San Jose Earthquakes ponder tactical tweaks to fortify midfield, maximize Yannick Djalo's skills

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – If you’ve watched the San Jose Earthquakes this season and thought they were being overrun in the center of the pitch, Quakes coach Mark Watson agrees with you.

Perhaps more importantly, Watson is considering tactical shifts to combat the problem.

“A formation change ... is something that’s a possibility,” Watson told reporters after training Wednesday. “I think if we look at how a lot of [MLS] teams are playing now, they’re overloading numbers in midfield. So one of our jobs is to make sure we’re able to handle that.”

Watson's statement does not necessarily mean that Watson is scrapping the tried-and-true 4-4-2 look which has been an Earthquakes hallmark since the club was re-established as an expansion side in 2008 (and extends into its 1996-2005 history).

Instead, it is likely that the team’s setup – which to this point has been more of an empty bucket than a double pivot, and has seen wingers like Cordell Cato hugging the sidelines – will undergo some refinement, rather than a radical makeover.

“The 4-4-2’s a very flexible system in terms of [how] you can move those players around quite easily,” Watson said. “And there’s also options to slightly tweak that formation to put more numbers in midfield. We’re looking at those possibilities right now.”

One such tweak might simply be the inclusion of Yannick Djalo in the starting lineup. The Portuguese winger played the entire second half of San Jose's 1-1 draw against Columbus on Sunday, but in contrast to Cato, whom the Benfica loanee replaced, Djalo often popped up in the middle of the pitch and even floated toward the opposite wing on occasion in hopes of creating a goalscoring chance.

That style of play could present San Jose with the chance to produce their own numeric advantages in specific areas of the field. 

“That is exactly what we wanted him to do,” Watson said of Djalo’s full-field play. “I think he’s very good beating players wide, but he’s also very comfortable coming inside – adding that extra number, if you like, but being very dynamic and helping us attack from those spots … He does different things to make himself less predictable.”

In terms of major tactical shifts, the Quakes are somewhat handcuffed by their roster composition. Star striker Chris Wondolowski has historically combined with a target man – either Alan Gordon or Steven Lenhart – which fills some of the space that might be used by an attacking midfielder in a diamond 4-4-2 setup.

But Wondolowski has worked hard over the years to improve his skills at the tip of the spear, such as holding up the ball and getting teammates involved. That would obviously come in handy if Watson ever decided to make more extreme changes, such as installing a 4-2-3-1 with Wondolowski, rather than a target forward, in the top slot.

“I’m OK anywhere,” Wondolowski said Wednesday. “If I’m on the field, I’m happy. I just want to win games and try to do whatever I can. This game, it’s ever-evolving. You have to continue to get better and continue to try to make yourself better at things, especially if you find them to be weaknesses.

"I’m always going to continue to work at it, but I do feel I’ve gotten better at it.”