With RSL adopting the second-most popular soccer formation in the world at the moment, everyone assumed that the club will be hit with growing pains. And oh, have they ever had. RSL sits second from the bottom in the Western standings with a minus-five goal differential.
In uncharted water, Cassar has continued to use the 4-3-3 formation. Already understanding where the formation has come up short, we turn our gaze to what the formation has been doing right.
Creative minds at work
The Claret-and-Cobalt have struggled creating chances since their formation shift, even during preseason. Coming away with tight wins from highly contested matches, RSL has struggled to put the ball in dangerous areas, instead consistently bashing the ball into their opponent's 18-yard box and hoping for the best.
In the fourteen matches preceding the Colorado match, RSL created only 88 chances (a majority coming from set pieces) to average less than five chances created a match. This falls at the bottom of Major League Soccer since the battered and bruised Montreal Impact have righted their own ship winning the last four in five matches. In other words, the Claret-and-Cobalt struggled creating clear goal scoring opportunities, let alone the back of the net. That has been the reason that RSL not only sits second from the bottom in the West, only ahead of their Rocky Mountain Rivals, but also second from the bottom in goals scored — also above only Colorado.
Against Colorado, however, the creative minds took to the field. The team created twelve goal scoring opportunities on the night, well above the season average of five. Not only did Javier Morales pull the strings of the attack, but RSL saw Joao Plata, Sebastian Jaime, Alvaro Saborio, and Luke Mulholland all contribute in the attacking half.
For instance, take a look at RSL's best scoring opportunity:
Of course it is Morales who gets the attack started finding the feet of Jaime who is able to push past the Colorado defense. But Jamie does not stop there. He finds himself with the chance to put pressure on Clint Irwin and does so by keeping the ball in play. It is his incredible work horse attitude leads to Plata getting a shot on target after a cheeky assist from none other than Saborio — to think that some people have said the number nine is going the way of the Dodo bird.
So while RSL failed to apply the consistent pressure that is needed in the 4-3-3 system, the club had some flashes of brilliance that lead to some great chance creation. If RSL can continue refining their zonal marking — only breaking the structure when the ball is in their opponent's 18-yard box — the new system will showcase its flexibility when creating chances.
Keeping the players ball hungry
Just like in world football, the 4-3-3 formation is like the in vogue alternative to the 4-2-3-1 in the RSL system. When attacking RSL uses six men and when defending RSL finds itself with ten men behind the ball. As such, this system suits some sets of personnel better and brings out the best of certain positions.
Like Porterball, the 4-3-3 is a high pressure, ball hungry philosophy with plenty of versatility in its movements. RSL has attempted to replicate this but has struggled with injuries and absences. Still, the three central midfielders have become all-action type players.
Keeping only three players in central pitch leaves a team open to be exploited if gaps are left open, but on the flip side employs incredibly adventurous midfielders who can dictate the pace of the game at every opportunity.
Playing in a three man midfield is tough work. Generally, a No. 6 is employed to drop deep into an anchor role, much like Kyle Beckerman, but the central three can also be flattened out to provide a more solid wall in the center of the park. The latter of these was used against Colorado, cutting down many passes down the center of the pitch - just take a look at Colorado's distribution in the match (Courtesy of OPTA and MLSsoccer.com):
Putting the compact nature of the system to the side, the 4-3-3 also creates something that has been lacking in RSL of recent. In the diamond 4-4-2, the club was content with sitting back and defending. The diamond allowed for fluid movement in the center of the park so the team would stay compact defensively. With a three man midfield, however, the players have to be a little more aggressive - something that was lacking according to many complaints about past incarnations of the Claret-and-Cobalt.
The midfield allows for three men in turn to tear around the pitch like mad men in order to sure up any holes left by the three forwards, who do little defensive work. This applies pressure on the opponents and leads to cheap turnovers and the ability to initiate quick attacks.
In the first fifteen matches of last season RSL held a 46 percent successful duel ratio and averaged 43 defensive actions per match. That falls short of this year's 47 successful deal percentage and average 61 defensive actions per match. In other words, the stats suggest the RSL is more willing to challenge for the ball when they do not have it as opposed to sitting back and just defending.
The Defensive Midfielder
The insurance of a true No. 6 means that the full-backs are covered when bombing forward and the center-backs can breathe easier knowing that the No. 6 can act as a sweeper. As the deepest midfielder can filter across the back line to plug any holes should the opponent try to exploit them, the No. 6's role in the offense should not be overlooked.
Playing the anchor role allows for the defensive man to pick up the ball deep in pitch and initiate attacks. Reminiscent of Andre Pirlo, the No. 6 essentially acts as a deep-lying playmaker. This provides for a plethora of passing options and a real chance to exert dominance over the opposition - the 4-3-3 provides for as many as four-seven players open and motioning for the ball at one time.
Despite having three out-and-out forwards, RSL has rarely paid the price for their attacking intent when Kyle Beckerman is on the pitch. Unfortunately, the system is not so easy to pull off. The elite teams who excel in it - i.e., Barcelona - use it to great aplomb, leaving almost nothing for their opponents to feed on. Anything less than elite, however, it can be all undone. With Beckerman out of the lineup RSL is nowhere near the high octane level it should be, and as a result they struggled to play to their game plan against Colorado. Yet, the fitness and positional prowess of John Stertzer more than made up for the captain's absence.
Borne out of the rise of agile, mobile, and versatile players, Stertzer is not a top-tier player in any regards — at least not yet — but he does possess a rounded sets of transferable skills suited for the three man midfield. Instead of a specialist, Stertzer has the ability to pass, tackle, shoot, and head the ball at any time in the match which makes him both potent in the attack and defense.
The 4-3-3 is a hard system to play but the Claret-and-Cobalt have already come a long way since the start of the season. A major step towards that is getting a full complement of players available for Jeff Casssar.
All in all, the 4-3-3 has earned applauds for its flexibility in both attacking and defending, which is one reason this versatile formation has gained popularity in recent times. The high demands on the payers and the technical ability needed, however, can lead to struggles for sides attempting to utilize the system.
If played with the right energy and mentality, the 4-3-3 can be a nightmare for opponents and RSL has shown flashes of brilliance in that regard. Still, it has yet to translate into tangible statistics. To the untrained eye it sure seems like RSL is coming up the rear of the league for a reason, but to truly give the Claret-and-Cobalt their due the combination of discipline and fearlessness employed by the team has improved the system ten-fold since the launch of this season.
If RSL is to become a team that is successful with the 4-3-3, the side will need lethal injections of goals, assists and happy supporters to get the side through the initial road bumps.
As always, we would like to know what do you think. What do you perceive as the best characteristics of the 4-3-3? Are there other ways that RSL has excelled in the 4-3-3? Are we off our rockers to suggest that the 4-3-3 has the potential to be glorious? Will the club stick with it or return to a more familiar system? What does this mean for the shape of the side? Share your opinions in the comments section below.