Benny Feilhaber certainly has skills. The guy made three World Cup appearances last summer, after all, so he’s clearly got something in his bag.
The question is, though, how to get the best from Feilhaber at his new MLS address in New England? It’s about the personnel around him and how Revolution coach Steve Nicol uses the shiny new tool in his box, how he tactically arranges the pieces.
The Revs' newest acquisition first appeared in a 4-4-2 alongside rookie Stephen McCarthy. That came at home against Kansas City, a 3-2 win for the Revs. The key element in that look was Shalrie Joseph's positioning as a withdrawn striker.
A week later the results weren’t as encouraging in a 3-0 loss to Chivas USA. (The Goats are markedly improved over their first couple of performances, so that must be weighed in when assessing successes or failures that evening.) At the Home Depot Center, Feilhaber was alongside Joseph in the same 4-4-2 arrangement.
In both cases, the midfield set-up was a straight line. In the second game, Feilhaber and Joseph took turns moving forward to apply pressure further up the field, the other sitting back to screen the rear guard.
Unseen so far is Joseph and Feilhaber along with McCarthy or another midfielder in the 4-3-3 that Nicol rolled out earlier this year.
Feilhaber’s versatility (along with Joseph’s) is a massive asset. He can serve dutifully in any midfield role.
He can lie deep as a playmaker; we saw in his debut the ability to serve effective balls into strikers over the top from those spots.
Or he can play in more advanced positions; Feilhaber came to suburban Boston saying his forte was in supplying the passes that can unlock defenses.
For the national team Feilhaber has played centrally but has also manned wider roles, with instructions to lean inside liberally. That’s probably been his most effective charge for Bob Bradley, working inside to assist with possession as much as possible.
He could also work in a more traditional holding role. In his earlier years, while breaking into European soccer at Hamburg SV, Feilhaber frequently backed up Dutch international Nigel de Jong in the holding midfield role, lining up behind another big Dutch name, Rafael Van der Vaart. So, the options are many, although there’s pressure to sort it now that we’re reached quarter mark of the 2011 campaign.
First off, the relationship with Joseph must improve. Saturday at the Home Depot Center the two big Revolution figures became predictably redundant at times, needlessly duplicating each other’s movements and actions in the middle. And that was just one of the problems, all of which deserve sorting out on the training ground.
Revolution players will do well to remember they now have two central figures who are very good in possession. So they need to re-train their soccer brains to find Feilhaber’s or Joseph’s feet. It’s in the Revs’ DNA to move the ball quickly into wide spots, but there’s less need to rush the ball out there now.
Of course, that also requires that the relationships change between New England’s central midfielders, the wide men and the strikers. If New England want to establish better possession (and that’s a point of emphasis this year), then strikers and wide midfielders must keep better contact with the center midfielders rather than consistently looking for hurried balls out wide or over the top. A big difference Saturday was Chivas USA’s understanding and awareness in the midfield. The Goats knew exactly how they wanted spacing and movement from their diamond-shaped midfield. The game can be simple, as the home team showed, with some basic understanding of roles and runs off the ball.
The Revs struggled against Chivas USA to the right mix. There were times when Feilhaber looked lost. He may have even appeared a tad lazy, as if he was unwilling to track and cover ground. We all know he’s plenty willing, but he was likely unsure of when to cover, when to hold, when to be the second defender, etc.
That 4-3-3 arrangement or a 4-2-3-1 might be the way forward for the Revs. Joseph remains one of the league’s best holding midfielders (when he gets that assignment). As the more advanced man in one of those set-ups, Feilhaber can possess balls in slightly higher areas, similar to the way Steve Ralston once did, allowing for teammates to gain better positions.
Even then, though, the passes require precision. Nicol has said the Revs must “take care of each other with the ball” better than Saturday. Some of that is just down to time on the training ground and familiarity with roles.
“You have to try to lead each other to where you want them to go,” Nicol said. “If Benny is getting the ball around his neck, or on the wrong side of his defender, well, as good as Benny is, he’s not going to be able to produce.”