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Talking Tactics: The evolution of RSL playmakers

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MLS: Houston Dynamo at Real Salt Lake Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

There has been a lot of discussion about Real Salt Lake finally finding the sweet spot in the 4-3-3 formation. RSL sits third in the Western Conference, as well as the league, on 23 points and one of the best points per match in MLS (1.77). The club also has a positive goal differential in their first 13 matches, something that has been absent the last couple of seasons. Something is different with the Claret-and-Cobalt this season.

For a long time, Javier Morales was the heart of the RSL attack. He was the one creating chances and linking the squad together. He has been relied upon recently to not only be the creator but also the primary goalscorer for the club. In short, he has been used to the extreme. Now at 36, it has been muttered that he has finally started to taper with age.

Javier Morales, Regular Season MLS Stats
Courtesy of MLSsoccer.com.

Morales had a record year in 2015, securing eight goals and twelve assists in 2124 minutes. He was a bright spot in an otherwise dreary season for the Claret-and-Cobalt. The year before, he obtained similar statistics, nine goals and twelve assists in 2645 minutes.

In 2016, however, the Argentine has yet to have the same impact on the team as he has in the past. So far, Morales has only found the back of the net once and provided one primary assist in 696 minutes. When compared to the previous two seasons, the veteran playmaker will have tallied close to three goals and four assists in the same amount of time. In addition, Morales is also taking significantly fewer touches per match on average, about 10 specifically. In other words, he has not been involved in the build-up play as much as in years past.

While some may argue it is his age finally taking its toll, the stats have a different story to tell.

Last year, the Claret-and-Cobalt struggled to adjust to the new formation and style that Jeff Cassar instituted in his second year at the helm. Not only were players asked to play new position – some arguably out of position – but players were also introduced to new roles. Injuries also hampered the club throughout the season so the 4-3-3 was never able to reach its potential. But now, in 2016, the influence of a healthy Joao Plata and newly acquired Juan Manuel Martinez are producing dividends.

The 4-3-3 formation – as well as its sister formation, the 4-2-3-1 – requires very talented attackers to create chances for the rest of the squad. Last year, for all intents and purposes, the club really only had one in Morales, and this hurt the side immeasurably. It was not that Sebastian Jaime wasn’t a good player — to the contrary, he was a great player — but he just was not the player that fit the Claret-and-Cobalt’s style.

Soccer: Friendly-Sacramento Republic at Real Salt Lake Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Jaime was a striker, pure and simple. It was his job to get the ball in the back of the net, something he did five times for RSL. The club attempted to use him as a creator, a trequartista if you will, and he just didn’t fit the mold.

I have discussed the basics of a trequartista before, but as a refresher: 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, Kaka, 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.

Jaime, put simply, was not that kind of player, but both Plata and Martinez are.

In one short year, RSL went from having no trequartistas (because of Plata’s injury and role adjustment) to having two – one on both wings. With either player able to play near whichever touchline, Plata and Martinez are given the prerogative to swap-wings throughout the match in order to provide a new dynamic to the club. They are both talented individuals, evident of the weekly Vines of taps and tricks they can use to deceive the opposition.

Since Martinez did not join the club until late last season, let’s just focus on Plata for a moment.

Both Morales and Plata are relied upon to be playmakers for the Claret-and-Cobalt. In 2015, Morales was creating just over three chances per appearance, while Plata, on the other hand, was creating only one.

Fast forward a year and now the tables have turned. Plata is now creating approximately three chances per match and Morales’ contribution has dropped to two. Plata has also increased his average number of touches per appearance by eight. In short, Plata is becoming a larger contributor in the RSL attack.

“El Burrito” is also making his presence known contributing one assist in his five chances created, in addition to his four goals scored.

Despite the overall average chance creation per game dipping from eight to five this year from last, RSL is significantly more clinical offensively. Now with three creators on the team – Morales, Martinez, and Plata – supplying the deadly striker Yura Movsisyan, the Claret-and-Cobalt is now converting 22 percent of all chances created (up from the mere 14 percent of 2015).

So while it may appear that Javier Morales’ numbers have dramatically increased (or decreased depending on the specific numbers) — only one goal and one assist in 696 minutes — that simple evaluation does not quite tell the whole story.

Real is now better able to spread the burden of chance creation. Instead of only relying on a single, timeless playmaker in Morales, RSL can now also place the ball at the feet of either Plata or Martinez to the same effect. The tactical adjustment of Cassar is finally providing the answer that RSL so desperately yearned for last year.

Sometimes, you just cannot simply match up technically on the pitch as easily as it appears on paper. It's not often that players with such amazing talent are able to produce time-in and time-out. Whatever the technical staff has done to the club, the smallest market team in the league is once again demanding national attention and this is in no small part thanks to the hard work of Martinez and Plata.

What do you think? Do you think that Martinez and Plata have helped ease the burden on Morales? Or is it simply that Morales is showing his age? Has the 4-3-3 been beneficial or harmful to the veteran Argentine? Share your opinions in the comments section below.