There has been a lot of discussion that Real Salt Lake is missing something since going to the 4-3-3 formation. Opening the season with a 1-0-2 record is not bad, per say, but it is sort of a letdown for such a historically successful club. Getting a 0-0 result to start the season in Portland is admirable, but conceding four goals at home to Philadelphia and Toronto combined is rather troubling. Yes, we can chalk it up to early season nerves or lack-luster defending, but the truth is that the Claret-and-Cobalt is missing that special something.
Last week, Major League Soccer reported that RSL is counting down the days until they get their missing piece back. Jeff Cassar is adamant that in the coming months, RSL will reach their full potential with the 4-3-3 formation change. The change was made with a very specific purpose in mind, however, and until Joao Plata returns from injury it will not be fully realized.
But what about Plata makes him so important to the formation? Is it his demeanor? The way the play flows through him? His on- and off-ball skills? Well, yes and no. What Plata brings to the forefront is his ability to play as a trequartista.
A trequartista - literally translated to three-quarters in Italian - is a player that plays in the hole between the strikers and the midfield. Not technically either a forward or a midfielder, a trequartista is more like a vagabond that will find space in between the opponent's midfield and defensive lines to exploit open space for their side. They are not burdened with goal scoring responsibilities - as a second striker or attacking midfielder would be - but this does not mean they do not have the killer instincts of these players. Not carrying the load of the offensive work rate, their passing and skill on the ball does their talking.
The best examples of trequartistas are Del Piero and Roberto Baggio. They operate as a player with half the responsibilities of a ten and half of a number nine. Usually, a trequartista will have more technique than a number nine (center forward) and more killer instant than a number ten (attacking midfield playmaker). The best of these players can play on the wing and have great set piece delivery abilities.
Looking at the Claret-and-Cobalt's squad as it stands there are options to fill this role until the glorious return of the injured Ecuadorian.
Early this season, fans have seen Jeff Cassar experiment with players on the wings - more often than not, Olmes Garcia and Sebastian Jaime have been given the nod. These players, however, have not shown the spark of brilliance that is needed to be RSL's missing trequartista. Even the youth players that have stepped up in a big way - yes, we are talking about you Jordan Allen - have not shown that they have the vision, technique, or creativity to fill this void yet.
With Designated Player Jaime out due to an injury, the right wing is a position that the RSL coaching staff will be looking to fill.
So with a match against a Western Conference opponent just around the corner - where just a single conference point could mean the difference between a post-season appearance and not at the end of the season - is there an option for the Claret-and-Cobalt that they have not fully taken advantage of?
A tactical adjustment in the Portland Timbers match nearly a month ago could provide the answer.
In the 64th minute, Luke Mulholland was subbed on for Jaime after a relatively quiet night. With Mulholland taking up position in the midfield, Luis Gil was pushed out-wide to play on the right wing. As Gil marshalled the ball down the touchline, RSL found some of its best attacking moves on the night.
The pinnacle of Gil's play on the wing came in the 83rd minute. Alvario Saborio played the ball through to the feet of Gil who left off a shot from the corner of the box that challenged Timbers ‘keeper Adam Kwarasey. Despite being saved by the Algerian international, this was without doubt one of the best chances created by the Claret-and-Cobalt in the match.
Could Gil be the trequartista that RSL have needed?
The trequartista role is one that differs from match to match and Gil has already shown his versatility at his young age. Playing as a number ten for the U.S. youth international squads and as a box-to-box midfielder for RSL, Gil has had to learn to adapt quickly in order to secure his role with the respected side. He has found success on the international stage making the big plays when they are needed.
Here, watch his tight, controlled dribbles before he scores a goalzo against Spain's U-20s:
Gil has superb ball skills that are evident in his confidence in possession. While he does not contribute as much on the defensive side of things, the trequartista role would allow him to ply his trade in a tailed role specifically suited to take-ons, dribbling, through-balls, and shooting. All of which are already in Gil's repertoire.
Gil obviously makes this play with vision, pace, and composure. But let's take a moment to appreciate the smart and quick - but not impatient - nature of the play that releases Joao Plata as a striker.
Doubly Gil is not burdened with great goal scoring responsibilities, but he has been known to score his fair share. Finding pockets of space in his opponents' half have allowed Gil some pretty incredible looks on goal. Runs from trequartistas don't always have to be straight or immediate - to the contrary, the more unique and free-flowing the more successful in most occasions. Setting up in scoring opportunities, Gil's focus on accuracy and technique have allowed the youngster to record some great goals. But let's let the videos do all the talking:
Sometimes, you just cannot match up technically. It's not often that a youth has such amazing talent, but Gil has learned how to use it to his advantage. If Gil does get to start on the right wing tomorrow (3 p.m. MST; ESPN2), it could be the spark that RSL has yearned for in their new 4-3-3. Playing with two distinct playmaking roles on the pitch - Javier Morales as the midfield maestro and Gil as the trequartista winger - the Claret-and-Cobalt's attacking corps could benefit for better chance creation and build-up play.
Whatever the coaching staff decides, the San Jose Earthquakes will face a Utah side with various options in the attack - so many, in fact, that the Quakes might have to reevaluated their plan heading into the match.
What do you think? Do you think that Gil can fill in as the missing piece for RSL? Will the Claret-and-Cobalt find success in the 4-3-3 before the return of Joao Plata? How will RSL lineup against the Quakes tomorrow? Share your opinions in the comments section below.