What difference does a formation make? For fans of US soccer it seems to make a great deal of difference. From every MLS team on to the US National team followers of the game will hear something along the lines of , "We really should be playing a 3-5-2, it suits our talent better..."
Tactical discipline can be a good thing. Rigid conformity can be a team undoing. I have seen games where a team has lost for lack of discipline. I can not think of any that demonstrate that a formation won the game. The only possible exception being the very cynical approach of Bora Milutinovic.
My memory recalls an article about John Spencer . Spenny was asked by Scottish press to give his impressions of MLS. He commented on the level of play being pretty good, athletic, and lacking in tactical sense. He ended by quipping about our affinity for formations. Commenting that us Yanks are, "Up their own arse a bit about it."
Where does our belief in formations come from? I reckon it can be blamed on two things. For younger fans, I blame video games. The various editions of FIFA 200x lead the player to believe that formation is the key.
The second point of blame, lies in our culture. We are all brought up playing hyper-coached games. Plays are drawn up. The clock is managed with the skill of a market timing day-trader. Players are situationally substituted. Rules are manipulated with lawyerly skill.
Soccer, by contrast, allows three subs, and a half time. Beyond that the players, play the game. The coach is limited to setting strategy, the starting lineup, three subs, and a half time pep talk. Is it any wonder that our culturally driven desire to micro-coach is obsessively focused on lineup?
The Rapids have caught the disease. Clavijo started the season playing a 4-5-1. The rationale was apparently to get two holding mids to cover for Christian Gomez' lack of defensive bite. It also scratched Clavijo's constant itch for more defense.
It worked only moderately well. The team won, but not because of any great forward play. Christian Gomez looked lost. Omar Cummings looked lonely.
Clavijo then switched to a hybrid 4-4-2. The hybrid part was the decision to play Nick LaBrocca as the ostensibly left mid. In reality Nick played in the middle as a holding mid alongside Pablo, providing cover for Christian. This worked moderately well, as well. Christian Gomez looked much more effective. It was clear that ceding the left side of the field from midfield to end-line did not have a future.
Finally, Clavijo took a big deep breath and dove in with the 3-5-2. Playing a three man back line must have been a huge leap of faith. Why not though, really? Cooke was hurt, and he really is not a candidate to cover the entire right side. Peterson has pace and energy. This approach worked about as well as the other two.
From my seat at Dick's it does not appear to matter which way the team lines up. The results have been about the same in each case.
There have been some things made clear in the shuffling process. First, Christian Gomez needs to play with two players in front, and play from a deeper position. Second, Omar Cummings needs a second forward. Beyond that, the rest of the team has been consistent - 88 minutes of workman like soccer with two minutes of brain hiccups.
The last item that has been made clear is that whatever the formation, the team seems married to the chalk board drawings. Adjustments are not made. Runs are patterned. Players offer themselves up as easy marks. Eventually, the defense is left with no better option than a hope-and-prayer long ball.
The Rapids best performances have come right after Clavijo has shuffled the formation. Creativity seems to follow for a game or two. Then by the third game the Rapids fall into a predictable routine that offers little challenge for the opposition.
For this up coming game against Dallas Clavijo needs to think about who has contributed, and get them on the field. Where he puts them is only secondary. Be it a 3-5-2, a 4-4-2, or a 4-5-1, it only matters that the numbers add up to 11.