By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Dec 7, 2020) US Soccer Players – Teams around the world have spent the past few years embracing the 4-2-3-1 formation. The tactic has been successful in MLS as a majority of teams now use it. Like all tactics, teams often don’t remain in such a rigid formation for the entire match. Depending on injuries, the score, and other factors, teams often morph into other formations.
This year’s MLS Cup playoffs featured four teams, Seattle, Minnesota United, Columbus, and the New England Revolution playing in a 4-2-3-1 formation. How they utilized it was key in getting this far into the season. The formation’s effectiveness, coupled with the personnel each team had to execute it, turned an 8th-seed into one tough opponent this fall.
A big misunderstanding about MLS is that physicality replaces technique. Let’s start with Columbus, newly minted Eastern Conference champions after defeating New England on Sunday by a narrow 1-0 margin. Both the Crew and Revs played a 4-2-3-1, but how Columbus won the game shows exactly why rosters and individual player qualities matter even in a team sport such as soccer.
Under coach Caleb Porter, the Crew has maintained their competitive edge. When Gregg Berhalter was coaching Columbus, the Crew also used a 4-2-3-1 lineup with the two central holding midfielders working in unison with the attack. That effectively put pressure on opposing defenses. Under Porter, the Crew has been both pragmatic and equally lethal in the attack. In Portland, Porter used a 4-3-3 because that’s what worked best there. In Columbus, he’s using a 4-2-3-1 with Darlington Nagbe as a deep-lying midfielder, Lucas Zelarayan as the play-maker, and Gyasi Zardes as a lone striker.
While Nagbe does a lot of the dirty work as a holding midfielder and Zardes scores the goals, the Crew’s defense presses opponents to give up the ball. That’s when the midfielders and attacking players use a series of passes and lots of pace on transitions to create scoring chances. This 4-2-3-1 has a healthy dose of “Porterball” injected into it, the same kind of coaching philosophy that helped him coach the Timbers to the MLS Cup title in 2015.
On the ball, the formation morphs into a 4-4-1-1 with Zelarayan clearly in the #10 role slotting the ball for Zardes in front of him. The Crew controlled the midfield, and with it the game. Porter should be very proud of Zelarayan’s work this season. Award voters certainly saw his value, with Zelarayan winning Newcomer of the Year after signing with the Crew from Liga MX club Tigres UANL.
A close examination of the 4-2-3-1 shows the differences in how coaches use the formation. The Revs under Bruce Arena also played an attractive brand of soccer. Often, Arena played a lineup that looked like a 4-5-1. That’s because Arena likes to have his wing-backs move up to help the attack, a freedom that is reminiscent of how the USMNT played under him over a decade ago. Arena also likes to stretch the width of the field, forcing opponents to have to cover a larger part of the field.
What Arena produced with this version of the Revs either under-achieved in the regular season or over-achieved in the playoffs. It’s tough to figure out which. That’s the looming issue for the club over the off season. Arena talked about needing a couple of players, but there’s a balance that has to work. Otherwise, the system could introduce new problems.
In the Western Conference, the Sounders have been in this position before. While the Crew aren’t as spectacular to watch as Atlanta United back in 2018, those qualities can definitely be found with Brian Schmetzer’s Sounders, who he coached to the MLS Cup crown in 2016 and again last season.
The Sounders play a 4-2-3-1, turning into a 5-4-1 when needed. Either formation has some of the same ingredients. Nico Lodeiro as play-maker, Jordan Morris on the left flank, and holding midfielder Cristian Roldan blocking balls on defense and transitioning to pinpoint passing when on offense.
Lodeiro may very well be the most successful play-maker in MLS of the past few years. His vision, ability to create chances, and overall skill have made Seattle into a tough team to beat, especially this time of year.
Minnesota, under coach Adrian Heath, uses a different spin on the 4-2-3-1. That highlights the flexibility that comes with this formation. Heath’s system makes the two defensive midfielders, Osvaldo Alonso and Jan Gregus, key. They stifle the likeliest offensive threats from the other squad.
Despite being 35, Alonso puts in regular strong performances that shift the pressure. The attacking trio of Kevin Molino, Emanuel Reynoso, and Ethan Finlay works best with plenty of possession. The chemistry between Molino and Reynoso is the other difference-maker for Minnesota.
All four twists on the same basic concept aren’t easy fixes for the rest of Major League Soccer. The technical staffs of the teams that didn’t make it this far should be focusing on why things worked for these four clubs. The answer could be a confluence of events, the polite way of saying luck. It could be a specific personality under a specific coach, something that’s not necessarily replicable by borrowing a tactical approach.
The 4-2-3-1 may become the easy answer in MLS, but that doesn’t make it the right choice for every team. Sometimes, it takes more than embracing a trend, even one that’s proving successful right now.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018.
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Photo by Jeremy Reper – ISIPhotos.com