by Rapids Rabbi
After trying out a a 4-4-2 diamond midweek against Boca Juniors, the Colorado Rapids unveiled that 4-4-2 in a league match against DC United on Saturday. It is overwhelmingly tempting to look at this result and the change in formation and lineup, and chuck it all in the bin and say ‘new look, same results’. In fact, as is customary at this phase of a season, when there is little to play for and hope is snuffed out, and say ‘why bother?’
But soccer; losing soccer; bad soccer; soccer without hope for a trophy at the end; is still worth thinking about it. We lend meaning to those things we find interesting. So let me invest a little in our game against DC, at least to get my synapses firing about football.
The straightest line between two points in this game is to write that Tim Howard lost this one for Colorado. Certainly the first goal, and probably also the second, could have been saved. Should have been saved. And weren’t. Howard’s advanced metrics peg him at 14th in MLS among regular starting GKs with a -1.06 Ga-xGA, meaning he is essentially 1 goal better than the average MLS goalkeeper using data collected on shots and goals in 2017. But the eye test says differently, at least this game. He’s great at knowing when to come out and get big, great at positioning himself in goalmouth to cut down shooting angles, great at claiming balls in the box. He is not great at reaction saves, as is evidenced by getting megged by Wayne Rooney as DCU went up on Colorado with this shot.
(I’m going to be spending a lot of time on this 8 seconds in the match - the whole damn article, actually - so it might be a good idea to paste this link into a new tab so you can refresh your memory. https://matchcenter.mlssoccer.com/matchcenter/2018-07-28-dc-united-vs-colorado-rapids/details/video/164846 )
Hey, this happens to the best of keepers from time to time. But it's happening more often than is comfortable for Howard. Nonetheless, let’s go back a step. There are three other things to look at in this goal that were failures, and writ large, they are endemic of the overall problems that plague this team this year. Working backwards, they were:
- Tommy Smith’s defending
- Danny Wilson’s reaction as the defensive midfielder
- DC United exploiting the core weakness of the 4-4-2 diamond.
Tommy is trying to keep his man in front of him, but Wayne Rooney beats him. He beats him because Tommy turns to the ball side and loses Wazza over his shoulder, which isn’t great. There are two other problems here. The first is that when Tommy turns and loses Rooney, it results in him moving away from him rather than to him. He can’t see him, and so when the pass comes in from Luciano Acosta, Smith’s in no position to make a play. Second, Tommy’s defensive decision is a bad one. He decides to lunge at the ball as it comes in to Rooney’s feet. It needed to be timed perfectly; it wasn’t. Tommy trips, and now Wayne is effectively in on goal alone. Smith had an alternative here - don’t lunge at the ball, stay in front of the man and keep moving his feet. In retrospect, that probably would’ve worked better. Defenders get beat like this sometimes - that entry pass from Acosta is fantastic - but great defenders make game-saving plays. Tommy Smith is normally good and reliable, but he, like Tim Howard, has made his share of mistakes that have been costly. His performance to this point certainly wouldn’t put him on any end-of-year ‘best xi’ lists.
Then, there’s Danny Wilson (#4 below), a centerback who is getting a chance to try things out as a defensive midfielder. His positioning and reaction on this play was bad, to say the least.
In short, he’s lost here, and he also reacts slowly. He needs to decided very quickly here whether he should go mark an open man or cut off a passing lane to a player. He runs to Zoltan Steiber, leaving Acosta open and also not closing down the pass to Acosta. Then he reverses towards Acosta, leaving Steiber and not closing down the pass into Rooney. He does both of these things at three-quarter speed. It looks like a play by a guy who doesn’t quite know what to do as a defensive midfielder, at least not in a split-second. In 2018 there have been four Rapids players who are better equipped to be tasked with this role than Danny Wilson: Jared Watts, Micheal Azira, Jack Price, and Kellyn Acosta. Watts was deemed extraneous and unloaded on Houston. Azira was loaned just the other day to Colorado Springs, and my assumption is that other than of a spate of injuries to regular players, we will not see him suited up in burgundy ever again (which makes me sad). Price was pushed up to the top of the diamond as an attacking midfielder, and Acosta was pushed wide as a shuttler.
The quibble over Acosta’s position is minor: sure I think he’s better at the base of the diamond, but he was on the field and if there had been another loose ball in another place and it’s him that needs to make a play here and not Wilson, I think he makes it. The other three, I don’t understand. Even if you aren’t a Watts fan, to my mind he’s been a better player all around than Wilson, and he’s more experienced at defensive midfielder. Azira too: he was great in 2016 and 2017 at cutting off passing lanes and harassing ball carriers. Jack Price is a natural defensive midfielder, but by moving him into an attacking position, he’s unable to jump in on this play. If you have a Jack-Price-clone to play the base of the diamond, I’m not opposed to trying Jack as your creative mid with some defensive bite, especially if you are going to press the opponent constantly, as the Rapids did. But Danny Wilson did not comport himself as ‘Jack Price Jr’ in this match, and in particular, not on this play.
Finally, there’s the matter of the 4-4-2 itself, as brought to you by the team's coach, Anthony Hudson. The principal weakness of this formation in the modern era of football is the demands it places on that one defensive midfielder. He becomes, in this formation, the most important player on the pitch, since he starts the attack, shields the backline, connects the other players, and must reacts to any and all mistakes. If you are going to play the diamond, it helps if your d-mid is a standout player on your team. Notable examples of this person include in-his-prime Kyle Beckerman; in-his-prime Michael Bradley; in-his-prime Jermaine Jones; current Ngolo Kante; and current Diego Chara. They can lock down that 'pure six' job and just destroy. Other players, though, they need support in defense. That’s why the 4-2-3-1 came into vogue: it’s a formation that allows you to be bunkered and defensive with two defensive mids, or have a pure defending ‘6’, another box-to-box ‘8’, and then put a creative ‘10’ in front of them.
Tony Hudson’s (nobody really calls him ‘Tony’, but I'm doing this alliteration thing, ok?) Rapids had rolled out this 4-4-2 for the first time in a league match against DC, and it was, uh, rough. Defensively it was good enough; the backline was pesky, the front three pressed DC into a few rushed turnovers; and then it kind fell apart in spots.
Offensively, though, this formation wasn’t working on this night. The Rapids passing success rate in the opposing half was a paltry 64%, and getting across the center stripe was difficult unless the ball was sprayed out to Edgar Castillo. The central four of Price, Acosta, Blomberg, and Wilson were a mixed bag of passing. Price was 56 for 64 on passes, but many were one-touch passes while facing backwards. Kellyn Acosta was a stellar 42 for 44. Johan Blomberg, on the other hand, was an irrelevant 13 for 22, and the deep-lying Wilson was a poor 47 for 66 with most of his successful passes being safe little dinks backwards. Overall, all four of those key midfielders had only 1 key pass - a pass resulting in a shot - all game. The midfield didn’t find the right rhythm or spacing, and was most useful when it just gave the ball to Edgar Castillo, at which point they became more-or-less irrelevant to the attack. This is a recurring trend we saw in the 5-3-2 and the 5-2-2-1. Switching formations has not resolved the problem.
I’m quite happy that the manager rolled the dice on a new formation. I think it could work, and I really liked the idea of trying something different. It will take a few weeks, and right now the club is facing a lot of obstacles, as they try to break in a new midfielder, find some missing momentum, and discover a reliable scorer. Colorado needs to dig deep and find something - several somethings - from unlikely places. Goalscoring from Giles Barnes or Sam Nicholson; dominance from Tommy Smith or Danny Wilson; a game-breaking renaissance for Kellyn Acosta. The season itself is probably lost. But perhaps there is something yet the club can discover to make some aspect of 2018 salvageable.