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What would a 3-5-2 actually look like?

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If the Sounders try a new formation, that could also mean a different style of play.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

For the entirety of Brian Schmetzer’s time in charge of the Seattle Sounders, pundits have struggled to effectively explain how his teams play or why they’re successful. There have been tweaks depending on personnel, but one aspect of his approach that rarely changes is a 4-2-3-1 formation. With all the talk about a move to a 3-5-2, it seems worth while to discuss how the team’s approach and style of play might change along with the formation.

Ultimately, formations don’t mean all that much. They indicate where players start on the field, and they can point towards how a team might approach a game — more players in the center of the field to force opponents towards the sidelines, more players on the back line to shore up a leaky defense — but what really matters is how roles are assigned in pursuit of a particular style or system of play.

In recent years, in part because of the considerable skills and strengths of Jordan Morris, playing to be able to create and capitalize on transition opportunities was an important part of Seattle’s system of play. They also worked to control the ball, using possession to draw opponents out and create gaps in the defense for Morris and Raúl Ruidíaz to exploit. In Morris’s absence — for as long as that’s a factor — it seems likely that Schmetzer will place even greater emphasis on dictating the game through possession.

All about the midfield trio

We’re not likely to see the Sounders reborn as a Tiki-taka Barcelona clone, but with the players available a relatively high-tempo possession style would make a lot of sense. The team, from top to bottom, is comprised of players with the technical ability and tactical understanding to pass and move, creating overloads and using quick interchanges to unsettle opposing defenders.

The stars of the show in this system are almost certain to be the midfielders, and the trio of Nico Lodeiro, João Paulo and Cristian Roldan are almost ideally suited for a system like this. All three can reasonably claim their passing ability, off-ball movement, and work rate as significant strengths. The ability of all three to effectively do the work required of each of the three primary midfield roles — the 6, the 8 and the 10 — means they can interchange, filling in for each other as they move to create overloads around the field, cover other parts of the field, or take advantage of an opponent’s mistakes. They can move the ball with a pass or a dribble quickly enough to make them hard to cover, while being able to smother opponents and regain possession when the Sounders lose the ball.

The fullbacks’ role

The task of maintaining possession doesn’t only fall to the central midfielders, and if the Sounders deploy a system along these lines it would make sense for the fullbacks to be heavily involved when the team’s in possession. This isn’t a huge departure from how the team has operated in the past. In 2020 four of the five players who saw significant minutes as fullbacks for the Sounders were in the top-10 in terms of touch percentage for players with more than 180 minutes played according to American Soccer Analysis. The fifth player, Joevin Jones, was 11th and also saw more of his minutes come as a midfielder. The returning fullbacks who could see time as wing backs in a 3-5-2 are Nouhou (whose 10% of the team’s touches in 2020 were third on the team behind Lodeiro and João Paulo), Alex Roldan (9.8%), and Brad Smith (9.3%). All three are fully capable of covering plenty of ground in support of their teammates and have the technical ability and passing to help the team hold the ball.

This slightly shifted focus would also take some of the weight of chance creation off of their shoulders. While Smith and Alex Roldan have shown their ability to hit crosses and create chances, neither of them has really shown a level of production worthy of being relied upon week in and week out. Even in 2019, when Smith was a consistent starter he only had a total of 7 assists and no goals in 2,280 minutes across the regular season and playoffs. Simplifying the role of the wingbacks should allow them to focus on their strengths and help to get the best out of them and the players around them.

What happens at centerback?

Nouhou raises an interesting opportunity for Brian Schmetzer and his staff. While the young fullback has shown that he can be a reliable defensive presence on the left, with the speed to be able to get into the attack and recover, his eagerness to get forward and his inability to consistently hit the final ball or provide the finishing touch inside the box has been undoubtedly frustrating. If the team moved to a three-back formation, there’s potential to try converting Nouhou from LB to LCB.

While Xavier Arreaga and Shane O’Neill have both played as the left-sided center back, neither is naturally left footed, nor are they ideally left sided players. As the left-most of three CBs, Nouhou would play a similar role to the one he filled as a left back without as much pressure to get involved in the attack. He’d still have the freedom to dribble out of the back and be involved in build-up, and his speed and mobility would be a huge asset to cover for his teammates when defending in transition.

Those other two CBs in a 3-5-2 would most likely be Arreaga and Yeimar Gomez Andrade. Both players seem to be well-suited to a possession-based system and a three-CB formation, particularly with a player like Nouhou whose speed can help to cover for mistakes in transition opportunities. Both players possess quality passing at all ranges, with the ability to hit the kinds of line-breaking passes that can open up a defense and change a game. They also have the skill to carry the ball into space and create chances on the dribble, as well as a penchant for stepping into midfield to break up attacks. With the support of two other CBs, all three have more freedom to stop an attack before it happens with the peace of mind knowing that if it doesn’t work they have help behind. This could be especially helpful for Arreaga, who has been burned more than a few times for bad decisions or worse mistakes.

Two quality forwards

Possession is great, but possession for possession’s sake is meaningless. For any system to work, it has to create goals. Enter the two forwards. Raúl Ruidíaz and Will Bruin seem like the obvious choices, unless something huge changes in the near future, and they offer different but complimentary skill sets.

Both players are, obviously, more than capable of putting the ball in the back of the net in a variety of ways. Since his first season with the Houston Dynamo in 2011, when Bruin’s been given consistent minutes he’s only failed to produce double-digit goals and assists once. He’s even had a double-digit goal season since joining the Sounders, putting up 13 goals and 4 assists in the regular season and playoffs in 2017.

Both can, and like to, drop into the midfield to get involved in possession, both can offer their own style of hold-up play, and in the rare instances when we’ve seen both on the field together they’ve shown an ability to play off of one another. They both have the technical ability to play free-flowing attacking soccer, full of quick one-twos and back heels, and regularly having both on the field would force opposing centerbacks to deal with constant movement, physical play, and a potentially devastating pair of forwards who can punish mistakes on the ground, in the air, and even from distance.

A new look

If the Sounders do end up trying a 3-5-2 it’s going to look different from what we’ve become used to, but maybe not as much as you might initially think. The core tenets of the team’s philosophy will remain largely the same — play for each other, play solid defense, take care of the ball, capitalize on mistakes and transition opportunities — they just might take a slightly different route to get there. The formation and system as described seem like a good path to get the most out of the talent currently available without having to make significant changes to the roster. Focusing on possession and simplifying defensive roles should allow the team to play to the strengths of the best players on the team, and ultimately that’s always been the goal of Brian Schmetzer’s teams.