There were a few things wrong for the Montreal Impact in Saturday's 3-1 loss at the New York Red Bulls. Let's pick out two main issues in a game that, along with Philly's win over New England, dropped Montreal all the way down to fifth in the Eastern Conference.
First up was the shape of the midfield, which came out in a 4-4-2 diamond. This is an unusual look for the Impact, who've generally been a 4-3-3 team throughout the years, and most especially in the last 12 months.
The idea behind the diamond is simple: It gets both Didier Drogba and Matteo Mancosu onto the field at the same time, and it puts Ignacio Piatti in a spot to play off of them, while at the same time providing a measure of defensive strength in deeper spots. All of that makes sense in theory, but in practice, it's a tough look to adapt to on the fly.
Hence, Montreal struggled to connect passes, especially through the midfield:
That's their network passing graph, made using Opta data. Each circle represents the aggregate position of the corresponding player, and the thickness of the lines connecting players represents the number of passes exchanged back and forth. Or in the case of d-mid Marco Donadel (#33) and shuttlers Calum Mallace (#16) and Hernan Bernardello (#30), not exchanged back and forth.
None of those guys got on the ball much, and when they did they didn't do much with it, and thus Piatti was a non-factor in possession. And thus because of that, Drogba and Mancosu were both cut off from a steady supply of the ball even before Ambroise Oyongo's 48th-minute red card, obviating the whole raison d'être of the lineup in the first place.
No diamond is supposed to work that way, and the Red Bulls exploited Montreal's lack of cohesion by moving their own stretches of possession inside, then outside, then back again. The idea there is to force the Impact to compress, then cycle the ball back to the flanks and take advantage of any space that's been vacated.
Thus, New York playmaker Sacha Kljestan pretty much never even bothered to get on the ball in the central channel, instead doing all his work on or near the flanks:
Diamond teams don't always have to control possession, but they do have to control the tempo of the game and where on the field it's being played. If they can't manage that the formation is too easy to pick apart -- which is why you almost never see it at the international level, since mastery requires repetition. And on the club level, teams that use it tend to work on the kinks in preseason rather than attempting a mid-year switch.
The second issue for Montreal was, to be blunt about it, poor play from the central defense:
That's literally the first play of the game. If Mike Grella had been a little quicker with his recognition, the Impact are down 1-0 within 15 seconds.
With Laurent Ciman, we can chalk that up as a blip. With partner Victor Cabrera, however, marking like this has become all too frequent:
Cabrera has talent, but he's been waaaaay too error prone since returning from injury. Go back and watch the goals Montreal have conceded over the past six weeks for evidence.
Over the last few weeks I've been inundated by tweets from Impact fans asking whether this team is one of the favorites in the East, and they've been kind of perplexed by my lukewarm answer to that question. Montreal have, unquestionably, a lot of talent -- Drogba's arguably the best player in the league, and Piatti the most exciting, and Ciman maybe the best defender, etc etc etc.
But it's now August and I don't know what this team's best lineup or formation is, and I'm not sure Mauro Biello does, either. I also know they're just 4-4-9 since mid-April, so they haven't improved really improved while the rest of the Eastern Conference heavyweights (RBNY, Toronto and NYCFC) most definitely have.