Tactically, the two biggest issues last year were defensive fragility and a lack of width. When did we see the defense tighten up? Well, the arrival of Crayton certainly played a role, but I think we were at our most stifling when Soehn played with two holding (I hesitate to say defensive) midfielders. Of course, while the defense tightened up considerably, attacking possession was also at a premium as United focused on eliminating mistakes and keeping the opposition in front of them.
Does that mean that we can't be an effective attacking side with two holding mids? It seems to be working in a variety of leagues around the world, MLS included, lest you missed the Crew lifting both the Supporters' Shield and the MLS Cup. And the Crew, while being solid defensively, were also dangerous on the wings. Sure, some of that has to do with personnel, but it also has to do with allowing your wide men more freedom to get forward by sticking two guys who can cover ground, fill gaps, and get the tackles in behind them.
Can Gallardo be one of those guys? Unlikely. He doesn't have the physical tools for it, nor does it showcase his ability properly. Correct me if I'm wrong, but everything I could dig up on YouTube or remember from watching Gallardo with River had him playing higher up the pitch, generally in a left-central attacking midfield position. Jeebus! Left-central? Sounds like I'm talking sudamericano politics all of the sudden ;-).
How Do You Solve a Problem Like Marcelo?
We can't very well build a system and not feature the crown jewel, can we? I mentioned the Crew earlier, and I did it with a specific intention.
There but for the grace of God . . .
We've got some fair depth and a variety of abilities in positions supporting the attack. Gallardo and Quaranta bring an eye for the killer ball and both can hit shots from distance, Fred and Khumalo can dribble (even if they are worthless in front of the net), and Moreno can do both.
Why not pick three and give them a bit of license to roam and create danger? We know Fred and Tino both tend to drift inside (as does Gaven for the Crew), so instead of forcing them to stay wide, why not allow for a more fluid three in support of a lone striker? "But where's the width?" I hear you saying. That's where the fluidity and switching positions comes in. Or that's where having a Khumalo (or Thomspon or Cordeiro or Kirk, should they return and get significant time) on the opposite flank (in the wide "Rogers" role) keeps things stretched. Also, with two holding mids, the fullbacks have more license to overlap and get involved, spreading out the attack over an even wider front.
Happily, such a system also frees Gallardo (like Schelotto for the Crew) from having to devote so much of his energy to defense. With cover behind him, he can work himself into gaps between the opposition defense and midfield, ready to take possession and have a little time to consider his passes. Surely, if your crown jewel DP is known for defense splitting balls (ah, Ray, how we miss the "dagger ball") and arriving late to finish chances, then you want to have him in the proper position to do so. I even remember Tommy stressing last year how they wanted to have him playing higher.
Weaknesses In This Approach
There is one minor flaw and then there is the major one. Let's get the minor one out of the way because it's the more easily addressed. We've got Simms, and I think that Vide will be a decent two-way midfielder in this league. But after that, we've got precious little to fill the holding midfield roles with unless Olsen returns for 2009. Is that something we can find in the draft? Possible, but a trade or foreign acquisition would be a more likely route.
And what about that major problem? Well, that's more of an issue. By setting things up around one DP, you do no favors to the second DP. I'm not sure that Emilio is suited to playing as a solitary striker. Doe? Perhaps a bit more so, but still not ideal. Of course, if the system functions properly, and the attacking midfield is high enough, this becomes less of an issue. Still, a terrier (Alejandro Moreno) or physical specimen would allow more flexibility.
And that, of course, is the key. A system is all well and good, but it's tactical flexibility that makes the team effective. Soehn has shown signs that he's making a few improvements in this department when it comes to match preparation, but his in-game adjustments need work, to put it mildly.
So what have we learned, if anything, in Part II? Well, three things primarily.
- In order to create more tactical flexibility, we need depth in the two-way or holding midfield department and some variety up top (physical specimens or tenacious terriers).
- Our current strength lies in the attacking midfield positions, so we would do well to emphasize that area in our tactical approach next year. Specifically, Gallardo should be higher up the pitch.
- I'd like to see someone brought into the staff that can serve as a tactical guru (or at least sounding board) for Soehn. Ashton just doesn't give me that impression. A number two man who can more quickly identify problems or opportunities on the pitch--someone with a "footballing brain"--would be ideal. Too bad Etcheverry is otherwise occupied.