Transformation is a process, something Real Salt Lake has found itself at the mercy of in recent history. From a mishmash starting lineup week in and week out, to players adopting new roles in the squad, this season has already held a ton of ups and downs for the Claret-and-Cobalt. Still, through the valleys and mountains, RSL has continued on this journey of discovery.
No one understands this sentiment better than Joao Plata. RSL's newest Designated Player, the young Ecuadorian was touted as the focal point for the Claret-and-Cobalt's attack in 2015 after signing a new multi-year contract, only to have his early season derailed by injury. After five months of an enforced break, Plata has returned to the field but is now faced with a new, evolving role for his side.
In the diamond 4-4-2, Plata played the role of second striker for RSL. He was tasked with playing "in the hole" - the space between the opponent's defense and midfield - for this role. In this he made the perfect striking partner for Alvaro Saborio. Being smaller in stature and more skilled on the ball, Plata would assist and create scoring opportunities for other players. His quick, mobile nature was perfect for cutting apart defensive lines utilizing space created in the attacking half in order to pick up loose balls around the area or attempt to dribble into the box and score himself.
Plata already has the vision, passing ability, and all around technical prowess to thrive in the 4-3-3. In his previous three matches, however, he has found it hard to make an impact; let alone score a goal. So what are the missing aspects of his game that would help him excel in the RSL's new system?
Against the LA Galaxy, Vancouver Whitecaps and Colorado Rapids, Plata continued to play in the unselfish secondary striker role instead of the creative winger (trequartista) that RSL has been sorely lacking since adopting the 4-3-3. Take a look:
Plata receives the ball after lying deep in the midfield (something a secondary striker - i.e., Sebastian Giovinco - is known for) and makes the secondary run to get a shot on target. Instead of the being the creative cog in the team, the instigator of every attack, Plata has had to rely on other attackers — in this case Saborio and Sebastian Jaime — to create the chances. While there is nothing inherently wrong with Plata playing a secondary striker role, the 4-3-3 is not adapted for it as it leaves holes in the attack.
Of course, it would be nice for Plata, too, though in contrast with his typical fashion, but as the season quickly approaching the halfway point and RSL siting ninth in the Western standings there isn't much through about anything but the next match. But like his teammates, who have also had to readjust and find their bearings in this new system, Plata will have to adjust to the game albeit much more rapidly as the Claret-and-Cobalt eye a spot higher in the standings.
So with amazing skill on the off the ball, one can't help but wonder, what does Plata need to do to become the trequartista his club needs? More importantly, what does the club need from him?
The perfect trequartista should be able to find space in or around the opponents' 18 yard box, and exploit this space through picking apart the defense with killer passing. Unlike the deep-lying playmaker (aka, Kyle Beckerman), the more advanced trequartista's focus will be on short passing rather than long range contributions.
After all, Plata does not need to be burdened with goalscoring responsibilities as almost everyone on the team has shown they can place the ball into the back of the net, instead he should let his passing and skill with the ball be the showcase — although this doesn't mean his accuracy and technique shouldn't result in some golazos.
Plata is quick, but he does not need the same speed that a more traditional winger would be attributed with as they battle for crossing position on the sides of the box. Crossing itself has been a sore spot for RSL since switching formations enabling greater wing-play. Evidence for this fact is found in the following graphic:
This year, RSL has attempted 249 crosses, a mere fifty of which have found a member in the same color kit. This means that RSL has been relying on creating low percentage chances (20 percent by my count) in order to score. Instead of tiki-taka style of soccer that has become synonymous with the Claret-and-Cobalt, RSL has suffered creating a league-low of 100 chances leading to the second to worst scoring record going into the summer months. That said, instead of cutting past defenders to deliver crosses, Plata should be relied on to carefully pick apart the other team and deliver the killer pass.
As the advanced player, Plata should be effectively pulling the strings for his squad's attack, serving as the principle assist provider — second only to Javier Morales, per se.
In the meantime, it is necessary for Plata to focus on what has made him Designated Player material in the first place. He must — often tirelessly and obsessively — retain possession of the ball in and around the midfield to allow for a counterattack with the opportunity for the full backs to take charge on the wings. With the full backs operating near the touchlines, Plata can become more accustom with working with a variety of possible outlets. In this case, Plata can draw out defenders whilst utilizing his superb vision in order to play the ball through to other players in the box — any one of five possibilities when executed properly.
OK, so he has been back a whole whopping three matches and obviously takes time to adjust, but Plata still has the potential to be the difference maker he has been over the years any time he steps on the field.
Just as Jeff Cassar has showcased his willingness to take risks in the name of progress, the RSL head should never completely empty the bucket of mystery that keeps fans and commentators guessing. As such, neither should Plata be defined by a single role. It's not about zigging when you should zag. Nor is it about doing something unprecedented or unpredictable. It's just about finding the correct formula on the pitch in order to get a result.
As Plata returns to full health, RSL has the chance to start a good run into the summer months. With a complete starting lineup soon to be available for the coaching staff, the club will have be subject to switching gears week in and week out. Everyone knew this was going to be a tough, defining year for the Claret-and-Cobalt, but in the chaos the excitement was lost. It's not an easy thing to change from what has been historically successful, but with players taking on new roles with the club a bright new future is on the horizon with no one playing a bigger role than the diminutive Joao Plata.
As always, we would like to hear from you - the fans and readers. What do you think? Do we have it right or are we completely off-base? What should Plata's role be in the new formation? What should his role be in the squad? Is Plata suited for the 4-3-3 would the club find more success utilizing him as a secondary striker in another formation? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below.