We’re motivated to grow Minnesota’s soccer fanbase one supporter at a time. From The Loonigan is for someone enticed by the atmosphere of a soccer game, but wants to learn more on its strategies and idiosyncratic rules with a dash of Minnesota flavor.
In the MLS, teams are required to release their lineup of starters and bench players exactly sixty minutes before game start. The lineup, and the related MLS graphic presented during broadcasts, lend clues to how the team will behave on the pitch. Arguably the graphic of a soccer lineup generates far more strategic pre-game discussion than any other American sport.
Soccer formations, for the casual fan, can be an intimidating topic. However, it is a core dimension of soccer strategy. Understanding the fundamentals of formations can open your eyes to what drives the players’ action on the pitch and lays out the clues of the head coach’s plans to win a game.
Formations are described in terms of a series of numbers, such 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1. Think of them as layers in a cake, building out from the goalkeeper to the attacker. The first number is always the number of players on defense. From there, it describes how the midfield and forwards are organized.
For example, the classic 4-4-2 would call for four defenders in the first layer. These four players are made up of two center backs playing in front of the net and two full backs playing outside each center back. The next layer would be four midfielders comprised of two central midfielders and two wingers. Finally, there are two forwards who are assigned the attack. Of course, these formations are not positions where players are expected to operate rigidly like rods in foosball but it is guide to the shape the team is expected to perform under.
As you can imagine, there is an abundance of formations to choose beyond the most popular 4-4-2. Selecting a formation generally starts from the coach’s preferences. Next, the team’s talent is balanced against the opponents strengths and weaknesses. For the Minnesota United, Adrian Heath is known for favoring a 4-2-3-1 formation, but deployed six different formations in the 2019 season. Let’s speculate why Heath selected one formation over another by reflecting on some key matches in 2019.
What if you were a coach blessed with midfielders who were fast, gifted passers who could fall back to defense as quickly as they go on attack? Heath might favor a 4-3-3 formation. Early in 2019, MNUFC won two games in the US Open Cup deploying Ethan Finlay in an attacking forward position alongside Darwin Quintero and Angelo Rodríguez. What enabled that formation and success in both games? I would argue that the decision to move the speedy Hassani Dotson from defense to a midfield role. This allowed Dotson to provide attacking support with a brisk defensive recovery.
What if your opponent had not one, but two, of the best forwards in the league? Imagine facing Josef Martinez and Pity Martinez from Atlanta United on their home pitch. One of the largest and most raucous MLS atmospheres would pressure any stout defense. In this situation, Heath shifted to a 5-3-2 formation in the May 29th match against Atlanta. There was only one other time where a 5-3-2 was utilized during the 2019 season; another away game at LAFC on September 1st, where Carlos Vela, the 2019 MVP started. In both of those games, Heath put Miguel Ibarra, a natural midfielder, into a defensive role to prop up the Loons’ defense against relentless attacks.
What might you do if you had a home game against arguably the worst defense in the league hobbled by injuries and international absences? A 4-2-3-1 formation allows your players to play on their front foot, attacking and overwhelming a defense. MNUFC did exactly this on June 29th, scoring a team record of seven goals. Ibarra, a highly versatile and intelligent player, was one of the three midfielders supporting the attack. This was a drastically different role than Ibarra’s defense against Atlanta and LAFC.
Of course, most opponents have strengths and weaknesses that are not as glaring as the league’s best and worst. There are many other factors that influence a head coach’s tactics: injuries, international breaks, playing home or away or even a player that has fallen out of a coach’s favor. When MNUFC posts their lineup sixty minutes before game start, try to determine the formation based on the starter’s natural positions and watch how they line up on the field. If you are watching from afar, the broadcasters will do their best to give you an approximation of the line up in a graphic before the game starts.
Keep in mind, formations and soccer tactics are not rigid, but are fluid and change during a game. Formations provide a framework for how the team will operate. Understanding the intended shape of the players on the pitch can make a game more enjoyable for the casual fan.
Adrian Heath prefers a 4-2-3-1 formation and played more than half of 2019’s games with that shape. However, it had the lowest winning percentage. Was the 4-2-3-1 formation ideal based on the team’s talent and our opponents? I’d love to hear your perspectives on Adrian Heath’s formation strategy in 2019 in our comment section.