A new season brings new players, new possibilities, and a new formation.
And implementing the 4-3-3 formation looks to be on the agenda for John Hackworth this season.
The Union manager has been rolling out the formation in preseason games, experimenting with a midfield trio of Brian Carroll, Maurice Edu, and Vincent Nogueira. Newcomer Cristian Maidana is settling in as a left forward, with Jack McInerney up top and Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Cruz splitting time on the right.
It's a work in progress, but Hackworth sees positive signs in the first month of camp.
"Specifically, I would say our ball movement and our ball circulation has been much better both against [the New York Red Bulls] and Orlando," Hackworth told reporters via conference call from Florida. "Our organized pressure – we pressed those two teams, at least in those games, pretty high up the field, and that for the most part was pretty good. In both games we were successful in locking those teams in their own half for a while and sustaining that. At the same time, concerns, we've given up two goals that were counterattack goals that were, in our opinion, goals that we should have been able to cut out, before they ever got to a dangerous point. We clearly still have some work to do in that area and there is a lot of other pieces that we need to add in the next two weeks."
Pressure, passing, and possession are some of the hallmarks of the shape, which developed in the early 1960s with the Brazilian national team.
Fig. 1: The Ajax formation in the 1995 UEFA Champions League final. At the time, the midfield trio of Jari Litmanen, Clarence Seedorf, and Edgar Davids was among the best in the world.
Modern day football often references the Dutch style, which came to prominence at Ajax Amsterdam in the 1970s. The legendary Johan Cruyff was the face of the system, scoring boatloads of goals for Ajax, Barcelona, and the Netherlands national team.
Ajax played the formation all the way to the the 1995 UEFA Champions League crown, rolling out a potent XI that featured superstars like Clarence Seedorf, Jari Litmanen, Marc Overmars, Edgar Davids, and Frank Rijkaard.
Barcelona has run the system to perfection in recent years, winning a pair Champions League titles and six domestic trophies going back to 2009.
The formation is predicated on pressing opponents on the ball, making them uncomfortable, and attempting to win back possession in the opponent's half of the field.
Beyond that, the Dutch add a philosophical idea to the shape, something they call "total football."
The movements are fluid, with players swapping roles and interchanging all over the pitch. A midfielder can make a forward run and stay high for the time being. Then, the striker might cycle back to midfield. Fullbacks fill in the gaps by making bombing runs up the sidelines and adding to the attack.
The Ajax and Barcelona academies famously teach their players this concept of "total football" - to interchange and move all over the field.
In Major League Soccer, Kansas City and Portland are the most recognizable 4-3-3 teams. Peter Vermes' Sporting squad took the "press high" system to the top, winning the U.S. Open Cup and the MLS Cup in consecutive years. The 2012 team featured excellent midfielders like Roger Espinoza, Graham Zusi, and Julio Cesar.
Caleb Porter's Timbers play around a key attacking midfielder in Diego Valeri, who pulls the strings in a fluid and up-tempo shape. You have wide players like Darlington Nagbe who sink into the middle, while Will Johnson and Diego Chara cover acres of space in both halves of the field.
"I think the reason I like to coach from the 4-3-3, is that you get a lot of potential (situations) that are the foundation of your system, regardless of the formation," Hackworth explained. "I think you are going to see us playing with two midfielders one game, and we're playing with two forwards the next. We are going to tweak that and find what we feel is best for our players and certainly what is best when we are playing opponents."
Philadelphia has played numerous shapes since 2010, using the 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 under former coach Peter Nowak. The 2011 playoff squad had success in the 4-2-2-2 before implementing a 4-5-1 in the second half of the season.
The Union didn't truly experiment with the 4-3-3 until John Hackworth took over.
Fig. 2: Kansas City's 4-3-3 in the 2013 MLS Cup final. You have a front five that presses high, allowing Uri Rosell to sit in defensively while the fullbacks attack.
He installed the shape almost immediately, and glimpses of attacking potential were seen in the 4-0 victory against Kansas City and the road wins against Los Angeles and Chicago.
Hackworth preferred the 4-4-2 last season, feeling that the formation was a bit more conducive to the talent on the roster. There were brief looks at the 4-3-3 in 2013, but the large majority of games were played with the four man midfield of Cruz, Le Toux, Carroll, and Keon Daniel.
It makes for some interesting positional battles in the coming campaign, as certain players fit better in different systems.
Take, for example, Le Toux and Cruz on the right side of the field.
"We are not really playing with a right midfielder, we are playing with a right winger," Hackworth said. "Last year, the majority (of time) we stayed in a 4-4-2. "But all of these kinds of formations have different nuances based on the players that are on the field. So a 4-3-3 with Sebastien on the field, the way that we are doing it, it looks like we are playing with two forwards. When you play with Danny Cruz on the field, he plays a little wider, so there are these little changes specifically between those two guys."
Maybe the most pressing question is how the technical staff approaches the "No. 9" center forward spot.
Both Conor Casey and Jack McInerney like to be around the net, and they combined well in two-stiker formations last season.
Does the 4-3-3 allow Casey and McInerney to be on the field at the same time?
"The way that I look at it, our formation is not really what I call a system," said Hackworth. "So absolutely, Conor and Jack need to be on the field together, because they complement each other well. But how you put them on the field together and what formation they play is an interesting question for us. We believe we can use Conor and Jack on the field together at the same time, and that looks more like you are playing with two forwards. It looks like you are absolutely playing without a right midfielder at all or a right winger at times. Again, we're kind of at this point, focusing on the way we are playing, the way we are moving the ball, our angles, our rhythm, our changing our point of attack, immediate pressure when we lose it, and it definitely has a different look. To have two forwards who like to play more centrally and off each other versus not, we are always going to have to adjust to the players that we have and what their personalites are, what their strengths and weaknesses are. That is something in the world of soccer today every coach has to balance, you cannot just plug in players that do not fit your formation."
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Contact Union writer Kevin Kinkead at firstname.lastname@example.org