10 April 2007

Urban to United: "Ugly Ugly Ugly"

Normally I write these lists where I point out three to four stories and offer a few comments on each. Today I see a bunch of stuff that's interesting, most of which merits its own post in response. So I'll try and get to each with a post, but first some quick hits: DCU draft pick Ricky Schramm has signed with Richmond. United has again gotten Spanish language radio signed up at WACA 1540AM. And Emilio is up for Goal of the Week honors, but personally I'd go with Sacha Kljestan's strike myself.

Now, on to business...

Bill Urban calls out D.C. United in his Week 1 review at U.S. National Soccer Players. Some highlights:

Bad: Christian Gomez. After opening United's CONCACAF Champions' Cup campaign with two goals against Olimpia, Gomez has become less of a factor with each successive match, and was virtually a passenger against Colorado. Not the best way to earn a larger contract, or to attract suitors from foreign clubs either.

Now, I think Gomez was moderately effective against Chivas in Leg #2, but the point is probably correct. Gomez disappearing does not help. With all the concern about Moreno and fixture fatigue, Gomez, too, is occasionally prone to fading away when tired legs meet tough, physical marking. It's not just disappointing, it can be dangerous. Gomez helps us hold the ball, and when that isn't happening then every miscue from the defensive midfield, and the natural weaknesses of a three man backline, become all the more apparent. Which brings us to the second call-out from Urban.

Bad: Playing a 3-5-2 formation in Dick's Sporting Goods Park. When your back three are less than nimble and the field width measures at a healthy 80 yards, there will be trouble. Fernando Clavijo clearly did his homework, with Colorado's wide midfielders doing plenty of damage to a United side that simply had no answer to the pace of Herculez Gomez and Terry Cooke.
Here's where I dissent. Urban is clearly seeing the acres of the space afforded to Cooke and H. Gomez, and concluding that a three-man backline is to blame. That's not how I see it at all. Consider: Two goals, one off of a corner kick where marking was more to blame than anything, and the other off of a build-up that came up the middle. Yes, Gomez and Cooke were finding some space on the side, but that space was more illusory than real. Erpen and Namoff, assisted by Moose and DeRoux, were able to contain these mini jail-breaks, exactly as they are supposed to. The real problem was that the 3-5-2 gave no advantage in holding the ball around the midfield stripe. If there was any defensive weakness that was exploited, it resulted not in the goals, but in the seven corner kicks that United surrendered. (But one of those corner kicks after wing penetration led to the goal. Doesn't that undercut your argument? Yes, a bit, but the argument that Urban is making was that the 3-5-2 is deterministic in a bad performance given United's personnel. Given that my problems with the team were in distribution from Carroll and others in the back, and poor passing in the middle, as well as overly relying on Emilio, I don't blame the 3-5-2 for that. I blame execution, and feel that this personnel could have made a 3-5-2 work. Now, perhaps another formation would have been better, but that's not the argument advanced either.)

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At 10 April, 2007 11:44, Anonymous bdr said...

How much of Gomez disappearing is caused by opposing teams marking him with two players always, three players as soon as he touches the ball? If you're game-planning United, stopping Christian Gomez is goal one.

I suspect if United gets some decent play out of one - imagine both - of its wing mids you'll see a lot more effective Christian Gomez.

At 10 April, 2007 14:51, Blogger D said...

Oh, I think it is a big part of it. But to me the issue wasn't so much the wing play as it was the overly direct approach to Emilio. Decent wing play won't happen unless Olsen and Carroll feel they can distribute to the wings as well as Gomez and Emilio.

At 10 April, 2007 16:00, Blogger The Manly Ferry said...

For my money, you nailed the execution problem when you noted that DC's 3-5-2 failed to help with possession in the middle of the park as it's supposed to do. But I thought Urban was on to something in questioning the fit between personnel and formation; as you noted, it did lead to one goal, if only indirectly, but the way you've got the flank mdifielders chasing down the wings to support those harried defenders contributes to that first problem.

Anyway, my opinion, or Mr. Urban's for that matter, is hardly definitive; it's just something to consider and time will give a better feel for where the issue lays.

At 11 April, 2007 09:13, Anonymous Bill Urban said...

Day late, dollar short, and all that. And i thought it was only two uglies?

DCent, or in this case D-ssent, I suppose, duly noted, but despite the points you raised, three defenders marking zonally are always going to struggle on a pitch that wide, and three as slow as Boswell, Erpen and Namoff even more so.

I never really bought into Nowak playing a back three with those players. The poor passing and possession that you mention can be fixed and probably will be this weekend when KC come to town.

Boswell, Erpen and Namoff will definitely not be any fleeter of foot, though. What keeps coming to mind is Boswell's failure to cover Erpen when Chivas scored [Toby Charles] the equaliser! [/Toby Charles].

One might argue, and I would be one of them, that the system was more at fault than either Erpen or Boswell. Erpen was beaten by stepping up too aggressively, but perhaps he expected that Boswell would provide cover. But Boswell was clearly caught in two minds as to whether to cover Erpen or stay with Bautista, got caught in between in no man's land, and...

The distances on either side between the wide defenders and the sole central player are simply too big. Whether another central defender comes in or a wide defender arrives and allows Erpen to play centrally, United need the option of being able to play a back four for matches like the two most recent ones, where the space is simply too wide for their current three players effectively to cover.

More possession is not going to shrink the spaces between Boswell and his wide defenders; neither is it going to make any of the three any faster.

One solution, for the sake of tactical variety, is already available. Gros could play as a wide defender. He was not an option on Saturday, but the failure to play and become comfortable with a back four including Gros as a wide defender is a very much a limiting factor for United.

Sticking with the space theme, the reason that the nominally superior Gomez, Olsen and Carroll were dominated in the centre of the park by Beckerman and Kirovski was that Colorado packed their own half, with Brown and Hernandez doing a good job at alternating pressure on the back three with laying off and tackling back on Carroll and Olsen.

Denial of space, in other words, and United had no answer. Had they circulated the ball more rapidly, and yes, I can hear Van Gaal and Van der Lem applauding from across the pond, they might have been able to spring Gomez into space more frequently.

This sort of tactical problem, quicker ball circulation, can be fixed, and might have sprung from nothing more than fatigue, altitude, and being away from home for such an extended period. Those are not excuses, they are facts correctly noted after the game. It is difficult to play the possession stuff under those conditions.

However, and no one with United ever points this out, the inherent weakness in the prevailing, "this-is-how-we-play" attitude is that when either things such as the above circumstances or the other team's tactical adjustments make keeping it very difficult, United struggles.

Being able to switch things around tactically, playing a back four, dropping deeper themselves, looking to counter, would give Colorado or other clubs something else with which to deal.

The stubborn persistence with a back three is symptomatic of a deeper prevailing mindset at United. When United are on form and on song, they can beat anyone in the league. But, when faced with teams whose coaches have done their homework, and both Chivas and Colorado appear to have done so, United don't appear to have any sort of a Plan B.

It was only the first match, and United was missing a very important, leather-lunged Gros, who would have done much to prop up the back three through his endless, metronomic touchline running.

But none of that changes the conclusion, and it is only an opinion, as the Most Manly of Ferries correctly noted, that a back three, particularly one with relatively slow players like those for United, will struggle playing on a very wide pitch.

At 11 April, 2007 09:35, Blogger D said...

Bill --

The more I think about it, the more you may be right. I think I interpreted your argument as "a 3-5-2 is doomed to failure" when what you were arguing was "why play a 3-5-2 when that will cause you so many problems?" And I agree, there certainly are problems especially on a field that big, and with backs that aren't particularly fast (only Erpen has real speed, and he sometimes relies on it too much).

So, to the larger point of "Is a 3-5-2 really the best way to go?" I think you're right: Maybe it is time to consider some other options.


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