The Full 90

Kansas City may alter formation, but foundation will hold

Tactical Thinking is a semi-regular column here at The Full 90 that attempts to dissect/explain/explore the tactical side of Sporting Kansas City. Sorry for the delay, this one was promised last week.

During the first few games of pre-season, Sporting Kansas City’s head coach Peter Vermes stuck with the 4-3-3 formation he installed when he took over the team in 2010. But off it, he’s hinted that changes might be coming.

“We haven’t for sure said we’re going to play a 4-3-3,” Vermes said to earlier this month. “I won’t be married to just one way of playing.”

That first part, I believe. The second part, not as much.

The team has the flexible personnel to go several different directions with their formation. Trying to accurately guess right now is fairly difficult right now; it is still unknown who will feature in the starting XI and how injuries to Ryan Smith and Teal Bunbury will affect the team.

However, regardless of what formation Sporting KC lines up in, there are absolutely four certainties: Pressure, speed, width and Omar.

Those are all part the foundation that Vermes put into place last year, and it's part of the way that he wants this team to play. Only, they didn't have two of those pieces in 2010.

A Matter of Semantics

Pressure can be applied in any formation and it’s worth noting there are many variations on how to apply it. As a current example, Arsenal combined a high-line with half-pressure in a very compact 4-1-4-1 to pressure Barcelona’s passing lanes last week. It worked and helped Arsenal create transition offense, including the game-winning goal.

Borussia Dortmund press the whole field with a 4-3-2-1 (or a 4-4-1-1). Barcelona does it with a 4-3-3. Tottenham uses pace in a base 4-4-2 to press the ball.

For Kansas City, pressure was/is the tactic* and the 4-3-3 (or a 4-5-1, depending on your view) was the how Vermes applied it in ’10 because it was the best arrangement of the pieces he had available.

*My soccer-knowledgeable colleague Matt Schofield liked to call KC’s system “90 Minutes of Hell.”

Sporting KC are constructed for pace and pressure. Equipping another style at this juncture would be like buying a new hammer but using the heel of a dress shoe to hang a picture in your house.

Speaking of house analogies...

The “Bigger House” Analogy

Sporting Kansas City are upgrading houses. They’ve known for a year the house they were moving into would be bigger and, as such, they’d need to buy some new furniture.

So, last year, they got a new rug to tie the room together (Jimmy Nielsen), upgraded the couch (Stephane Auvray), purchased some sleek new art for the wall (Ryan Smith), picked up a sturdy new coffee table (Craig Rocastle) and bought a PlayStation 3 (Teal Bunbury).

Some of those pieces looked all right in the old house (especially Bunbury, Nielsen and Auvray). Some of those pieces struggled to fit in with the furniture already in the house (they already returned that new, energy efficient lamp [Pablo Escobar] because of faulty wiring).

Now, they’re out of the smaller house and almost in the big house. (Yes, some of the old furniture won’t make the trip. It will be very sad to see the reliable and comfortable La-Z-Boy [Jimmy Conrad] in someone else’s living room.)

And, as they move, they’ll finally integrate in the centerpiece of the new living room: A high-def 60” plasma TV (Omar Bravo). They are counting on the TV/Bravo to be the showpiece of the new house and the thing that unites everything as one.*

*Well, that’s the working theory anyway. They didn’t exactly buy the TV brand new.

Now, where do they put it? Do they hang it on the wall? Stick it on a nice stand? Or just plop it on the floor and hope it doesn't tip over?

The Three Viable Options

Given the team’s personnel (notable pieces: inverted fullbacks Michael Harrington and Roger Espinoza; spatially aware midfielders capable of covering a lot of ground; speedy winger Ryan Smith; powerful, flexible and fast strikers Teal Bunbury and Kei Kamara) and the players the team has brought in this year (notable additions: deft passing and calm central defenders; creative attacking midfielders; and, of course, Omar), here are a few formation options. (For the sake of simplicity, I’ve assigned Matt Besler/Shavar Thomas the centerback spots right now.)

I think it's important to note: A formation is the application of a tactic given the pieces available and the opponent's tendencies. A cover-all formation usually will be easily figured out eventually.

Stick with the 4-3-3, the Barcelona system

This formation allows Harrington and Espinoza room to charge up and down the flanks and puts Smith and Bravo in position to attack the opponents in one-on-one situations. It also keeps the three-headed, spatially-aware trio of Arnaud-Rocastle-Auvray together to create turnovers. Rocastle’s ability to switch field is a huge bonus in this formation.

It also creates a rather interesting Smith-Bunbury-Bravo frontline (and gives Vermes the option of bringing Kamara off the bench or to start in place of Bunbury while he recovers from an elbow injury).

Adopt the 4-2-3-1

The en vogue formation during the World Cup has many of the same benefits of the 4-3-3 with one slightly massive tweak: Bravo would play the dual-purpose role of support striker and creative midfielder. Vermes hasn’t said which positions Bravo can play, but he believes Bravo can play four different forward positions.

Last year, Kansas City lacked a consistent supply to the attack. Arnaud, given his nature as a player, would often drift away from his attacking role to chase the ball. Rocastle, who is an adept passer, was more comfortable closer to his own half. Auvray was needed to act as a sweeper in front of the defense. This meant the primary supply came from Smith or Kamara. Once teams figured out how to bump Smith off his game and that Kamara’s crossing wasn’t as good as it should be, it became easy to smother whomever the central forward was.

If Bravo can slot into that support/attacking role, it could be like an on switch for the attack.

The other benefits of this formation (which I prefer to the base last year), it lets Arnaud play a more natural role covering midfield ground with Auvray and allows Kamara and Smith to attack from different angles out wide. The possibilities of Bravo-Bunbury working down the center or Bravo-Smith combining on the left or Kamara-Bunbury working over a fullback seem pretty intriguing.

Back to basics with a 4-4-2

The obvious benefit of this formation would be its familiarity and sturdiness. The cover it provides to the centerbacks might appeal to Vermes given the defensive deficiencies that swallowed the team last year.

It also creates the opportunity to pair Bravo with a natural partner, Bunbury (or Kamara). The two of them could compliment each other well and prevent defenses from zeroing in on one central player. This formation, like the previous one, takes Rocastle off the field. That might not be a bad thing, as the team didn’t exactly have a midfielder on the bench in ’10 who could come on and change a game with his physical presence and deft passing.

I think this might be the least likely formation for KC, if only because Kamara is a stretch at right wing and an absolute reach at right midfielder. It takes him too far away from the box and his crossing (especially his early crossing) is not his best feature. (Which is why I slotted Jewsbury in that spot.)

This formation also squeezes out (albeit slightly) the available space for Harrington/Espinoza to charge up the field. (Though, many might argue the team might be better off with four defenders in their own half at least until they show the ability to prevent soft goals.)

I’d like to correct an earlier point: There is only one formation that you cannot press out of, the empty-bucket 4-4-2 that the U.S. national team favored in 2010. You can’t apply a high-line of confrontation if you are voiding 30 yards in the middle of the field.

What are your thoughts? Do you want to see the 4-3-3 with a few slight tweaks? Do you prefer a more standard formation? What formation would you select if you were Peter Vermes? What role (besides scoring more goals) do you want to see Bravo assume?