Talking Tactics: How SKC's 4-3-3 bucks the traditional set

Three words of comfort for beleaguered Sporting Kansas City, who were forced to open the 2011 season with a brutal 10-game road trip: It is over.

It’s so hard to properly assess a team’s quality when odds are stacked so stubbornly. Now, however, we can better gauge Peter Vermes’ side, starting this week with the opening of splashy Livestrong Sporting Park (Thursday, 10 pm ET, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes).

What we do know about Kansas City is how Vermes wants his side to play, in that dynamic 4-3-3. They’ve lined up that way every game to start the season, and certainly aren’t going to change now that schedule has turned far friendlier.

So perhaps it’s a good time to talk about how every formation with three forwards isn’t built the same.

Only one other team in MLS plays consistently with three forwards: Toronto FC. New England and Philadelphia have lined occasionally up in a 4-3-3 but for now, we’ll just talk about Sporting and Toronto, who happened to meet last weekend at BMO Field.

TFC play with more conventional wingers, who hug the touchline and stretch defenses across the field. They carry a lot of the responsibility to move balls forward from midfield into the attacking third, probing for opportunities to create off the dribble and the cross.

More or less, Kansas City (and New England and Philadelphia when they play with three up top) just use three players who look more like strikers strung across the field. SKC do have Ryan Smith back in the fold after a tough time getting through preseason injuries. Speedy, tricky and smooth on the dribble, Smith looks more like a real winger, although he’s playing “inverted” right now.

Teal Bunbury is generally the central presence, with Kei Kamara often on the right side. Kamara was always a target man in his previous MLS stops, and he still plays more like one now. The difference is his starting position, primarily out wide for Vermes’ side. Over the weekend, Smith played wide right in that “inverted” role, a lefty deployed right. That limits his crossing chances and makes him more of an “inside forward” than an actual winger.

Meanwhile, Omar Bravo lined up as the left-sided forward, with a freer role to drop into the midfield to collect the ball.  In some cases, a less restrictive role is just what the doctor ordered. But Sporting seem still to be figuring things outs. In this case, the reduction in defined roles seemed to be causing some problems. For instance, there were times when Bravo and left back Michael Harrington got too close, jamming up the left side.

Given time, Bravo could become the model of a forward set up outside, able to drive inside for shooting opportunities rather than outside for crossing chances — a poor man’s David Villa, if you will.

The traditional three-forward arrangement with wingers is all about supplying balls initially to the men out wide, asking them to move possession forward. Kansas City, however, are more about long balls into Bunbury, who looks for teammates out wide making runs inside.

Toronto FC’s arrangement, requiring those wingers to remain wide, can restrict overlapping opportunities for fullbacks. For Kansas City, with an inverted winger or forwards leaning inside, the fullbacks have more responsibility to get forward and provide width.

There are other ways to play with three forwards, of course. England were renowned for their wingers back in a certain day, but actually won the 1966 World Cup with a team dubbed occasionally as the “wingless wonder.” In that case, they played with one classic striker and two “inside forwards” who roamed and crisscrossed to free themselves from markers.

We’ve seen some fabulous, more recent examples of three forwards who are anything but conventionally arranged. FC Barcelona and (with some of the same players) the Spanish national team line up with three forwards. In Barcelona’s case, the newly crowned European champions deploy two forwards with the ultimate complementary piece in Leo Messi.

Messi, blessed with a complete and devastating set of skills, drops closer to midfield to sniff out the spaces, able then to pass or accelerate into one of his jaw-dropping runs. In tactical parlance, this role is known as the “false nine.”

Barça’s system is so fluid that it’s become trendy to call it a 4-6-0, which is a little bit of a stretch — but not much. Of course, only two teams in the world (Barcelona and Argentina) have access to Messi’s arsenal of wonder. The rest just have to make due.

There is one common trait with all three-forward alignments: the ability to press defensively in high areas. Most MLS teams remain tethered to the 4-4-2. With just two front-runners, pressing opposition fullbacks aggressively can turn into an exhausting fool’s errand; properly spaced defenders will pass around them with ease. So the forwards drop into channels and attempt to direct possession this way or that.

Teams with three forwards are able to immediately apply pressure bent on quickly regaining possession. If the team’s attacking movement is correct in a 4-3-3 (players filling spaces as they become vacant), the personnel is already in good spots to pressure and to interrupt passing lanes the instant possession is lost.

Due to that 10-game road gauntlet, Sporting KC haven’t been able to fully exploit three forwards pressing relentlessly. Now, with 17 of their next 24 games at home, we’ll get a better look at how three forwards can chase and harass and create quick scoring opportunities off turnovers in the attacking end.