As we have seen since midway thru last season DC United has become fond of playing out of the 4-2-3-1 formation. I've been studying this formation, how its used at the highest levels of soccer (USA, Brasil, Chelsea, Bayern, and Dortmund) for the last 6 months. Obviously this is not enough time to have mastered every aspect of the formation, but it has allowed me to find patterns in what makes it succeed (Bayern/Dortmund) and what makes it fail (DC and Chelsea at times). And it is clear to me either Benny is not completely sure how to harness the formation with both his personnel and with tactics. Is it all Benny's fault no.... but some clear issues have not been addressed to this point.
First off I'm going to look past the defensive lapses on set pieces (this has no part in formation), but is clearly an important issue that has been plaguing the squad all season.
The LONE Striker:
In a 4-2-3-1 the job of the striker is obviously to score goals, but second to that is making sure the man playing the position is comfortable playing with his back to the goal and then quickly distributing to either the CAM or Outside Mids. It is critical that this player can control the ball when in the air or can make a strong enough effort to force a poor play from the player he is competing with in the air. The third job is to make strong, well timed runs on both counter attacks and crosses.
DC United Strikers:Ruiz, Pajoy Townsend, Rafael
Rafael doesn't have enough tape for me to say how well he fits the position.
Townsend does not have enough comfort with his back to goal to be a successful lone striker, he would be best suited for a 2 Striker attack were there is a target man, like a Conner Casey, and he plays off of their possession. He makes decent runs on the counter attack, but that does not make up for his lack of skill with his back to the goal.
Pajoy is bad at every part of being a lone striker. He has an awful touch 75% of the time, on the counter attack his runs are not good, We all dislike Pajoy and honestly its for good reason. He has about two flashes of decent play per game and that's just not enough when he loses possession of the ball as often as he does. He also doesn't compete frequently with defenders when the defense clears in the air. Honestly nothing against the guy, but he will NEVER be a part of a successful team as long as he maintains this level of play.
Ruiz has by far proved to be the most consistent lone striker on DC United's roster. He competes for most air balls and has flashes of creativity distributing the ball with his back to the goal. Ruiz also gets on the end of crosses at a higher percentage than any of the other strikers in the box. He hasn't been able to score yet and at times his lack of mobility can be an issue on the fast break, but he is our best option at the moment at the striker position in the 4-2-3-1.
The Playmaker. This player needs to be the player who the offense runs thru on the majority of possessions especially when playing against 4-4-2/4-4-1-1. This players position on the field means his job is to distribute the ball to the ST, Outside mids, or CDMs making runs forward. If this player does not find opportunities to receive the ball centrally and then distribute the formation is not being used correctly. Of course at times you will have to go down the wings, but when the opportunity arises getting the ball in the center to the CAM is critical.Why play 3 central mids and outnumber most formations centrally if you don't utilize that advantage.
DC United CAMs: DeRo, maybe NDL or Pontius
DeRo plays this position fairly well, when he actually receives the ball. DeRo's biggest issue in this position is his inability to get in positions to receive the ball/other players not feeding him the ball. At times DeRo gets too far forward, basically playing a second striker meaning the offense must go thru the wings, this is okay if it happens once in a while but on a consistent basis it means we leave a huge hole vacant in the center of the field between the CDMs, Outside Mids and Strikers. Part of DeRo's issue here is also that if the other midfielders/defenders don't get used to playing thru the CAM because at times he's not in that position then they won't look to play him in stride at times when he does show. This has been a constant issue with our attack, but can be changed with good tactical instruction stressing the importance of playing thru the CAM and making sure the CAM doesn't get to far forward. This I will put on Benny's shoulders because I think DeRo can play the CAM successfully.
NDL or Pontius I think either of these two players could play this position, but without seeing them play here before I cannot analyze their play from playing the wings or CDM in NDLs case because the CAM's duties are so unique.
The Outside Mids
The outside mids in a 4-2-3-1 formations number one goal has to be going forward. When you have 6 players in your formation whose priority is already defense the outside mids in this formation need to be focused on helping the attack, unlike in the 4-4-2 we also use at times. Of course they still need to get back and defend but thru placing players with the right pace, work rate or awareness you can find players who will be able to be an attacking presence, but also be able to get back and not let opposing offenses overrun the main 6 defenders. The mids should also provide consistent width for the formation and potential outlets for the backs to get the counter attack started. Having the ability to beat a man in 1 on 1 situations and then make either good crosses or create other scoring opportunities is big because a lot of the times this player is on an island out wide.
DC United Outside Mids: Pontius, NDL, Porter, Nyassi
Pontius and NDL both have the ability to take players on and both do prioritize the attack but leaving them wide doesn't seem to fit their skills as well as have him go thru small spaces in traffic thru the middle of the field. NDL seems to be the better of the two at playing wide, but they are both young and talented enough when healthy to be on the field so placing them in these positions is their best choice. Pontius' desire to cut middle may also be playing on the left side as a right footed player. Of course their are times where that is a good thing but Pontius rarely threatens to take that wide route and without that in the defenders mind they will always shade in. Once they fear your outside run then the inside becomes free to get shots off. If Pontius as an Outside mid doesn't keep the width then it limits the options of the 4-2-3-1 attack.
Porter has turned out to be a great fit for this Outside mid position. He really does frequently choose to go wide and hit open play crosses into the box, and recently he has even shown the ability to take on MLS defenders and beat them one on one. He could really improve his cross quality and maybe even on occasion take the ball to the heart of the D just to show some variety, but the formation does seem to fit what he does best, stay wide and cross the ball.
Nyassi is a new signing so my opinions can definitely still be persuaded on what he can do. I do like what I have seen from him for the most part his pace really adds another element to the United attack that it needs. Only issue I've noticed is his tendency at times to free range to the other side of the field. Its a great thing if you can do it well and communicate with your side,but being new I'm worried still it just may leave a hole. Unfortunately he is in the toughest position to get playing time when DC is healthy, but luckily we haven't been all year, so we will see if he can keep up his decent play.
Having the proper CDM play is a 4-2-3-1 is critical. They not only are important in locking down the defense to allow the front 4 (ST, CAM, Outside Mids) to be free to push forward and take calculated risks to try and score goals without always wondering about the defensive duties they may have. Also the CDMs are they links between the back 6 and front 4. A CDM in a 4-2-3-1 should be able to find a passing lane to somewhere forward and if not they should move the ball along the back until the space in the middle or wings becomes available. This is the position that it is most crucial to have properly trained in the 4-2-3-1 because if they are not both your offense and defense will falter.
DC United CDMs Kitchen, Thorrington, Saragosa, NDL?, Rochat?
Kitchen has been pegged as a key player on this team for a couple years now, but honestly at times I just don't see it. Fortunately he is still far from the squads biggest problem so I won't focus on his tiny flaws. Overall he is a solid CDM he is a strong presence and leader in the midfield, but he honestly does not have the offensive skill set to set himself up for success in the 4-2-3-1. Don't get me wrong he is a CDM, but he needs to learn how to time more good runs forward to help contribute to the offense at times. I know that if he's paired with Thorrington he can do it, but Kitchen needs to have the skills to do it to open up the game. In recent history the CDM was developed to combat the number 9s of the other team and their only focus was D, In a 4-2-3-1 players like Frank Lampard and Bastian Schweinsteiger have begun play the position while maintaining their offensive threat. Kitchen's pure passing is not refined enough to be able to just sit back and pick out players in forward positions, so learning to make runs will be something to learn going forward.
Thorrington is a very good offensive CDM. I honestly have not seen enough of him to say very much bad of him. He made 2 excellent passes to DeRo behind the TFC midfielders which led directly to scoring chances. He is the only person I've seen really feed DeRo the ball in his true CAM position. I hope to see more of it moving forward.
Saragosa is a solid defensive CDM again like Kitchen (though not as good) . In another system or as a substitute with a late game lead he could be useful, but there is no reason to criticize him with his lack of time.
NDL brings another offensive presence to our CDM position with all healthy he maybe a good fit with Thorrington at CDM as long as their defense is good enough, but I think good defensive positioning can be taught to a major extent, though Benny clearly doesn't fully grasp how the CDMs should play in a 4-2-3-1 vs a 4-4-2
To expand on my criticism of Benny's teaching of the CDMs in a 4-2-3-1, basically he has his CDMs move forward and play man on the midfielders as they move forward centrally while the backs cover strikers and the wings. This defeats the purpose of the 4 Central defenders (CBs and CDMs) because when the CDMs move forward to man mark the opposing mids it leaves a hole in behind them for a playmaker to receive the ball and become a threat. The main goal of the CDMs defensively in a 4-2-3-1 should be to protect the space in front of the CBs by staying as compact as possible. This means stay put until the ball is one short pass away and the weak side CDM should stay in their zone protecting the CBs thus not leaving the gap for the playmaker. Basically force the difficult play from the outside instead of center.
I will make this short and sweet. Our central defenders need to stop trying to feed our front 4. They need to get the ball wide or to the CDMs. After DC scored against TFC we decided to stop with our possession play thru the midfield and started having all of our defenders start bombing away. We wasted most of our possessions after that point with unforced errors by our defenders. The only time defenders should be involved is if we have possession and we need another wide player available, but then he should not just bomb the ball to the striker. I may start a drinking game next week to see how often this happens.
Our Defense killed our early offensive success vs TFC and has been a contributing factor all year by turning the ball over on unforced long balls because they are impatient. Our CDMs have potential but need to be taught how to properly defend in a 4-2-3-1 while also becoming more 2-way players. Our Outside mids should have clear priority 1 as attack and staying wide is an issue for us especially on the left side when Porter is out. Our CAM still needs to remember he is not a ST he needs to show for the ball more and people need to feed him more. We need a young new ST Ruiz is our best one and Pajoy should be cut NOW. There are other ways we can add starters/depth to our roster, but the 4-2-3-1 is not the problem just who's playing and more importantly coaching.