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Three’s Company: How a Change in Formation Could Change the Loons Fortunes

Adrian Heath is back for the 2020 season, and with more influence on players signed could a change in formation help the Loons going forward?

October 20, 2019 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United midfielder Ján Greguš (8) crosses the ball during the 1st round playoff match against the LA Galaxy at Allianz Field.
October 20, 2019 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United midfielder Ján Greguš (8) crosses the ball during the 1st round playoff match against the LA Galaxy at Allianz Field.
(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

Now that we know Adrian Heath will be around for the 2020 season, you can start looking back at how the team played from a systematical perspective. I know people who are for him coming back and the stability it offers the club after meeting expectations during his final year of his three year contract, and others who say the first two years were reason enough to have someone else in. I’m not nearly qualified or experienced enough to have an educated opinion on that. Where I feel I can offer a little bit of knowledge, albeit fairly limited knowledge if you ask my friends, is in the reasoning as to why they could be set up the way they do. I’m not claiming to have connections to Heath or his staff, or frankly even have a big enough ego to challenge anyone of them on their knowledge of the game. My goal is to try and give the people reading this my take on what Minnesota United will do this year.

Since we have no games to go off of right now, I’ll do my best to try and explore what the Loons would look like in various shapes in different phases of play. Most teams don’t play one static formation like a “1-4-4-2” (don’t forget about the goalkeepers). Instead, they change and shift between many different shapes depending on the situation, this stuff isn’t rocket science to most of you but I’m not here to re-invent the wheel.

That being said when you see a MNUFC lineup you will most likely see a “1-4-2-3-1” type of shape. Whether you’re looking at it on your TV, on your phone, or in the stadium you will generally see this shape below while in possession of the ball.

The wing backs will look to get forward and provide the width further down the field in possession. However in transition, they tend to be a bit more reserved and look for the right moments to get forward. This is part of the reason MNUFC was good last year, they transitioned defensively well because they didn’t take unnecessary risks (most of the time). It’s why Gasper was so effective and kept his playing time, and why USMNT is starting to look at him in MLS-based camps. The plan is to talk more about transitions in the near future.

Heath has only play a back 3 with all center backs and 2 wing backs out of necessity (I know back 3’s with outside backs are so 1970-1980’s). Now that he should have a more talented roster than ever, I doubt he will implement this type of system. It would be a waste of your time to even read an article about that, yet you somehow clicked on this article. This is not about a back 5 but is indeed about MNUFC in possession and in specific when and why they transition into a back 3.

When the Loons start to feel like they have established possession and the opponent has gone into their non-pressing defensive shape which is generally a “1-4-4-1-1” or “1-4-1-4-1 in MLS, Ozzie Alonso starts to drop deeper and deeper between the two center backs as they start to spread the field. The center backs doing this allow the outside backs to have more freedom to get higher and wider up the field. The chances of a counter attack are lessened as the defending team is not pressing and this allows the team in possession to try and create overloads in the wide areas of the field. As mentioned earlier this is perfect for MNUFC as this is one of the strengths in the first choice 11 for Heath.

The importance of this system is having intelligent center midfielders who know when to drop into the central pivot center back position as well when to support the back three to create overloads depending on how many the opposition presses with. This is what Pep Guardiola has mastered, so much so he was able to free up his center midfielders by having his outside backs occasionally invert them selves into center midfielders to create numerical superiority. He also caused opposing managers to have to plan their team for that possibility before games for the years to come which is great gamesmanship from him.

In addition to intelligent center midfielders you need center backs who can distribute the ball accurately and on time confidently. These center backs are rare on the world market and theres a reason they are getting closer to the 100 million mark. MNUFC has capable center backs to do this for the level, but there will be mistakes and when they do happen they can lead to goals. However Ike is a number 10 at heart and can do things like this...

The difficulties with transitioning to a back 3 system in possession when the opponent will press with a front 3 and an aggressive 10 marking your midfielder who has checked into the space created from Ozzie Alonso dropping into the back 3. When opponent looks to press with a “front 4” the numerical superiority can be lost if the supporting central midfielder does not take care of the ball in possession through “bouncing” the ball. This is when the defenders are looking to break the opponents front press by finding the pass into the midfield. If this midfielder cannot turn upfield the ball is played back to the open defender, this being done successfully causes the opponents press to scatter and will open up space to attack into.

Playing like this allows the team in possession to find more space higher up the field (especially for the teams 10 compared to a team who “parks the bus”) and causes the opponent who is pressing aggressively to create more space for you to attack into. However losing the ball here leads to a Jurgen Klopp textbook counter attack. MNUFC did not do this enough last year and this is part of the reason Darwin looked to be more frustrated when he wasn’t able to get the ball in the spots that he liked. As you can see below when the defending team starts to get stretched vertically it opens up the spaces out wide for your wing backs and then eventually wingers.

When the ball is advanced into possession further up the field the opponent tends to fall into “two banks of four” this is when you see most teams utilize this shape as it tends to open up more space for your 10. This is what Darwin was most effective at in the past and was part of the reason he was nicknamed “The Goal Scientist” for his movement in and around the 18.

The opponents 9/10 generally act in a rotation where one presses the back line and “cuts the field in half.” The other would cover the supporting central midfielders. In event that the team in possession switches the field the player covering the midfielder would press and the other would drop in to cover the supporting midfielder. This is so the wingers (7/11) don’t allow numerical superiority in the wide spaces.

This sustained possession is showing dominance over the opposing team and holding the ball away from your goal and constantly looking for the moment to pick apart the team who is in their defensive shape is how the dominant teams in the world generally play now a days. One of the most versatile and effective ways to do this is building out with a back 3 that allows your wingbacks to get further up the field. MNUFC did not get into this shape enough last year, and they looked to punish teams in transition, and there is nothing wrong with that it is very effective in the game nowadays.

However, if MNUFC want to take that next step and look to be one of the more dominant teams in the regular season they should look to start playing in a way that allows them to control the game in all phases and areas. That starts with improving in possession, it will be interesting how Heath and his staff look to do this.