On paper it appears that the San Jose Earthquakes operate in a 4-3-3 formation, but since Dom Kinnear has moved Chris Wondolowski into the midfield the club has taken up slightly different tactics. With the traditional number nine poacher patrolling the midfield the Quakes have embraced false-nine tactical roles.
Far removed from the usual poacher, Wondolowski's role has become night and day to the Bash-Brother's days the league knew back in 2012. As part of Kinnear's tiki-taka revolution in the Bay Area, Wondolowski's role has been micromanaged enough to ensure that he stays elusive enough to avoid particular marking schemes but continues to present a goal threat. Whereas a number nine would be marked by the defenders and the number 10 double-marked by defensive midfielders, the false nine allows players to be involved in the central run of play instead of isolating them on the wings with only the periphery of play.
The Quakes shake things up using false nine tactics
In a league dominated by 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 formations, players have become accustomed to marking just a single player. Like corner kicks, defenders mark opposing attackers during the run of play as they back track and cut down operational space. Traditionally, a center forward is man-marked by one of the opposition's center backs while the other one covers for his partner. With a false nine, however, the center backs are left free during build up play.
Therefore, the false nine causes confusion along the back line. Defenders are caught between two minds: Should they follow the false nine into the midfield or do they maintain their defensive posture and hold their line? Let's let the following clip suffice as an example:
Right before the goal, both Seattle center backs close down Adam Jahn who is playing a false nine-esque role. As Jahn pulls back into midfield the defenders step up opening space for the winger - in this case Innocent Emeghara - to exploit. Innocent is then in the position to weave himself through the Seattle defense and create a scoring chance, which is converted.
Leaving a gaping hole at center forward encourages center backs to step forward into space. And while holding a high line is perceived as a good thing by defenders, the opposing club begins salivating over the open space vacated by the defense. It is in these cases that the false nine is used to pull the center backs out of position where they are not either in a position to stop the false number nine nor the wingers.
Obviously this has been used to great success across the pond in places such as Barcelona, and it can still be effective and devastating in Major League Soccer.
So San Jose does not necessary play with a false nine all the time. They have learned to utilize false nine tactics to their advantage creating a hybrid system under Kinnear. When the physical nature of the center forward is not working, the squad can easily assume false nine tactics to pick apart the opposing defense.
Playing with a false nine doesn't necessary mean that a team is playing without an out-and-out proper number nine. To the contrary, the number nine is just repurposed and offers new opinions going forward.
A team playing with a false nine relies on the midfielders to get involved in the attack. Running from deep into the 18 yard box, a plethora of players can cause damage. Even if the opposing goalkeeper manages to save a shot or two, the pinging of the ball around the area can cause havoc for the defenders - a perfect environment for a poacher like Wondolowski to flourish.
Creating havoc with the entire midfield regiment in the box has been known to lead to goals, just check out what the Quakes did to the Vancouver Whitecaps a couple of weeks back:
When the full-backs have already overlapped to cover the defense, the opposing midfielders line up at the top of the box awaiting a poaching opportunity to arise.
Sacrificing Wodolowski as a center forward is truly a risky move, but if played right you're likely to see him create some trouble.
Congestion in the high desert
Real Salt Lake has already faced the Quakes once this year and left Avaya Stadium with all three points. But this does not necessarily mean that San Jose is going to lie down and take yet another whooping from the Claret-and-Cobalt. (I might be overstating the last statement a bit since a 1-0 victory is not really a proper whooping, but I digress.) In fact, the Quakes are likely to be even more egger to improve their own record against RSL.
So how can RSL counter the tactics employed by the Quakes?
RSL head coach Jeff Cassar has already praised the new formation for bringing a new versatility to his side. It is this versatility that will allow RSL to alleviate San Jose's pressure through the central route of the pitch.
Usually Cassar has set up his midfield in a V-shaped formation with two more attack-minded midfielders playing in front of Beckerman in his typical number six role. However, Cassar has also employed an inverted-V midfield with an attacking midfield at the tip and two more defensive midfielders behind the attacker. With the latter of these midfield options, the formation begins to look more like a 4-2-3-1 — similar to what Caleb Porter fields in Portland.
Generally a 4-2-3-1 or a defensive 4-3-3 will limit traffic down the center of the pitch. If played with a deep line and a good double pivot midfield partnership will prevent attackers from finding space in which to operate. Congesting traffic in front of the goal will leave no target for the attacking team and cause them to run into cul-de-sacs in the defense.
Real Salt Lake performed this tactic to the T (no pun intended) against Sporting Kansas City. A form of "Parking the Bus," RSL clogged the direct route to goal with players negating nearly all SKC offensives.
The chart above - courtesy of Opta and MLSsoccer - shows the distribution of SKC forwards and midfielders in the attacking half. Notice that inside the black oval either the complete absence of passes or the incredible amount of red, incomplete passes. Using Luke Mulholland and Beckerman as a defensive midfield-duo, RSL was able to effectively roadblock Sporting from getting the ball through the center of the pitch.
The hybrid-false nine tactics that the Quakes employ are best suited to particular types of play. To be effective, then, RSL can inhibit San Jose through two thing: One, RSL can maintain possession which prevents San Jose from finding/making space in their attacking third. As a result, the Quakes orchestrators will be blunted from mounting an attack. Two, clog up the center of the pitch in order to prevent San Jose from exploiting a variety of attacking angles. Staying organized defensively, therefore, is the best way to combat attackers arriving from unpredictable position into the box.
One more thing
Alvaro Saborio could learn to integrate some of San Jose tactics into his new role in the 4-3-3. I am not suggesting that he moves into midfield or anything like that, but instead play as a center forward looking to make runs behind the wingers. The prolific nature of Saborio could then be transformed from an individualized, sometimes selfish center forward - something he has been criticized for - into a unifier of the forward line.
Devon Sandoval on the other hand has embraced this role in the 4-3-3 as he has been able to hold-up the play and wait for his teammates to get more involved in the buildup play instead of just charging into the defensive line.
As opposed to Wondolowski, Saborio's interpretation of his role would be far less a midfielder who plays forward than a striker who drops deep and helps create. He wouldn't create the darting play that Wondolowski does in midfield, but continues to operate as the target man, just one who lays the off to supporting runs rather than relying on low-percentage long passing as the main tool in his arsenal.
As always, we would like to know what you think. How do you think RSL will approach San Jose's tactics? What are some of the best ways to defend and overcome the hybrid-false nine style of play? Will the Claret-and-Cobalt find success in congesting the midfield? Are there other options? How will RSL line up against San Jose on Friday? Share your opinions in the comments section below.