Armchair Analyst: In praise of the 4-4-2 & more from MLS Week 22

The big turning point, if you really look at it, was the 1998 World Cup. Not because Zinedine Zidane was such a perfect midfielder (though he was) and not because Lilian Thuram was such a perfect defender (though he was) and not because France finally, once and for all, threw off their own history of big-stage failure.

All of that stuff mattered then, and hopefully will matter into eternity. That France team was great and Zidane was one of the greatest soccer players I've ever seen, and the same goes for Thuram and you could probably make more arguments further down the list.

Yet what mattered more was how they did it. That 1998 France side won the World Cup final over Brazil playing what wasn't called, but what essentially was, a 4-2-3-1. It was lopsided and weird and often played as a 4-3-2-1, but functionally, for the majority of the time, it looked and acted more like what we now, 20 years later, think of as a 4-2-3-1. And it was the dawn of a new age.

Since that moment that formation has largely usurped all others as the default formation in the world of soccer. There are and have been great teams playing out of other formations in the two decades since Zidane's France, and there always will be. But the majority of Champions League winners, on this continent and across the pond, have played some version of a 4-2-3-1. And the majority of Copa Libertadores winners have played some version of a 4-2-3-1. And ask 100 people to give you X team's Best XI, and 90 of them will likely spit out a lineup with a center forward, two wingers, an attacking midfielder and then what amounts to a back six. 

You can vary up how you play the wingers (inverted or out), fiddle with where you want the attacking midfielder to land on the playmaker-to-goalscorer spectrum, and adjust a million other things along the way. You're still probably talking about a 4-2-3-1, and you probably have been for the past two decades. In MLS the apex, the unquestioned saturation point came in 2015 when 17 of the 20 teams then in the league played primarily out of that formation. It is less dominant today, but still the look a majority of teams in this league and around the world use.

Twenty years ago, Zidane's France beat Brazil 3-0 in the World Cup final. And Brazil were playing out of a 4-4-2, which was then as popular/dominant/default as the 4-2-3-1 is today. Nearly everyone played from a 4-4-2, all hoping to emulate on some level Arrigo Sacchi's great AC Milan squads of the late 80s/early 90s.

However, as defensive gameplans have become more sophisticated and possession has become more strongly linked to victory, "let's sacrifice one of our forwards for another midfielder" has (understandably, IMO) become something close to conventional wisdom. So the 4-4-2, while not quite disappearing, has become a bit of a relic. There are still great teams that play out of it – Atletico Madrid probably the best and best known – but the word is some and not many.

It really does still have its uses, though. And this weekend was a good lesson as to the how, why and when:

A Two-Headed Beast

One of the great practitioners of the 4-2-3-1 in this most recent era of MLS has been Gregg Berhalter's Columbus Crew, who've spent about 90 percent of their time in that look since Berhalter arrived ahead of the 2014 season.

There's been much written – and much more to come – on how Berhalter's teams have played, and while a lot of it has boiled down to "He's created a system that gets his center forwards tap-ins," that does both him and his players something of a disservice. It's true that Gyasi Zardes is having the best season of his career finishing those tap-ins, and it's true that prior to Zardes, Ola Kamara had the two best seasons of his career finishing those tap-ins. And it's true that before them, in 2015, Kei Kamara had the best season of his career (and still one of the very best seasons of any MLS center forward, ever) by finishing those tap-ins.

But they've done it in measurably different ways. Gyasi has, at times, barely touched the ball, instead popping up in the area to finish off combination play from the midfield. Ola was a bit more involved in build-up play, and got a disproportionate amount of his goals by beating his defender to the near post for a one-touch finish. Kei was utterly, ridiculously dominant in the air, but also much more involved in chance creation (he had eight assists in 2015, while Ola and Zardes have combined for a grand total of five in the nearly three years since).

All of the above is to say that Berhalter's been subtly flexible and seems to have a very, very good grasp of his group's strengths and weaknesses, and how to slot them into the 4-2-3-1 to make them work.

That only goes so far, though. Sometimes you have to swap from subtly flexible to overtly flexible. And so on Saturday, in Harrison against the Red Bulls, Berhalter opted for a classic 4-4-2 instead of the 4-2-3-1:

Obviously it worked, as the Crew raced out to a 3-0 lead and then held on for a 3-2 win despite missing their centerpiece No. 10 (Federico Higuain).

On some level, Berhalter's hand was forced: None of the Columbus wingers have made any sort of argument that they're fulltime, starting-caliber players, and while Zardes has been good he hasn't been Josef Martinez-level "hey actually we only really need one guy who can score" good.

So you could argue that Berhalter had to put another true forward out there, had to put another guy with a great track record of finding chances and a pretty decent track record of finishing them on the field.

Whatever the motivation – and however much blame RBNY fans want to throw at Chris Armas for some weird choices like benching Kaku, playing Tyler Adams in attack and preferring Aurelien Collin to Fidel Escobar – what matters is that it worked.

The way it worked was by taking the philosophy of Berhalter's 4-2-3-1...

  • build from the back
  • possess through the middle
  • crush teams with bit switches
  • create penetration via overlapping fullbacks

...and marrying it to the principles of the 4-4-2...

  • one wide midfielder pinches inside early to (attempt to) playmake
  • fullbacks push up to support rather than push up to overlap
  • one forward or both has to provide the primary threat to run in behind
  • get two true goalscorers on the damn field

Sure, the second half was more than a little bit breathless and they're not going to grab a pair of set-piece goals every game. Nonetheless it was a very, very good win for Columbus, who've now pulled themselves out of an ugly slump with back-to-back 3-2 results over Eastern Conference foes.

True Colors

It's too early, following Saturday's 3-0 win over Chicago, to entirely buy into Toronto FC's renaissance. At the same time, you'd been foolish not to notice the team that just got a quartet of Best XI-caliber players (Justin Morrow, Jozy Altidore, Victor Vazquez, Chris Mavinga) back into the lineup is suddenly playing better soccer. 

There are still issues with the Reds, who had a sluggish start on Saturday while playing out of the 3-5-2, which probably remains their best formation long-term. But a halftime switch to a 4-4-2 – their version of it, which is a 4-1-3-2 – did wonders for freeing up the midfield to move forward as a unit, playing through Altidore to drag the Fire defense out of shape:

This isn't the most complicated sequence in the world, but TFC's system was built to play through Altidore. His hold-up play and passing give them A) their shape, and B) the ability to send multiple midfielders forward.

So after a first half in which the Reds created nothing, they played a second half in which they destroyed Chicago. Altidore's movement dragged defenders with him, and simple, accurate passes like the one above gave TFC constant 3-v-3s. Beyond that, the switch to the 4-4-2 allowed for Jonathan Osorio to get forward more often, and with more purpose.

When playing out of the 3-5-2, Osorio has to sit a little bit deeper and protect both the central zone and the sideline when one wingback or the other pushes into the attack. When playing out of the 4-4-2, Osorio still has defensive responsibilities, but the fullbacks are supporting him instead of vice versa.

Of note: Mavinga was a monster in this one. He's going to have to be the same over the next two weeks as TFC play at Atlanta, then host NYCFC.

Advances, None Miraculous

The Seattle Sounders have had a tough season, and by extension so has head coach Brian Schmetzer. The team's suffered more injuries than anyone other than TFC, they've looked flat and out of sorts more often than not, a couple of guys that couldn't afford to get old sure look like they've gotten old, and while it's too early to stick a fork in this group – this is Seattle, right? – the hole they've dug themselves was deeper and the play more uninspiring than it was in either 2016 or 2017.

Not anymore. On Sunday evening Seattle fairly easily handled NYCFC by 3-1 at CenturyLink, their third win in a row. It wasn't the most dominant performance ever, but it was largely very good and what made it an important performance for the Sounders was the way they locked it down.

Both on Sunday and in Wednesday's 1-0 win at San Jose, Seattle played out of the 4-2-3-1 with new center forward Raul Ruidiaz alone up top. This was mostly fine – two wins makes it fine – and understandable, but eventually it was time for an adjustment.

"Eventually" came a little over midway through the second half on Sunday with the Sounders suddenly clinging to a 2-1 lead in the face of a sudden NYCFC onslaught. Domé Torrent had made a slew of attacking substitutes, and Ruidiaz had become stranded.

Rather than protect the lead, Schmetzer decided he wanted to extend it. He subbed off one of his two defensive midfielders for another center forward with 15 minutes left, bringing in Will Bruin for Ozzie Alonso and flipping from the 4-2-3-1 to the 4-4-2.

In the first 30 minutes of that second half, Seattle had three shots. In the last 15, they had five. The most important of those was very simply a direct result of having two true forwards on the field:

Bruin's hold-up play and lay-off are obvious. Ruidiaz's contribution is less obvious, but still apparent: He's down at the bottom right, having captured at least partial attention of three NYCFC defenders. And that means nobody's around to step to Harry Shipp.

Granted NYCFC were on short rest and off a long flight, and without their defensive midfielder and star center forward. Granted.

But Seattle are unbeaten in six and have only been shut out once in their last 10, and it's starting to feel like this is a story we've seen before.

A few more things to ponder...

7. Josef is a force of nature. He got two more goals as Atlanta went up to Montreal and beat the Impact 2-1 at Stade Saputo, the first time they've won back-to-back games since late April/early May.

The Five Stripes scored 10 goals in July. Josef got nine of them.

6. Atlanta are one of two teams at 2 PPG or better. The other, following a 3-2 win at Sporting KC on Saturday night? FC Dallas. They suddenly have a death grip on first place in the West, with a six-point lead over second-place LAFC.

Oscar Pareja made a very good adjustment in this one, putting winger Michael Barrios up top in place of Maxi Urruti, who was pulled deeper to act as sort of an ad hoc No. 10. Urruti runs all the time, but almost never toward space – he's always moving toward the ball. Barrios is more direct, and so he was able to repeatedly get behind and punish SKC's high line en route to his first professional hat trick (which happened to be his first three goals of the year).

It was Dallas's first win in Kansas City since 2011. Future MLSsoccer.com columnist Bobby Warshaw scored the game-winner in that one

Sporting are kind of a disaster right now. They've lost four of five, have conceded 16 goals in their last six, and have only two wins in their last two-and-a-half months. Unless something changes they seem destined to spend another Knockout Round game on the road, hoping to break their playoff losing streak.

5. Our Face of the Week goes to one Wayne Rooney, who got a goal, a broken nose, five stitches and three points in D.C. United's 2-1 win over visiting Colorado:

D.C. didn't play well, but they won. They have 12 home games left, and probably need to win nine or 10 of them in order to make the playoffs. They'll have to play better – especially defensively – in order to get it done.

Colorado came out in a 4-4-2 diamond for the first time in MLS play under Anthony Hudson, and despite playing a CB at d-mid, and their d-mid as a No. 10, and two wingers at forward, they had their moments! One of my big complaints about Kellyn Acosta over the years was that he never seemed to find enough of the ball for Dallas – that a No. 8's usual job is to get a ton of touches and dictate where the game is played, but despite all his gifts he was never really that guy.

In his first game for Colorado, playing as a shuttler rather than a No. 8, he was very much that guy. Acosta biffed a penalty kick and misweighted a few passes, but he was all over the place, all over the ball, scored a great goal, and looked hungry to stamp himself on the game. Given how miserable this Rapids season has been by most every other metric, Acosta looking "up for it" has to count as a win.

4. RSL went to the South Bay and got themselves a point on the road – just their fifth of the season – thanks to a scoreless draw against the Quakes. Aesthetically, it was a less than pleasing game, in large part due to the early injury to and subsequent absence of Albert Rusnak. The Claret-and-Cobalt went to three defensive midfielders when Rusnak was subbed, and uh, it showed.

The Quakes had a fairly solid week defensively, playing two home games and conceding just once. Of course they didn't manage to score, so... 21 games played, 13 points, two wins. Starting to think seriously about setting some baaaaaaadddd records.

3. You can search pretty much every other spot on MLSsoccer.com for highlights from the Alphonso Davies show. The 17-year-old, just days after signing with Bayern Munich, took a chainsaw to Minnesota United with two (utterly spectacular) goals and two assists in a 4-2 win over the Loons.

But let me just shine a spotlight on this:

There was talk of the playoffs for Minnesota after their good run of results at home, but this... this is why I don't believe in that talk at all. Add in Ibson's weekly insanity – and it's really mutinous, and he's never called to account – and I just do not believe in this team's ability to win the games they need to win in order to punch their way into the postseason.

They're home against the Sounders next week before heading on the road for five straight.

2. Make it 14 unbeaten for Portland, who outlasted an exhausted Houston team in a 2-1 win at Providence Park on Saturday night. The Timbers are 9-0-5 in this stretch, with eight of the wins by a single goal. They have a knack.

They also had a special moment in saying farewell to Fanendo Adi, who came off the bench late to get the game-winner, and then an emotional goodbye to the Timbers Army.

1. And finally, our Pass of the Week goes to Ola Kamara for diming this cross right onto Zlatan's head in the Galaxy's 4-3 win over Orlando City:

Above and beyond everything I wrote above about a two-forward formation (the Galaxy play out of a 3-5-2, not a 4-4-2, but it still applies) is that oftentimes the best thing about it is just throwing two talented players out there and telling them to create, whether it's 2-v-2 or 2-v-3 or 2-v-5.

Sigi Schmid's best teams in Seattle – remember ObaDeuce? – did exactly that, and now LA's getting the hang of it as well. They still can't defend worth a damn but they're now officially the hottest team in the league with four wins in five, and unbeaten in nine.

Do what works. That's the best tactical approach.

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