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Sporting KC’s Vermes hints at formation change: What might he be dreaming up?

Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes speaks with the media last year at Sporting Park. For the 2015 season, the KC boss is talking about a potential formation change.
Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes speaks with the media last year at Sporting Park. For the 2015 season, the KC boss is talking about a potential formation change. Special to The Star

Over the weekend, The Star’s Sam McDowell and MLSsoccer.com’s Steve Brisendine both dropped this bombshell: Peter Vermes is maybe mulling a formation change for Sporting Kansas City in 2015.

For long time followers of the coach, this is kind of a bombshell.

Since taking over full time as coach in 2010, Vermes has consistently played a variant of the 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation with an emphasis on pressing high up the pitch. He has used this formation to overwhelm wide areas of the pitch and clog the middle with mobile midfielders.

Tweaking that game plan, according to Vermes, was something he’s “been wanting to do for quite some time” but just didn’t have the personnel to try it. This preseason, he says he does have the pieces. Of course, he followed that reveal up by saying he “won’t talk about what that it is.” (Sarcasm alert: That’s just typical of a coach to drop a nugget and then not give out explicit details.)

But that shouldn’t stop us from speculating about what these changes could be, should it? As an amateur formation expert (trained exclusively on Football Manager and FIFA), I love to speculate and dream up this kind of stuff. (I’m a soccer nerd, I know.)

Why would Kansas City want to change, though? Well, formations — especially successful ones like KC’s over the last few seasons — often run into a problem eventually: Opponents work really hard to figure them out.

Last year, teams were able to figure out KC and found a lot of success exploiting holes in KC’s high-pressure 4-3-3 system: Notably by attacking behind fullbacks if they pushed up too high, isolating the central attacker and forcing KC to play too much out wide without an outlet in the center. Changing the formation could be a way to counter one or all of those problems.

Now, let’s be clear: I don’t see him tinkering too much with the team’s identity or approach to the game (they will press, they will possess, they will swarm passing lanes and they will look to play quickly), but Vermes could very well tinker with the platform to launch that plan.*

*Formations, in my opinion, are the geometrical deployment of a tactical philosophy. You can press and possess out of a 4-4-2, a 4-3-3 or a 3-6-1. It’s a matter of where you want to press and possess.

Let’s look at the obvious first.

▪ The team acquired Roger Espinoza to be a starter, most likely alongside Benny Feilhaber. Neither is a defensive midfielder, so a three-man midfield is still very likely — or some tactical plan that puts a mobile, defensive-minded player behind them.

▪ There are A LOT of midfielders on the team right now. In addition to Feilhaber and Espinoza, KC has Graham Zusi, Paulo Nagamura, Jorge Claros, Servando Carrasco, James Marcelin, Mikey Lopez and Jimmy Medranda. (For good measure, Jacob Peterson and Bernardo Anor have played a little central midfielder at some point.)

▪ I have this nagging suspicion based on my experiences with Peter Vermes that any formation they do will have some role for Nagamura. This isn’t because I love Nagamura (which I do), it’s because Vermes loves to have at least one grinder in the game. Nagamura is the ultimate Vermes grinder. (Peterson is the other.)

▪ The team drafted two attacking fullbacks (really, wing backs in Saad Abdul-Salaam and Amadou Dia), a winger (Connor Hallisey) and acquired Anor (typically a wide midfielder on the left during his stint Columbus). Meaning, KC will still look to overlap and attack with width.

▪ The team will still rely on Feilhaber and Zusi to be the primary playmakers. That won’t change.

▪ If healthy, Seth Sinovic, Matt Besler, Feilhaber, Zusi, Dom Dwyer and Espinoza are locked-in starters.

—Without a nailed-on second striker on the roster at the moment, it’s unlikely that PV will field a two-striker formation — unless Zusi is going to move back into an underneath striker/advanced central playmaker role (which I’ve called the velociraptor position* in the past).

*Because he spends a lot of time in that role throwing himself at the back line to probe around for weakness.

Now, what are the possible formation options given those factors? I’ve got four/five that I think are interesting. I’ve ranked them from what I think is most likely to least likely.

1. The 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-2-1

To see the formation: click here.

This is a variation of what KC currently runs, though it flips the midfield triangle around and pushes Feilhaber further forward into the attacking half with Claros/Espinoza (or Nagamura) shielding him. It retains the same width and up-field pressure, but provides a closer link for Feilhaber (the playmaker) and Dwyer (the scorer). It also allows Zusi to cut in from the right side and pick his attacking angles.

This formation could be vulnerable if the back line presses too high without a true defensive midfielder in front of Opara/Besler to clear out danger before it gets to the back line.

I could also see Vermes taking a look at the “Christmas Tree” variant of this formation, which puts three midfielders back — maybe Nagamura/Espinoza/Claros — with Feilhaber and Zusi pushed up behind Dwyer. It would feature a lot less width than we are used to seeing from KC, but with wing backs like Myers/Sinovic, it’s not entirely unreasonable.

2. 3-5-2

To see the formation: click here

This is my favorite (and potentially controversial) option because it could utilize the speed/recovery abilities of both Opara and Anibaba as well as put Zusi in a pivotal role in the middle of the attack as that underneath striker. It also opens up the field to different angles of attack for the wide players and midfielders.

While Vermes did dabble with this formation last year, it was as a last resort — a three-man back line of Besler/Opara/Anibaba is likely more sturdy than one of Sinovic/Palmer-Brown/Myers.

Opara in the middle of a three-man back line could push up into the midfield a bit and act as a Uri Rosell*-like interception monster in this system — he’d have two mobile CBs to cover him in Besler/Anibaba. A duo of Feilhaber and Espinoza would cover a lot of ground without necessarily sacrificing a lot of defense with someone behind them o sweep up.

*Worth remembering: When Uri was in town, Vermes’ formation often looked like a 3-man back line.

The primary width in this formation would come from Sinovic/Myers playing as wing backs. When in defense, the formation could look like a 5-man back line (lots of cover). In attack, this could look like a 3-2-5 if Feilhaber pushes up. It’s extremely flexible — as Mexico and the Netherlands proved in the World Cup. Currently, Manchester United and Liverpool use this formation — but with differing and not exactly desirable results. The U.S. trotted it out to mixed results on Wednesday against Chile.

If you watched the U.S.-Chile game, you saw a variation of this formation in action. Besler didn’t look entirely uncomfortable as the outside left defender* (he did start his career as a left back), but was a step slow reacting for Chile’s opening goal. (The important part is, that middle man can’t play like Jermaine Jones.)

*He could be utilized in the middle of this instead of Opara, where Besler’s nine-iron chip passes could be fairly effective and potentially deadly in switching fields to the wide players. Kinda like this:

3. 3-3-3-1/3-4-3

To see the formation: click here

This is the Chile formation — and you might have noticed in the U.S. game that Chile likes to press the ball. It’s an interesting formation as it would really strengthen KC down the middle and find room in the attacking half for Feilhaber/Zusi/Espinoza. It would also really put a lot of pressure on Myers/Sinovic (just like the 3-5-2) to provide all of the attacking width.*

*Thought on a three-man backline: I think you might be able to utilize Sinovic for a three-man backline too. It would allow for Anor to come in as a wingback (I don’t know how well he could play that role honestly) without sacrificing defensive awareness.

Chile pushes the two attacking midfielders up to make an often-narrow three-man front line. (With Zusi, obviously, he could drift out wide left or right depending on the situation.)

I’m not sure this formation, however, plays to Kansas City’s strengths and could potentially severely isolate Dwyer up top if the midfield drops back a little too much.

4. 4-4-2 (Diamond)

To see the formation: click here

Ah, the “Diamond.” With as many midfielders as KC brought in, this could be an option for Vermes if he wants to clear the path for Myers/Sinovic to be the only wide players and have a few different options for game-by-game tweaking. For this formation, I like using Feilhaber and Zusi as the two vertical bases of the diamond. The deeper DM role was one that Feilhaber did pretty well in at times last season — and he’s the most Uri-like passer on the roster. Having Espinoza and Nagamura ahead of him — natural box-to-box shuttlers — would definitely ease a lot of defensive burdens too.

This is a more adaptable formation too, as Vermes could modify the middle by either bringing in a passing midfielder (like Feilhaber or Medranda for Nagamura) or a stronger defender (Marcelin, Claros or Carrasco for Feilhaber) to mix things up.

Like the 3-5-2 this formation would put Zusi front-and-center as the playmaker and allow him to drift into dangerous areas, but it requires a second striker to serve as a hold-up or playmaker for Dwyer though. That’s a big worry for me because, if he didn’t run a two-man strike force with Claudio Bieler and C.J. Sapong around, why would he start now?

Regardless of what happens, none of this means Vermes is potentially thinking about changing things immediately and/or forever. I suspect this preseason (maybe as early as Saturday against Portland), he’ll experiment and see if there’s an additional game plan he can add to the tactical choices available.

Because having a few options besides the now-traditional 4-3-3 could make KC less likely to become stagnant and much harder for opponents to scout.

Agree? Disagree? Don’t see a formation you like? By all means, let me know what you think. It’s not fun speculating all by yourself.

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