There isn't a great name for this column. It's not the "five defining tactical trends of 2019," because none of them were trends. It's not the "top coaching moves of 2019," because they were more than moves. Rather, we will go with this: "Five Cool Tactical Moves That Worked and Maybe Others Should Copy in 2020."
The Stretched Buildout
One of the main evolutions in the last two years has been the rehearsed buildout pattern. When the goalkeeper or center back has the ball, the attacking team runs coordinated movements, something akin to a motion offense in basketball. The most common pattern involves a rotation of the three center midfielders. In 2019, we saw something new in Major League Soccer: New York City FC pushed their attackers beyond midfield to create an empty zone between the lines.
The idea is to push and pull the opposition as far apart as possible — remember the old adage, "you want to make the field as small as possible on defense and as big as possible on offense." NYCFC would have four attackers push the opposing defense as far back as possible, and their defensive midfielder would drop down near the 18-year-box, so there was often 40 yards of nothing in the middle.
Then the opposing defense had to make a decision: Do we stay squeezed forward to protect the space in front of us, or do we stick with NYCFC's attackers to protect the depth behind us? More often than not, the defenders would stay back, and NYCFC's attackers would dash back into the gap and receive the ball in space. They could then lay the ball off to an onrushing midfielder or turn and attack the defenders.
This tactic isn't revolutionary. The idea of setting up to build from the back only to bypass the first layer and play in the air to the strikers has been around for years — Manchester City have used it to particularly useful effect in the last few seasons. NYCFC, however, exaggerated all of it, pushing their attackers even farther forward and using this specific pattern the majority of the time. Don't be surprised to see more teams add some form of this Stretched Buildout to their repertoire in 2020.
The Triple Pivot
You've heard of the single pivot and the double pivot — a single defensive midfielder or a midfield duo function as the link between the defenders and the attack. FC Dallas took it a step farther and added their third center midfielder to form a Triple Pivot. Any of the three midfielders could get the ball off the defenders; any of the three midfielders could be the metronome in possession.
There were two main ways FCD did this. In the first, the most central player, usually Bryan Acosta or Edwin Cerrillo, would drop between the two center backs and create an overload against the opponent's strikers.
In the second, the center backs would stay tight and one of the free 8s, usually Paxton Pomykal, Brandon Servania, or Jesus Ferreira, would drop to the side of the center backs to gain numerical superiority wide. At times, they would do both in a single sequence, and all three players would act as the one moving the play from the defenders forward.
Like the Stretched Buildout, this isn't completely new. Center midfielders dropping between the center backs or shifting wide has been used for a while. Generally, though, both actions were reserved for a single or pair of defensive midfielders. We've rarely seen a team used their full midfield triangle in a full rotation, as Dallas did.
Will this become more popular? I'd be surprised to see it take hold next season. FCD frequently dominated possession, but they often struggled to create high-probability goal scoring chances. In an attempt to build possession from their defenders, they often lacked players in key spots farther up the field. If Luchi Gonzalez can find a way to fix that issue while maintaining their ability to dominate the ball with the Triple Pivot, look for the copy cats to come out.
If you've looked at this website at all this year, you've seen plenty of articles about Matias Almeyda's defensive system. Here's the gist:
Step 1) Find a player on the other team.
Step 2) Stay with him.
Okay, so it's not quite that simple. The Quakes used different lines of confrontation and pressing rotations to catch teams off guard, and there was always a free man, usually Florian Jungwirth, who had one of the toughest jobs in the league. But for the most part, it was a much simpler, and different, approach than anyone else in the league. No zones, no channels, just... That's your guy! Don't let him get away!
Again, Almeyda didn't invent the system. Man-marking dates back decades, and there was once a time when teams almost exclusively man-marked (yes, there was once a world in which zonal defending was a maverick concept). Marcelo Bielsa still uses a similar style, and most pressing schemes convert to man-marking after a trigger. But Almeyda is the only one go full man-marking all over the field in Major League Soccer in recent memory... and it's hard to decouple his system from the fact that the Quakes finished 23 points better this season with almost an identical roster.
Of everything on this list, this is the idea that could change the way games look the most.
Leaning Into the Super Sub
Here are two facts of the sport that we haven't fully figured out how to conceptualize:
Fact 1: The team winning at the 90th minute plus injury time wins the game.
Fact 2: The end of the game looks very different than the beginning of the game.
With those two facts in mind, isn't it strange that teams put out their "best" squads to start the game?
Ilsinho arrived to Philadelphia four years ago. For the first three years, the Union tried to get Ilsinho, one of the most talented players in the league, into the starting lineup. It didn't work. This year, they created a position specific for him: 60th-minute super sub.
When Ilsinho entered the game, the Union often changed their entire shape and approach for him. If the Union got to the 60th minute tied or within a goal, they had the advantage. They were more prepared for those last 30 minutes than anyone else in the Eastern Conference.
As a result, Philadelphia finished the season second in Goal Differential after the 60th minute, behind only LAFC.
Jim Curtin did a fantastic job of managing Ilsinho throughout the season. Nobody wants to come off the bench — players see the "super-sub" title as a slight — but Curtin found a way to build his importance to the game and make a sub the star. Everyone in the league knows that Ilsinho is the Union's most talented player. He only becomes their most important player, however, when he comes off the bench. Ilsinho's influence as a sub far outweighs his influence as a starter, and both he and the Union leaned into it.
I don't know how you could have watched the Union this year and not said to yourself, "we need an Ilsinho."
The Hyper-Active Midfield
Almost every team in MLS, and certainly the top teams, fields a star attacking midfielder. Nico Lodeiro, Maxi Moralez, Carles Gil, Alejandro Pozuelo (though he eventually got pushed to striker), Diego Valeri, etc. Even the Red Bulls use Kaku. Yet somehow the best regular-season team in league history went without one.
Bob Bradley took a different route with his midfield. Eduard Atuesta, Mark-Anthony Kaye, and Latif Blessing. There isn't a "traditional No. 10" in there. There isn't anything close to a "star". Instead, they are all solid passers and extremely mobile, smart and industrious. Even though they couldn't create the moments of magic that someone like Pozuelo could generate, they could still create chances. They just did it in their own way. LAFC completely suffocated the midfield and made it impossible to pass against them. They were more likely to create a chance via defensive pressure and transitions than a slick through ball (though they could do those, too). While Bradley often talks about replicating Pep Guardiola teams, his LAFC group took on a very Liverpool approach to their midfield.
All of this was helped by the fact that LAFC had Carlos Vela on the wing. LAFC still had an elite chance creator, they just opted to use him wide (as long as they had a healthy center forward on the roster, at least). This, to me, should be the biggest shift in the coming years in MLS. As the game moves more and more toward transitions, "playmakers" will get shifted wide and mobile vertical players will take over the middle.
Okay, so with all of that noted, we need to say this. It was a down year for "cool coaching things" around MLS. In the previous three years, it felt like coaches were pushing the envelope. The top crop of managers were trying to find the small adjustments that could give their teams an edge. This year felt flat. Few teams used ideas that sparked the imagination. Here's to hoping 2020 reignites that.