess the ball under light pressure from the striker and CAM, but as soon as opposing center mids or outside backs try to receive the ball near the middle third, they face heavier pressure from the Sounders’ midfield line. Should opposing teams play long over the top of the middle block, they’re forced to contend with the aerial prowess and speed of the rave green back line.
Ultimately, patient ball movement and good interchanging will allow rival teams to work the ball into the wide areas of Seattle’s half, but even then opponents will face long odds in finding an open striker in the box between the likes of Chad Marshall and Kim Kee-Hee. Last year, funneling opposition attacks down the wings helped the Sounders post the second best goals against tally in the league.
The one area of weakness in the Sounders patient defending (besides the fact that it can lead to long stretches of boring soccer when the other team possesses without purpose in their own half) comes from moments when opposing movement causes Seattle to confuse their assignments and become a step slow closing down their mark. In these instances, the Sounders passive shape can allow too much time for their opponents to find a rhythm in possession, as happened on the first goal they conceded against FC Dallas.
Assuming the defensive coaching prowess of Brian Schmetzer and the leadership of a veteran backline can iron out the kinks sooner rather later, the Sounders won’t have too much to worry about defensively. They may not be committing to a Kloppian gegenpress anytime soon, but that shouldn’t keep the team from creating dangerous turnovers in the midfield when the timing is right.
With the pacey Jordan Morris and Brad Smith both notching assists on counter attacks in preseason, expectations should be high that the Sounders will create more transition goals than they did last year. Playing on the counter will fit their defensive tactics since opponents will likely need to commit a high number of attackers in order to break down Seattle’s disciplined banks of four. While highly technical midfielders such as Lodeiro and Rodrgiuez will still be able to break teams down through sustained possession, the team is better positioned to play on the counter than they were a year ago.
Where the Sounders could face challenges, particularly early in the season, is in build out play. Though this year’s squad is set up to be better on the counter, they are still not a group that likes to launch balls forward just for the sake of getting it out of their end. With a starting front four who likely all prefer to battle for balls on the ground more than in the air, Schmetzer’s men will need to find consistency in beating the press while keeping the ball on the turf.
If the team can figure that out (and tighten up their defensive shape to match last year’s rock solid form), very little will hold them back in 2019.