There have been some raised eyebrows across the Major League Soccer punditry about Peter Nowak and his choice of formation to begin the Eastern Conference Semifinal First Leg. The iconic manager of the Philadelphia Union pulled a tactical rabbit out of his hat on Sunday afternoon, playing a 5-deep backline for the entire first half.
The Union have been given a lot of plaudits over the course of the season for an improved defense. Philadelphia was the best in the Eastern Conference in goals allowed, and tied for second in all of MLS. So the question begs, what on Earth would give Peter Nowak the notion to make adjustments to a system that’s worked so well?
My best guess is that he saw it a couple of weeks ago.
“Well, what Earl, did he take a trip to Italy or something? Does he like Juve or something?”
No, Aron Winter’s Toronto F.C. team earned a draw against the Union with five at the back.
Here are two chalkboards I’d like to share. On the left: Torsten Frings, in Toronto’s match against the Union on 10/15/11. Frings is a defensive midfielder by trade. So is Stefani Miglioranzi, whose chalkboard for the first half is shown on the right. I used the MLS/Opta Chalkboard utility found at the MLSSoccer.Com website, selecting distribution, defensive, and ball possession stats:
What can be drawn from this comparison? First off, it looks like there were several interventions that Miglioranzi was forced to make near the penalty spot. Aside from that, the overall shape of their influence is pretty similar, both played a lot of horizontal passes to their defensive partnership. All-in-all, they played a similar tactical game in their respective times on the pitch.
I’m not trying to imply that Nowak is a thief, either. Odd-numbered backfields have been implemented as far back as the W-M. I think Nowak’s ideal version of this tactic would consist of three central backs, with a wingback on either side that could be more aggressive into the offensive phase. In the postmatch press conference, he indicated that he had hoped that Sheanon Williams and Gabriel Farfan could be more influential on the wings. That makes a lot of sense when you consider Williams is an attack-minded right back, and Farfan is a midfielder by trade.
Why would Nowak decide to use this line? My guess would be size. At 6’1″, Miglioranzi is the tallest outfield player on the team aside from Danny Mwanga. Nowak probably thought that having a taller player held back to reinforce Carlos Valdes and Danny Califf would help neutralize Houston’s aerial threat. That’s what made the first goal, a headed deflection by Andre Hainault from a Brad Davis free kick, all the more frustrating.
What ultimately hampered the success of this tactic was the lack of familiarity with both tactic and role, in my opinion. Miglioranzi looks uncomfortable at the back, and his inclusion was bound to create some insecurity in the entire tier. On the Calen Carr goal, as shown above, Valdes began to break backwards before the ball was played by Brian Ching. Califf, being responsible for aerial challenges on the left, had vacated his position to do battle with Carr (note: my graphic is inaccurate; Carr was the target man for Boswell’s long ball); his position was backfilled by Gabriel Farfan. Without a true center back tracking Carr closely, Valdes instinctively turned to provide cover, and unintentionally played Carr onside. Would Farfan had tried to challenge Carr without Miglioranzi there? Or perhaps Valdes would have known immediately after the challenge to mark Carr.
The lack of familiarity, in my estimation, also manifested in the way that Williams and Farfan dropped back to provide spatial support too often, forcing Justin Mapp and Michael Farfan to pressure Houston’s fullbacks wide, and leaving Brian Carroll isolated centrally to cope with Luiz Camargo, Adam Moffat, and even Ching when he dropped deep (as he did on the Carr goal).
Does that mean the tactic was a failure? With the current personnel, the answer would be yes. The most you can expect from this tactic without three strong center backs is a counterattacking philosophy, because you have two forwards who maintain a pressure presence against the opposition defense. If you can grab possession after a vigorous attack by the enemy, a quick salvo could destroy your opponent. But to begin a match in this mentality without a competency to lockdown with only three men back seems fatalist. At the very least I would rather see a midfielder like Roger Torres or Freddy Adu replacing Danny Mwanga, which would give Carroll support in the center of the pitch.
Count me in the group of analysts who think that the personnel selection was more responsible for the result than the formation, though. Whether Stefani Miglioranzi lines up as a holding midfielder or center back, his influence on the match is negative compared to others on the roster. In other words, including him in the starting squad is almost conceding that a draw is the best result. Might we see him in the return leg? Absolutely. If the Union succeed in overcoming their current 2-1 deficit and punch ahead of the Dynamo, Miglioranzi is Nowak’s defensive substitution of choice. In that role, I have no qualms with his presence in the squad.