Two centerbacks, two fullbacks. The modern convention of “four at the back,” is so standard that any time a team adds or subtracts a back, it tends to be towards the end of the match when a team either wants to go for it or protect their advantage. This season, however, two teams in particular have shown a propensity to break away from this typical defensive setup – Toronto and Philadelphia. It turns out that neither team currently has a point.
In Toronto’s case, a tactician would tend to call it a five man backline. Both Ashtone Morgan and Richard Eckersley are backs by trade, and played more as wingbacks than midfielders.
Contrast that with Philadelphia’s wide midfielders during their recent match with Chicago. With Sheanon Williams away on US U-23 duty, Peter Nowak used Keon Daniel as a wide midfielder on the right side, and Michael Farfan opposite him on the left. Two things that you will notice from the chalkboards above: 1) While Toronto’s wingbacks played plenty of passes in their attacking half, they were spending a lot of time in their own half in a much deeper posture than Philadelphia’s wide players. 2) In the Philadelphia chalkboard, Daniel and Farfan were played on the wing opposite their strong foot, but also that their passing play was concentrated more in the midfield area.
All of this leads to the conclusion that Toronto played a 5-back system, while Philadelphia has gone with a 3-back tactic. Against the Colorado Rapids, at least the Union played Williams at that advanced back/midfield position on the right. In the Chicago match, both of those positions were midfielders. Not only were they midfielders, but playing on their opposite wings, making their instincts to track back counter-intuitive.
But most troublesome aspect of this tactic is the backs used. In a standard 3 or 5 back system, three proficient center backs are fielded. The idea is to have defensively savvy backs on either side of a central sweeper type. Both Porfirio Lopez and Chris Albright are fullbacks by trade, and so you have essentially one center back and two fullbacks.
This leads to having fullbacks being asked to play new roles. You might be able to get away with that kind of situation, assuming that you still had dedicated full- or wingbacks on either side helping defend out to the touchline. As the diagram above shows for the Chicago match, with midfielders in the wide roles, that left two major areas of weakness near the corners.
In both the Colorado and Chicago matches, these areas were exploited to generate goals. In the earlier match, Omar Cummings found space behind Albright down the Union right side, and swung a cross past the outstretched leg of Carlos Valdes. The lobbing cross eluded Zac MacMath and was dumped in the net by Jaime Castrillon.
The Fire’s lone goal came off a simple play in the Chicago attacking third.
In the above diagram, Marco Pappa, playing as a shuttling midfielder in a 4-1-3-2, takes the ball just inside the attacking third. Michael Farfan, playing that narrow left midfield position, lunges in to take the ball but misses (A). This allows Pappa to dribble towards the corner (B), which we identified as a weak area. Because Lopez is asked to play more centrally, it forces Brian Carroll to track back to mark Pappa. Lopez tries to make it over, but is slow to react. A 4-back system would certainly have put Lopez in a prime position to cover Pappa (C). A left back would also have more experience at thwarting the shifty tactics of a wide player like Pappa, as opposed to what a holding midfielder like Carroll brings to the table. Pappa easily created space, crossed into the area, and Dominic Oduro buried the goal.
Whether Nowak continues with a 3-man backline, it might be prudent to put at least one additional center back into the system, for instance Danny Califf. It would be even better if they could acquire another center back to allow Lopez out on the wing. Even without an acquisition, with Williams and 2011 left back Gabriel Farfan available, Lopez could learn on the job to be the left center back in this system. But if natural midfielders continue to play on the wings, the Union will need mistake-free play on the backline to be successful.