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Can a change of formation turn Republic around?

With the goal drought now at 4 games, we need a drink.

Sacramento Republic FC’s goal drought is now four games long following a 0-0 draw against a weak Vancouver Whitecaps 2 side that ended a three-game losing streak. In my last column, I took a shot at proposing some player changes that may help in attack. While we saw Blackwood move back into the starting XI on Saturday, no new personnel were deployed in a sterile match that felt much the same as Republic’s previous goalless draws. Perhaps, then, a change in tactics is needed to provide a spark.

I had originally wanted to just write “4-3-3” across the page one hundred times—Bart Simpson chalkboard style—but while satisfying to the writer, it would not give a lot of context to the readers. Instead, let’s start with what 4-3-3 means.

In “soccer talk” (technical/scientific term), the position of players is described numerically from left to right, starting with the back line, then the midfield, and then forward positions. The Republic currently deploys a 4-4-2, meaning there are four defenders, four midfielders, and two forwards. In this kind of formation, the midfield is marshaled by two central midfielders who are flanked by two wide players. On the other hand, a 4-3-3 formation uses four defenders, but has three midfielders and three forwards, two of whom play out wide. A 4-3-3 formation will have 3 central midfielders steering the center of the pitch, rather than the two seen in a 4-4-2 style.

To over-generalize, a 4-4-2 formation will offer less control of the midfield than a 4-3-3. Now, that is not a good or bad thing on its own. Coaches can choose systems to meet a variety of needs. Coach Buckle currently emphasizes moving the ball quickly up the pitch using passes from the goalie/center backs directly to the forwards, or through the wide defenders taking the ball up along the touchline to put in crosses. In this system, a dominant midfield is not necessary, as it is essentially bypassed in attack. We often see two defensive minded players selected next to each other in the center of the pitch. Jeremy Hall and Agustin Cazarez were deployed last game in this manner.

Cazarez’s passes vs VWFC2 4-29-17. Completed passes are in green, incomplete in red. Note most passes are sideways/backwards.

This helps break up opposition attacks, and in theory, gives the center backs extra coverage while the wide defenders are contributing to the buildup. However, playing in this style is not reaping benefits for the Republic. Despite putting in a league-leading amount of crosses, SRFC is no better at converting those than any other team. SRFC is a rather short-statured team, and perhaps this approach is not playing to our strengths.

I believe Republic’s core competency is on the ground, rather than in the air. The team is packed with players who are skillful with the ball (Harry Williams AKA Prince Of Quails, Wilson Kneeshaw, Hall) artistic passers (Barrera, Daniel Trickett-Smith, Emrah Klimenta), and powerful, tricky runners (Blackwood, James Kiffe, Elliott Hord and even Cazarez). Combination passing on the ground between players through the midfield should become more of a team emphasis.

A formation change to a 4-3-3 could enable SRFC to play in this manner effectively. A three-person midfield in this formation is shaped like an inverted pyramid, with a base defensive midfielder, and two more creative/attacking midfielders ahead of them. The midfield in this case is narrow; players will generally be in the center 13 of the field. I would love to see an aggressive, attacking trio of Hall at the defensive spot, Barrera just ahead to the right in his usual quarterback role, and perhaps Trickett-Smith a bit to the left as the most forward/attack-minded of the three.

The forward line would have three players, as well. A central striker is flanked by two wide attackers, often referred to as wingers. Blackwood should continue his starting role out to the left. He has shown great power and pace each time he has started. If his finishing can improve a bit, Blackwood will be an absolute terror to opposing back lines. Wilson Kneeshaw is my preferred striker in any lineup and he should flourish with more support from a pair of good passers just behind him in midfield. On the right wing, Harry Williams would be a scoring threat who also has good control and speed. Gabe Gissie can also offer up some quality in either wing position and I don’t think I would be the only fan who would welcome the local talent back on the field. These forwards are all highly mobile and can drop short, sprint ahead and switch positions fluidly. This movement would allow for good link-up between the forwards and the midfield. Kiffe, Hord, and Klimenta would all still provide dangerous passes and runs from wide fullback positions, but more crosses should be in the form of “cutbacks.” These are passes on the ground that aim to “cut back” across the 18 yard box for on-rushing attackers that can either be the midfielders who ghost into attack, or the wingers who have pinched in as the fullbacks came up. Either way, there should be lots of options staggered around the opposition goal, eagerly awaiting a dangerous low cross.

That said, a formation change is a pretty big deal and should not be approached lightly. Fortunately, a change in the style of play; towards a more central attack with combination passes staying on the ground, can be implemented with the current 4-4-2 and starting XI. I think this approach would bring out the best in Republic’s players, as it highlights their intelligence, skill and play-making ability.

With four goalless games in a row, should the Republic change up their style of play? How about the formation? Let us know what you think in the comments below!