We know big changes are inevitably coming to Real Salt Lake, from coaching staff to playing personnel — although forecasting who stays and who goes is a fool’s errand, it seems likely that changes will roll in.
Regardless, speculating about potential tactics and formations to get the best out of the players we have now still retains some value — especially as it gives us some ideas as to who we should keep and who we should perhaps part ways with.
Through the second half of 2016, Real Salt Lake took an approach that was largely symmetrical: You had Burrito Martinez on one side, Joao Plata on the other, and Yura Movsisyan sort of roaming around the middle. Against some teams, that worked, but only to a certain extent.
It’s easy to see the rationale, too: If you have wingers on both sides, it’s easier in transition to get both of them defending. It’s a grueling system, and as a result, it only really works for so long. You can’t chain down a player like Burrito Martinez into this winger that spends his entire time switching between defending and attacking. It guts his usefulness.
We could also see this formation enable Joao Plata’s effectiveness more fully. He’s been one of RSL’s better players in the last while, but he hasn’t exactly been tearing things up.
If you think back to Plata’s best time in MLS, it was his second year at Real Salt Lake — he scored 13 goals in 2014 playing as a second forward behind Alvaro Saborio, and it was very, very good. It allowed better interchange between the two strikers, and it put Plata in excellent positions to score goals.
Think about this: Joao Plata playing behind Yura Movsisyan. The Armenian is arguably a better striker than Saborio in 2014, and Plata in 2016 is absolutely a better striker than he was that year, too. The two have an opportunity to form a better partnership than they have now, and they should be given the opportunity to make that happen.
Solving for Burrito Martinez
But what happens with the enigmatic Burrito Martinez, then? We know already that he has a tendency to flow in and out of games. That’s not unusual for players of his creative caliber, truth be told. We’ve seen absolute magic from him, and it’s when he’s given opportunities to let that magic happen organically.
In the last three months, we’ve seen Martinez disappear. We’ve also seen a renewed focus on him being a two-way player, but I’d posit that forcing him into that sapped him of a lot of what made him magical for us. Our 4-3-3 didn’t really support him not getting back, and it forced him to come back defensively for most of every match. We need him taking touches further up — and how do you do that?
One option might be to let him roam around the field a bit more — not quite a free role, but give him license to roam either wing, and let him move into the middle of the field and swap with Joao Plata at times. The uncertainty that creates is important because it forces defenses to adapt and move, or to at least pay attention to different players and different styles of movement.
It’s not enough to merely swap wings, although that’s something that helps — swapping positions, knowing both players can play out wide and in a second striker role — can dramatically change the course of a game if defenders aren’t able to consistently adapt.
Solving for defensive issues and Javier Morales
That leaves us wondering how we can solve the defensive problem, but I think there’s a relatively straightforward answer to that. It takes a hard decision, certainly: You can’t start Javier Morales in this lineup. Not with Joao Plata and Burrito Martinez.
It creates two problems. First, there’s the “Too Many Cooks” issue, which we’ve seen from players who pass too frequently and don’t shoot quite enough. (I should apologize if that song’s now stuck in your head, but I’m not going to do that.)
Second, there’s the issue of the midfield: Morales excelled in front of a midfield that offered him a degree of protection. The middle three in RSL’s 4-3-3 forced Morales to defend consistently, and it removed him further from the forward line.
In this altered 4-3-3, we continue to not see Morales as the most effective player in the midfield — but it does give him an option as a second striker. He wouldn’t be the fastest, but he could provide an interesting dynamic there. It would keep him from the heavy back-and-forth that made him less effective in 2016, too.
But again, we haven’t solved the defensive issue. I don’t think that one’s too hard: Simply put, you need approximately three-quarters of Real Salt Lake’s diamond. There’s a lot of talk about how it was successful and whatnot, but that’s not why I’ve deferred here. Really, you need a three-man midfield with one defensive midfielder and two midfielders slightly further up that could go box-to-box. When the attack comes down the side without the actively attacking Burrito Martinez, one of those box-to-box players moves to the opposite side to cover. If there’s a quick switch to the other side, Martinez is called into action.
In this way, we can give Martinez and Plata the freedom they need to be as creative as possible, and Yura Movsisyan is given the support he needs to be truly effective. It would also give opportunities to Javier Morales to be effective again, should he remain in his playing career.
Solving for player personnel
Do we have the midfielders to run this formation? Well, maybe. Kyle Beckerman could play either the deepest position or one of the box-to-box roles — we’ve seen he’s quite capable in that regard — while Sunny could do the same. Someone like Luke Mulholland might be a good option for the other, and that just leaves the matter of backups. In some ways, that might make the midfield portion of this the easiest — but in others, coaching that sort of formation could be more difficult.
While Real Salt Lake is in a period of transition and change — or so we hope, at least — it’s useful for us to think about ways we can adjust. Certainly, whoever comes next — or perhaps Jeff Cassar — will have their own sets of opinions and beliefs about the proper way to play, and the proper way to get the best out of whatever group is available.