An examination of the Revolution’s tactical struggles heading into Seattle for a game against a surging Sounders team.
By Kevin Koczwara
Steve Nicol has been trying to get the New England Revolution to play a 4-3-3 this season, which in turn is really a 4-5-1 with a pivoting midfield triangle. So far, the tactic hasn’t worked. In theory, the Revolution have the midfielders to play the three man central midfield, but it hasn’t worked because the outside players for the Revolution haven’t created any width or exposed opponent’s outside backs. The team has done its best to try the hoof and pray tactic out of the back, skipping the midfield triangle where its best players play. The long ball tactic kills any and all moment out of a 4-5-1 and Nicol’s desired 4-3-3, so something needed to change. Nicol knew it was time to give up on his experiment, so he switched to a more traditional 4-4-2 (really a 4-4-1-1).
In Saturday’s, 1-1, draw with the Chicago Fire, Nicol went with the tried and true 4-4-2 with Pat Phelan taking more defensive responsibility in the midfield, and winning plenty of tackles with little extra “umph”, giving Shalrie Joseph more freedom to roam and create. Kenny Mansally moved into the second striker role, playing in front of Rajko Lekic, making the formation more of a 4-4-1-1.
Early on, the formation proved effective. Mansally dropped deep to pick up any scraps, headed clearances, and to give the back a shorter outlet. His movement freed up both Chris Tierney and Sainey Nyassi on the wings. The two wide midfielder only one defender to take on after Mansally dragged his player underneath and out of position. Mansally’s movement took pressure of Lekic to hold play up and create as the sole striker, something that’s been difficult for the striker as he still adapts to the physical play of Major League Soccer. It was a nice change for the Revolution, and the team looked more confident and comfortable playing out of the back.
The Fire played on the counter and exposed the weak link in the Revolution defense, the lack of a real left back in the back four. Darrius Barnes has done a suitable job filling in at left back despite being a right-footed center back, but against the Fire, Barnes lack of pace and inability to play the ball his left-foot hurt the Revolution. His inability to get the ball up the wing or play the ball out of the back on the ground was also a killer. Barnes continually knocked a long ball, almost always skipping switching the ball or touching a pass to Joseph or Phelan when they showed to the ball. His inability to pass the ball out of the back killed a lot of the Revs momentum and fed into the Fire’s quick counter as they were able to take the ball down and set the counter before Joseph or Phelan could get into position.
The Revs were able to get a goal and had plenty of chances for others, but, again, the team was unable to find the back of the net. It’s been a pattern for much of the season, but if the Revolution can find a way to use its brute strength in the midfield, find players in the box and use the width that it so often ignores, the team should be able to begin to pick up the scraps and get some goals.
Nicol will have more options for a midfield pairing once Benny Feilhaber comes back from injury, and I would be interested to see him playing the Kenny Mansally role, but with less fouling and poor dribbling. Feilhaber is a great passer, arguably the best in the MLS, but the Revolution haven’t used him in his best position, just behind the striker. At the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa — where the U.S. finished second — Feilhaber owned the field behind the striker (in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which the Revolution could easily play with Joseph, Phelan, or Stephen McCarthy playing in the two holding position behind the three attack minded midfielders) and played balls in behind opponent’s defenses, opening up Landon Donovan, Charlie Davies, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey for scoring chances.
Nicol has used him in a more withdrawn role and on the pivot with Shalire Joseph starting high and then dropping behind Feilhaber once the Revs get possession. But, it hasn’t panned out. Feilhaber has struggled with making consistent tackles, and he hasn’t done well trying to win the ball back. Giving him a chance to be the creator could be the outlet the Revs need.
Feilhaber doesn’t fit favourably into the 4-4-2 inside midfield role though. He isn’t particularly good at tackling or at coping with the ball in the air. He also needs the space to roam and play in space rather than be pinned down in the center of the field with limited outlets. Giving Feilhaber the option in front of Lekic would free up the width for the Revolution as defenders will be sucked in to mark Feilhaber as he pops up in space. It will also give Lekic more of a chance to play 1-on-1 with a defender, something he hasn’t had a chance to do too often since arriving in New England.
Sound test in Seattle
Steve Nicol and the Revolution didn’t do well in Seattle last year. Actually, that’s an understatement . The Revs got embarrassed, 3-0, when they traveled to the land of Starbucks. To avoid a similar type of defeat, the Revolution will need to play better through the midfield.
Freddy Montero may be the Sounders Designated Player and a top-notch talent in the MLS, but he isn’t the catalyst for the Sounders. Thanklfully for the Revolution, Osvaldo Alonso won’t be playing playing in the midfield because he accumlated too many yellow cards thus far this season.
Alonso plays the holding midfield with grace and skill. He wins the ball back, clogs the passing lanes, and most importantly, he can pass the bass with ease. Alsono is the catalyst for the Sounders movement forward. His ability to distribute the right ball, the easy pass, makes him a one of a kind player in the MLS.
When Alonso gets the ball, his first outlet is generally Brad Evans. Evans plays in a more advanced role in Seattle’s diamond midfield. He is the team’s playmaker in the attacking third. Cutting off his supply line is important. Forcing him deeper to receive the ball will give the Revolution a better chance at slowing the build-up of the Sounders, which is important because Seattle is one of the better teams on the break. Seattle will need to find other supply lines through the midfield, namely Alvaro Fernandez on one wing and Mauro Rosales on the other.
Rosales and Fernandez have begun to find their feet in the MLS and know their roles. Both players made an impact against the New York Red Bulls on Thursday night in a 4-2 win. Fernandez used his on the ball skill and ability to come inside or play out wide and service other players while Rosales worked hard, won the ball back and drove up the right side of the midfield. They will be looked at to carry some of the missing pieces from Alonso’s absence on Saturday night against New England.
Phelan has the ability to be the disruptive force the Revs need. The red-headed midfielder doesn’t shy away from challenges, which is important in a game like this. He also allows Joseph to get more touches on the ball with his ability to win the ball back in the air and in the midfield — because as I’ve discussed before, when the ball goes to the defenders for the Revolution, it tends to be hoofed long over their best player.
This could also be a big game for Mansally. His work-rate as a second striker makes him an important player. Mansally can come in deep and cause havoc for Evans and the rest of the Sounders midfield. He forces quick balls out of the back with his pace and ability to continue to nag players in the back. If the Revolution are to get any points from Seattle, it will need a lot of touches from Mansally and plenty of tackles as well.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at Kevin.Koczwara@thesoccerguysonline.com.