Armchair Analyst: Mining for the perfect midfield diamond

Pirlo Pardo Beckerman - Analyst

Photo Credit: 
Illustration by MLSsoccer.com

Why don’t more teams play the diamond-four midfield? That’s a question that’s been on the minds of US soccer fans for years.

For many, the diamond is the default setting, the way a team should play: one creative genius sitting behind two forwards, always an eye blink away from picking the last pass and putting a chance on a platter.

During the first four years of MLS, the league was dominated by a D.C. United side that played the quintessential diamond: Marco Etcheverry as the genius, Richie Williams as the d-mid, two mobile, all-action outside midfielders and overlapping fullbacks. That team won three Cups, a CONCACAF Champions' Cup (the forerunner to the current CONCACAF Champions League), an Intertoto Cup, a pair of Supporters’ Shields and a US Open Cup from 1996 through 1999. No team since has matched that silverware haul.

Pardo puts Oduro through

And then there’s video games. I don’t play myself, but judging by the number of tweets, Facebook posts and BigSoccer screeds screaming for a “CAM” – Central Attacking Midfielder – I see on any given day, I assume the diamond is something that works well in pixels.

But as Italy showed on Wednesday, it doesn’t always work on grass. And the reality is that even when it’s humming along at its best, there are still gaps to exploit.

The old and persistent issue with the diamond midfield was always that if you stop the No. 10, you stop the whole damn thing.

This is what happened to Argentina back in the 2006 World Cup when they ran into Germany. Torsten Frings (now of Toronto FC) basically marked Juan Román Riquelme, the greatest classical No. 10 of the last decade, out of the game. The Argentines were left with zero attacking ideas and eventually went down in defeat to a German side that was vastly less talented.

The obvious counter is to add other playmakers to the mix, one way or the other. This is the new version of the diamond, and probably a more dynamic one.

For Italy, that meant Andrea Pirlo playing the back point. It’s where he’s best, and he picked the US defense apart consistently. It was only a linesman who was trigger happy with the offside flag that kept the Azzurri out of Tim Howard’s area on a regular basis.

In MLS, we see this from Real Salt Lake and the Chicago Fire. Both have classic Argentine No. 10s in Javier Morales and Sebastián Grazzini at the top of the diamond, and d-mids with playmaking skills in Kyle Beckerman and Pável Pardo at the back point. Pardo’s ability to pick a pass is particularly devastating, as he registered five assists in less than half a season, completing better than 85 percent of his passes along the way.

The ability to make plays isn’t the only common thread among Pirlo, Pardo and Beckerman, though. None of the three has the exceptional range that characterizes lone d-mids, which means they need defensive help. As it plays out, at least one of the two outside midfielders needs to stay tucked in and help add defensive bite.

RSL have elevated it to an art form, which is the advantage to keeping a group of players together for as long as they have. The use a complex system of rotations, frequently shifting clockwise as Morales picks up the ball in his preferred left channel.

Beckerman sets up Gil

Chicago have a more straight-forward plan, one that resembles Pirlo’s great AC Milan teams of the last 10 years: Push the nominal destroyer out to right midfield.

In Milan’s case, that was Gennaro Gattuso. In Chicago’s case, it will be Logan Pause, who acquitted himself more than admirably at the spot as the Fire charged to a 7-2-1 record over the final 10 games of the 2011 regular season.

With Pause sitting deep, Pardo has less physically onerous defensive responsibilities, as well as an immediate small-ball outlet should a telling pass to one of the attackers not present itself. It’s the Milan playbook.

That, however, leads to the other problem with the diamond: With the outside midfielders staying tucked in, you concede the flanks. Against a team playing the 4-2-3-1 or the flat 4-4-2 with overlapping fullbacks, that’s a major issue. It’s where the US got their goal from, after all, with Fabian Johnson charging into space and having time to pick out his cross.

Italy finally adjusted, going to a 4-1-4-1 with about 20 minutes to go and pinning the US back for the duration.

How MLS teams adjust to RSL and Chicago in 2012 remains to be seen, though it’s telling that the two sides that made it to the MLS Cup final last year – LA and Houston – got so much of their offensive creativity from the flanks.

Of course, not every team has a Landon Donovan or a Brad Davis on whom to rely. And even if they do, RSL and Chicago can cut them out of the game by dominating possession – a perfect example being the 3-0 whupping RSL put on Seattle in the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinals.

That’s the diamond so many US fans want to see. But it takes a special combination of players, each willing to play his role, to make it viable. Even in video games, and especially on grass.