By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Jan 18, 2022) US Soccer Players – Major League Soccer is getting plenty of attention in recent weeks. The annual SuperDraft introduced a group of players who could follow recent examples of draft picks turning into key contributors. Ricardo Pepi and Daryl Dike are off to Europe in high-profile moves, adding to the wealth of American talent already there. Another very big signing went the other way when Italian international Lorenzo Insigne agreed to a deal with Toronto FC.
The Napoli captain is certainly a splashy signing for MLS since Insigne is still in his prime and fresh off winning the EUROs with Italy last summer. This movement of players could impact tactics in MLS this coming season. The 4-3-3, recently championed by Italy and many Serie A clubs, might become a thing in MLS.
Under coach Roberto Mancini, Italy played an exciting brand of possession soccer highlighted by passing and build-up play. It was a big departure from previous iterations of the Azzurri’s traditional defensive-style system reliant on the counterattack. Insigne, a starter at the Euros, was a big part of Mancini’s system. That system originated in Serie A, where teams like Napoli, Sassuolo, and Atalanta all found success in recent years.
In MLS, the 4-2-3-1 remains king. It has been the most popular formation for years now. It was the same formation used by defending champions New York City FC and runners-up Portland Timbers. Some MLS teams opted for the 4-3-3 last season. Most notably, by Sporting Kansas City, Houston Dynamo and LAFC. Houston and LAFC have new coaches this season, meaning the potential for tactical changes.
The reality, as far as last season is concerned, is that the 4-3-3 largely failed to work. LAFC finished 9th in the Western Conference and failed to make the playoffs. Meanwhile, Houston finished in the cellar. In Kansas City, Vermes relied on the 4-3-3 with Gianluca Busio in the midfield lynchpin. It’s no coincidence that Busio signed with newly-promoted Serie A side Venezia last August. Like the Italian club, Sporting KC built play from the back with the wingbacks aiding the offense. Sporting KC finished 3rd in the Western Conference and went on to lose to Real Salt Lake in the semifinals.
Successfully using the 4-3-3 in MLS is squad-dependent. To find success, teams will need two solid center backs with a right back who stays back and a left back who roams up the flank. That means a speedy left-sided defender.
In the midfield, three players work as a unit. The player in the center of that trio needs to be an excellent dribbler as well as having the vision to deliver balls to his left and right. He needs to be a typical playmaker but also knows how to track back when the team loses possession. In other words, a typical two-way player. The three strikers play in their traditional roles, with all of them able to beat defenders and unleash shots.
That takes us back to Insigne. His new coach Bob Bradley favored the 4-3-3 at LAFC last season and could turn to it in Toronto. Fortunately for Bradley, he already has players who can adapt to such a formation.
For example, Bradley needs reinforcements at center back as he tries to restock the backline. In the midfield, Michael Bradley has plenty of experience, including time in Italy with Chievo Verona and AS Roma. Signing Insigne shows Toronto isn’t afraid to spend, and they could be willing to invest in the additional parts to strengthen a 4-3-3.
For Bradley, the key will be to get the most out of his players in 2022. LAFC did play attractive soccer last season, but it ultimately failed to get results when the team couldn’t score goals.
“One of the most important responsibilities that a coach has is to get the best out of your best players,” Bradley told the Los Angeles Daily News this past October. “For different reasons, that’s not been the case. Certainly when you look at the chances that get created and the fact that we’ve still haven’t scored at the rate that we need to, at the rate that fits with the chances we create then, yeah, I think it’s clear that we haven’t found a consistent way to get the best from our best guys.”
Bradley’s new club adds a proven scorer who has played at his best in a 4-3-3 lineup. The right-footed winger has scored four goals in 17 games this season. Last season, he scored 19 times and added eight assists in 35 Serie A games, some truly astonishing numbers.
Insigne joins Toronto in July after his Napoli contract officially ends. It will be interesting to see what he can bring to MLS and how quickly he adapts. In the meantime, we could already be watching a resurgence of the 4-3-3 in MLS. That’s just in time for the debut of a player who knows what it can do to help a team win trophies.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- Getting the SuperDraft right always counts in MLS
- The Red Bulls vs NYCFC in 2022
- The changing market for Brazilian players in Major League Soccer
- MLS retirements in 2021
Photo by Michael Janosz – ISIPhotos.com