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RSL needs a new tactical outlook, not a rehash

The diamond is dead.

Vancouver Whitecaps v Real Salt Lake Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

With the arrival of a new coach at Real Salt Lake, everyone gets to jump right back into their “what if” tactics files again, and yeah! That’s great. But it doesn’t mean that Real Salt Lake will play in that famous diamond midfield again — not with this roster.

Need a quick refresher? Alright. In 100 words or less, here’s what the diamond midfield was and what it brought.

The diamond midfield was a four-man midfield that featured one defensive player, an attacking player and two “shuttlers” under Jason Kreis’s tactical leadership. The “wide” players were never wide; the formation was narrow by design. To accommodate, the whole formation swayed from side-to-side to prevent wide attacks, opening a hole on the opposite side.side-to-side to prevent wide attacks, opening a hole on the opposite side.

That midfield was best when the players in it were possession-oriented. Ned Grabavoy and Will Johnson were the hallmarks of that approach. Javier Morales led the attack. Kyle Beckerman held down the fort.

That’s not everything, obviously. But it’s a start. It gives us just enough of a framework to start our discussion.

Real Salt Lake v New England Revolution Photo by Gail Oskin/Getty Images

That midfield was best when the players in it were possession-oriented, centrally focused players. It’s no surprise that Portland Timbers — who have played a strong central-possession style under Caleb Porter for much of the last few years — found success with both Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy, both of whom were shuttlers in that system. Their ‘wide’ positions were more or less a facade for what was a central-focused approach from Kreis. It was the lifeblood of the system.

Now? There are no players like that. Luke Mulholland is the closest to Will Johnson in bite and goalscoring — he’s basically a clone of him, I suspect — but he doesn’t have that same possession-oriented approach, and he isn’t a defensive shuttler. The closest we likely have is Omar Holness, who seems on the verge of really making a connection here. He’s a centrally focused player, but he’s also reasonable in possession.

But this is hardly the only way to get Holness on the field, and it’s clearly not the only way to get Mulholland on the field. Those two pair well with a holding midfielder, and that’s what we have in both Sunny and Beckerman.

Moreover, there’s this idea floated intermittently in discussions about the team that Kyle Beckerman simply isn’t the player he was five years ago, when the diamond ran rampant in MLS as a dominant feature. I’m not sure I entirely buy it, but he’s certainly older — putting him on his own has been, for whatever reason, not preferred. Could he do it still? Probably, but at what cost? His ability might be at a similar level, but doing that week-in, week-out? It’s probably not feasible.

From that perspective, the diamond isn’t a feasible option because Real Salt Lake simply doesn’t have the player personnel at current to make it work properly. But there’s more to it than just that.

One of the purported reasons that Jeff Cassar instituted the 4-2-3-1 (or 4-3-3, or 4-2-1-3, or whatever you’d like to call it) is that it gave him a chance to get his best players on the field. Whether it was forced or shoehorned or any of that, it certainly should have helped with that.

In fact, last year, Joao Plata had his best year in terms of goal production: Nine goals, 12 assists. (In 2014, he had 13 goals, six assists — certainly nothing to sniff at.) Last year, it also enabled Juan Manuel Martinez — whatever you think of the second half of his season aside — to make a substantial impact on our play.

This year, we’ve seen Sebastian Saucedo, Jordan Allen and Brooks Lennon earning minutes. At a Real Monarchs level, we’ve seen Andrew Brody getting time and impressing. Real Salt Lake has produced excellent wingers, and they’re getting the opportunity to play now.

Sure, you could fit Sebastian Saucedo in as an Albert Rusnak backup, Brooks Lennon in as a striker, Andrew Brody at full back, Joao Plata as a second striker — every player has a place. But when you switch to a diamond midfield, you’re forced to reevaluate every player’s position. And maybe you come out favorably, but I don’t think we’re there. You’re left with your depth spread out in weird ways, and you’re not putting players into their best positions.

Let’s look back at one of the potential lineups that have been furthered.

This one puts Jordan Allen and Sunny in shuttler positions, so let’s address those two question marks.

First, Jordan Allen: He’s a great young player, and he will do good things with this team. We can assume this. But if you put him back into a central midfield role — something we’ve tried several times now, mind you — you’re putting him in a position he’s actively said isn’t his best. He’s actively talked about wanting to play out wide, to run at players. He’ll do the hard work of defending, too. That’s not a reason to dump that plan on its own, but look: Jordan Allen is a winger, and just because he’s talented doesn’t mean we should move him around constantly. Young players need consistency to start performing at their best. Let’s not forget that.

Next, Sunny: If we’ve learned anything since we signed Sunny, it’s that he’s not particularly a two-way player. He’s a defensive midfielder, and he’ll do some connective work, but his primary role will center around ball-winning. When you start demanding more, you start to see performances from him that simply aren’t up to par. Could he be more in a system? Certainly, that’s possible. But we also can’t be naive with the player we have. He certainly can string a pass at times, and he’ll do well to maintain possession, but he won’t go forward quite how we need him to.

Of course, this does solve potential problems we’ve experienced. It would be unfair to blast the idea completely without consideration. We’ve seen time and time again over the last two years that we simply aren’t a possession-focused team. Should we be? Maybe! That’s a great question, and certainly, as a person who is definitely not coaching soccer, I’d love to see it. But we ceded possession completely against New York Red Bulls in favor of scrapping out a result, and it worked.

A diamond midfield would certainly return us to possession-focused soccer — at least, there’s the potential for that. But if we’re looking to be a scything counterattacking side, we won’t find that in the diamond. Again, that’s about team identity, and those decisions happen well above my pay grade. *Not that pay grade comes into this. I’m a blogger, and that’s all.

If we’re looking to provide more backup for Kyle Beckerman, the diamond might help there, but it also demanded a lot out of our captain. He had more help at times, but at other times, he was left alone more often than not. We put those midfield resources into the attack. If we’re looking to craft a formation that gets the best out of Beckerman, we might actually want one that partners him with a defensive midfielder. Someone like Sunny could fill that role acceptably well.

The simple fact is this: The diamond midfield lived a great life at Real Salt Lake from 2010 to 2013. It should not be the defining characteristic of the club, and it doesn’t hold all the answers to our future. As a thought experiment, it’s enlightening because it helps iron out who exactly can play where, and what flexibility options we might have.

But the system that Jason Kreis perfected — the one that demanded perfection from its players in the most Kreis-like way possible — that one’s dead. Let’s leave it behind, go forward, and figure out what’s next under RSL coach Mike Petke.