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March 11, 2016

Talking tactics: Union's defensive midfield situation just became complicated

That went downhill quickly.

Union captain Maurice Edu is out of commission for at least three months with a stress fracture, according to manager Jim Curtin.

Edu tops the depth chart at center back and defensive midfield, but his redeployment in the latter position was one of the bigger storylines of this offseason.

Tactically, it doesn't change anything from week one to week two. We all knew that Edu wasn't available for the season opener. But instead of looking for a stop-gap measure, Curtin is now faced with finding a long-term solution in the holding role.


1. Brian Carroll or Warren Creavalle?

The shape won't change, not after one game against one of the best teams in Major League Soccer.

The issue is how effective Brian Carroll can be in the role, and how long he can do it.

Against Dallas, we saw a Carroll that couldn't get comfortable with or without the ball. He took a smart tactical foul early, then spent much of the game trying to put out fires that were mostly started by his fullbacks and his midfield partners. Offensively, he tried a couple of long balls that didn't come off, and just seemed to be chasing the game like the rest of the team.

Carroll does have a good positional understanding with Vincent Nogueira. He doesn't try to do too much. He'll block passing lanes and use his veteran guile to simplify the game.

That worked fine in spot duty for a counterattacking team that still had Cristian Maidana on the field. But if the Union wants to evolve into a possession and pressing type of team, then I'm not sure what a 34-year-old veteran can really do.

On the other hand, Warren Creavalle seems like a bit of a wildcard at this point. He didn't get a ton of minutes last year, but the technical staff obviously saw enough to re-sign him in the offseason. There's no doubt that he can cover more ground than Carroll, but is he positionally and tactically sound?

It might be inevitable that Creavalle sees the field if your only other option is to ask Carroll for 90 minutes a game.


2. Can someone else play the role?

A lot of fans have asked me about this kind of shape, where Vince Nogueira or Roland Alberg drops deeper into the Edu role.

I don't think it works.

Curtin tried it in the first two preseason games and explained that it was sort of an experiment to make up for the predicted absence of Edu. The result was a decent, possession-styled shape that had trouble with counterattacks and lacked "bite" in the middle of the park.

It's true that Nogueira likes to play from deep, but his skill set is much different than that of the typical defensive midfielder. Nogueira is prototypical number eight, which is to say that he's a Xabi Alonso-styled, box-to-box ball mover. He wants to get the ball, cycle the ball, and connect the backline to the rest of the team. Nogs isn't a ball-winning tackler, and he's a small guy to begin with, so you're not going to shove him back there and expect him to clamp down on a Benny Feilhaber or Federico Higuain.

As for Alberg, he's not a number six, and I don't think he's really a number eight either. Highlights from Den Haag show him in the front three midfield spots, either as a CAM, a left winger, or maybe a right winger. Pulling him deeper does allow Ilsinho to occupy the #10 spot, but it creates an unbalanced team with a fragile spine.

When you look at the best teams in the league, and the best teams in the world, they all have a solid defensive midfielder. What would Barcelona be without Busquets? What would Leicester City be without Kante? What would Red Bull be without McCarty?

You get the point.


3. Does it Have to be a 4-2-3-1?


It doesn't have to be a 4-2-3-1, but that's the way this team has been structured for the past 3 years, and that's what most of these players are comfortable with.

Last week we talked about the 3-5-2, which basically adds a center back to the shape to make up for the absence of that midfield "hardman".

This one is the "Christmas Tree", which you really don't see a lot of in modern day soccer. The most famous comparison might be the shape that Carlo Ancelotti used during his AC Milan days. Terry Venables used the formation at Tottenham in the late eighties and early nineties.

Much like the 3-5-2, this shape vacates width for a bit more strength in the middle of the field. In this case, you'd have Creavalle or Carroll in their normal role, with Nogueira and Alberg on either side. You create a bit of a clog in the middle and ask your fullbacks to cover the flanks since you really don't have wingers on either side of the field.

The shape can be vulnerable to a decent press, and you still have two center backs on the field, versus the extra body you get in the 3-5-2. It would essentially address the Edu problem by shoving numbers into that area of the field.