If one thing’s been readily apparent over the last few weeks, it’s that everything surrounding Real Salt Lake is wrapped up in contradictions and absolutes.
And that’s not too uncommon among supporters, because really, there’s nothing easy about all of this, and there are no clear-cut answers. It’s whenever we fool ourselves into thinking there are that we make critical examination easy, and this is hardly hyperlocated on any one viewpoint. It’s something that permeates the fabric of casual soccer analysis, but that doesn’t make it any less worth pointing our gaze at.
Let’s go over some of those contradictions and absolutes, because that’s where we’ll find we can make the most ground and assent to some common baseline arguments.
Yura Movsisyan and the striker role
One argument you hear a lot around Real Salt Lake right now is that Yura Movsisyan isn’t pulling his weight. That takes multiple styles of approach, of course, and the big one is that we hear that he’s simply not good enough — period. Now, maybe that’s true, but there’s a second argument we need to hear first. Sometimes, these arguments are made in the same breath, and that’s where we’re going to find the most troubling analysis.
If you’re listening, you’ll also hear arguments that Real Salt Lake shouldn’t be playing with a single-striker formation — that’s often coupled with some preferred formation we should be playing instead, and yes, it’s usually a 3-5-2. We’ll get to that.
Both are presented as absolutes, and often, they’re presented together. But if we’re to blame Yura Movsisyan for not being a classic hold-up striker — the Alvaro Saborio variety we don’t really see anymore — we can’t also make an absolute claim that Real Salt Lake’s formation is inherently broken. That’s not to say that both can’t be true, and maybe they are. But either Movsisyan is awful, and another player would score significantly more goals in his position, or the lineup is inherently broken and needs a revamp to score goals.
It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that I’m not terribly concerned about Yura Movsisyan and his goalscoring right now. He’s never — ever — been a consistent, game-in, game-out goalscorer. Not at any time in his career has he been that. I know that’ll earn me the apologist tag, but if not having strong reactions and apologia are one and the same, paint me with that broad brush. I won’t mind.
But by that some token, I actually think Movsisyan’s goalscoring rate — 0.4 per match — is markedly positive. It’s a big improvement on his 0.31 per match last year. That’s good enough for 13.6 goals in a year. His best return in Russia was 0.59 per match in the 2013–2014 season, which is an outstanding return. It’s that rate of goalscoring that got him looks in Western Europe. A smattering of injuries and being dropped the following year saw that return plummet — two goals in 16 games in the 2014–2015 season. The improving rate of return in 2016 should give us something to look forward to.
And while Movsisyan’s not exactly made the most of every chance he’s had — that’s on the tip of your tongue, I’m sure — he’s still moving in the right direction. If we get him back to 0.5 goals per game or thereabouts. That’s where Alvaro Saborio ended up in his Real Salt Lake career, and that’s an excellent target.
I know, I know. The 3-5-2 is the hot new thing in American soccer thanks to Toronto FC playing it once or twice, and everyone’s talking about it. That’s formations — and innovation, generally — tend to work. Somebody does something, it works, and then everyone turns their heads to look — then they start doing it, too.
There are numerous examples we can look toward. One good one? The D-Pad, for which Nintendo received a patent in the 1980s, and basically everyone in the video game industry ended up using in slightly different ways. Or if you want a less shining example, you can look to Xerox, who nobody remembers for a pointer interface — the public memory trends toward Apple on that one.
But innovation and all that aside, soccer’s a little different in that it’s a zero-sum calculation that must be made. It’s not like everyone can have a better team by moving to one common formation, because some teams will beat other teams.
All that meandering aside, there’s a contradiction you’ll often here with the 3-5-2 argument, too: First, it’s that it’s the formation RSL should immediately move toward. Second, Real Salt Lake doesn’t have any center backs who can stay fit.
This isn’t to address any claims that RSL should play a 3-5-2 with a backline with wide players — that’s a recipe for disaster if you start a match that way. It’s a formation that only really works when you have three defenders who stay reasonably narrow, and it’s not something you can easily just put two center backs and a full back in and feel good. You won’t find a working, functional 3-5-2 where wide players are used in that three-man back line.
And maybe it’s a great solution, but you can’t call for it to be used immediately while, in the same breath, call out RSL’s roster-building in regard to center backs. Either it’s worth doing now, and we have to roster for it, or our center backs aren’t suited for it, but it can’t really be both.
Is a 3-5-2 the right solution? Maybe. Probably not. The right solution is very, very rarely a new formation, and even if RSL coach Mike Petke is unhappy about the formation, that doesn’t mean his solution is solely a change there. He’s clearly got a lot he wants to implement.