It's something we've seen two years running in the UEFA Champions League - Arsenal vs. Barcelona, two teams that play football "the right way," "the beautiful way." When done correctly, and done so with the right players, the 4-3-3 formation is often looked upon and labeled as "total football." The formations don't matter near as much as the alignment in a 4-4-2, for instance. It's 10 outfield players on the field, all given the freedom to move about the field in ways they see fit as the moment presents itself.
Midfielders become attackers when their side is in possession of the ball and very much become defenders when not in possession, fullbacks become wingers with their side on the attack, and forwards are asked to log many paces in defensive support of the midfield in wide areas. The theory is simple: it's 10 players - 10 different moving parts - working off of one another, with each action there is a mandatory reaction from a teammate, filling the spaces left vacant by runs forward and working to win the ball back immediately.
In a day where many teams seem more than happy to play the back directly from the back and over the top to a big target forward, this style of play is always a joy to watch; and that's when just one team is playing that way. When you get two teams playing one another in mirroring style (and it is a style, not just a formation), forget about it, it's wide-open, back and forth, and free-flowing from one end of the field to another.
Arsenal and Barcelona are said to do it better than anyone else. But, New England Revolution and Sporting Kansas City do give it the old college try every week in Major League Soccer, and while maybe they do so without the same world class talent on the team sheets, it sure did make for one enjoyable game to watch on Saturday night, as New England came out with a 3-2 victory in a wild game at Gillette Stadium.
As stated, the 4-3-3 was prominent in this one. Sporting, for the third game running, started the same three players in the midfield and forward units, respectively, while they welcomed in a new addition to the backline - newly-signed French defender Aurelien Collin. It was the same sideway triangle of Birahim Diop, Davy Arnaud and Milos Stojcev in the midfield, and Kei Kamara, Teal Bunbury and CJ Sapong the three forwards across the top, from right to left.
New England also welcomed in a couple of delightful new additions. Midfielder Benny Feilhaber, signed this past Tuesday, was immediately inserted in the Revs' Starting XI, while Danish forward Rajko Lekic made his second start for his new team after signing just two weeks ago.
One curious change that Revs head coach Steve Nicol made to the adaptation of New England's 4-3-3 was playing traditional holding midfielder Shalrie Joseph as the midfielder just behind Lekic, giving him creative duties he isn't accustomed to having. This probably had a lot to do with integrating Feilhaber into the team and not putting too much onto his plate right away.
The Introduction Of Feilhaber
Feilhaber spent exactly one entire day with his new team before making his first MLS appearance as a starter on Saturday night. Nicol's usage of Feilhaber was pretty smart, given his lack of familiarity with his new teammates. As he has done to garner some credibility among US Nation Team fans, Feilhaber provide loads of support for the Revolution forwards, particularly Marko Perovic, whose goal he set up to open the game's scoring in the 13th minute.
1-0 To The Revs
It was the usually cool head (because his hair is so much shorter now, it must be cooler, right?) of Michael Harrington that made another half mistake at the back that lead to the opening goal in this one. Lekic played a ball in from the defensive right side of the box and Harrington, who had slid inside when Collin went wide, was wrong-footed a bit on an attempted clearnce that ended up going right to Feilhaber at the corner of the box. He laid it off to Perovic and it was one of the better struck balls so far this season that curled around Sporting goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen and into the back of the net. There are some shots that you're just not going to get to, no matter what.
Sporting Answers Quick, Kamara Makes It 1-1
This was a game that Bunbury probably had his quietest performances of the season in terms of shots and runs, but he was an absolute bulldog to be reckoned with with his back to the goal. So often he received the ball in attack ahead of everyone else and, using his strong frame and mentality, was well able to hold defenders on his back and maintain possession.
That's exactly how the equalizer in the 14th minute came about. When he picked the ball up near the attacking right side of the 18-yard box, back to goal, he made a nice first time touch pass wide into the path of Kamara. It was in typical Kei fashion that he flailed a foot left, flailed right, stepped in on his weaker left foot and struck (and nearly toppled himself over shooting completely off balance) a low hit ball into the bottom of the near post to beat Matt Reis.
The Difference In The Backline With Collin
The man is an imposing presence and ball-winning machine in the air. With Collin forming the centerback duo with Matt Besler, more often than not the Revs weren't able to simply pop the ball up over the top in the direction of the forwards and maintain possession going forward. Without hard numbers to back it up, Collin had to have won somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 percent of aerial balls that he challenged. That's major difference number one between Collin and regular starter Julio Cesar Santos.
Difference number two would be mobility. After having seen Cesar struggle so mightily in most ball-on-ground situations this season, Collin looked up to the challenge when attackers came at him one on one.
Difference number three: freedom to support the attack in wide areas for Harrington and Espinoza. In a 4-3-3, this is absolutely huge. Stojcev does the majority of his work in the dead center of the park. Kamara does well wide right up top, but as was evident by last week's sputtering offensive performance against Columbus Crew, the fullbacks need to be able to roam free. With Collin's steady hand (and head) at the back in place of Cesar, the fullbacks have much less concern to cover for the centerbacks. It's all a domino effect.
Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes has been well criticized since Saturday night for his substitution decisions in this game. Of moves made not dictated by red card, Stojcev gave way to Graham Zusi in the 58th minute and forward Ryan Smith didn't make his first appearance of the 2011 season until the 87th minute.
Had it not been for timing of events in minutes 69-82, Smith would have come on much earlier; most likely around the 70th minute. With Kamara converting a penalty in the 69th minute to take the lead 2-1, it immediately put a move for Smith into doubt at all. Having fought back from down 1-0 and now in the lead, it was time to protect a lead and bunker in. Obviously that didn't happen because New England equalized three minutes later thanks to Joseph, and before Smith could even get warmed and ready to sub in, the team was down to ten man, thus forcing a move for a central defender rather than another attacker.
The Effect Of Another Sporting Red Card
As soon as New England followed up Sporting's second goal, momentum immediately swung in the home team's favor, and was only increased tenfold after another familiar feeling for Kansas City. Having stated the positive effects of Collin's addition to the defense, it goes without saying that after he was sent off (wrongfully so, it appears) in the 75th minute, he was sorely missed. Shavar Thomas was subbed on in the 78th minute.
Thomas has made three appearance on the season, all as a 75th-plus minute substitute. In his 37 minutes of time on the field in 2011, the Sporting KC defense has conceded three goals; two in stoppage time to draw against Vancouver Whitecaps and the game-winner against New England. By no means can you say that Thomas is the on solely at fault for this stat, but there's something in mathematics about a "common denominator."
Beside the fact that Sporting were now without their best central defender of the year already, but they were obviously now down to 10 men, as well. Having conceded the quick equalizer just before Collin was sent off, the game felt very much headed for a draw and a well-deserved point for each team.
The math is simple: 11 > 10. When you have 11 players on the field to your opponent's 10, you are at a great advantage. One area of the game that an advantage like that comes into play is set pieces. Ideally in an 11 vs. 11 situation, you have a defender to mark every player in the box, plus one because of the player playing the ball into play. Sporting were down a man in the 83rd minute and Lekic simply beat Thomas (who was really nowhere near his man at all) to the ball and headed home for the winner.
No phantom red card, no Thomas, (likely) no goal. It hurts on the field matters, and must hurt team morale too, to keep going down to 10 men; especially when all three situations in which that has happened this year have been suspect-to-egregious decisions. When finishing a game with 11 men, Sporting KC are 1-0-1. When finishing with 10 men, they are 0-3-0. This is a trend that cannot continue, because it is costing the team games week after week.