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4-4-2: The Future of Orlando City?

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With a full off-season under Jason Kreis, expect the diamond midfield to make its way to the pitch.

MLS: Orlando City SC at Chicago Fire Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

After Adrian Heath was let go and Bobby Murphy’s brief run as interim head coach, Jason Kreis was hired on July 19, making him Orlando City’s second MLS head coach. While many believe the hiring is a step in the right direction, one question has yet to be answered: will Orlando City continue to play the style that it did under Heath, one of the club’s founding fathers, or make the switch to Kreis’ well-documented diamond midfield in a 4-4-2?

We’re 15 matches into the Kreis era, and there is no definitive answer to that question. Much of that can be contributed to no off-season or opportunity to bring in players that fit his preferred style. There were times when Orlando City played a diamond midfield, but it was clear that the current roster was much more familiar with the 4-2-3-1 that Heath rolled out on a weekly basis.

With a full off-season of instruction and a transfer window to shake up the roster, the 2017 season will provide the answer to how Orlando City will look to exploit opposing teams. Regardless of how the team lines up in 2017, it is crucial to understand the differences in the two approaches that we are most likely to see.

The 4-2-3-1

The 4-2-3-1 has become one of the most commonly used formations on the planet. Its ability to absorb pressure, allow creative players to express themselves freely, and attack in a variety of ways makes it an ideal system for a lot of clubs. The players’ roles and responsibilities are simple and clear, making it an easy formation to play without much familiarity. That fact, in and of itself, is probably the number one reason it is being used today by so many national teams.

Without the ball, the 4-2-3-1 provides stability and strength centrally, making goals typically harder to come by for opposing teams. The two defensive midfielders, along with the center backs, create somewhat of a box in which they will almost always outnumber the opposition by one. Most teams will throw a No. 10 and two center forwards into their vicinity at most, creating either a 4-v-2 or 4-v-3 in favor of the team defending in the 4-2-3-1. In addition, the compactness of those four players makes simple entry passes difficult to come by. Whether it be looking for an outlet for pressure or to play into the feet of a forward, playing through that box is not a simple task.

In addition to making things difficult in the defensive third of the pitch, or Phase 1, it lends itself nicely to teams that want to regain possession as quickly as possible. Many managers that apply the 4-2-3-1 also use the system as a way to apply pressure higher up the pitch without allowing space in front of their back four. Typically, the fear in pressing is that the team might get stretched out, leaving gaps for the team in possession to exploit. For example, during Jurgen Klopp’s tenure at Borussia Dortmund, he would apply high pressure out of the 4-2-3-1 with the security blanket of Sven Bender and Ilkay Gundogan holding down the fort in front of the backs.

Now that we have established the positives of the 4-2-3-1 from a defensive standpoint, it is important to realize its strengths in attacking. First and foremost, the three attacking midfielders are given license to roam in most circumstances.

As you can tell from the picture above, Matias Perez Garcia, Kaká, and Kevin Molino have the freedom to move about the attacking third as they see fit. Unpictured here is Cyle Larin, who has drifted wide right to provide the necessary width while Molino has filled in as the No. 9. Kaká and Perez Garcia have also changed positions, with the captain drifting wide left and MPG coming inside.

Unpredictability in the attack typically leads to confusion, miscommunication, untracked runners, etc., which bodes well for the team in possession. With the three attacking midfielders roaming around, the fullbacks are given the freedom to bomb forward due to the two defensive midfielders, or “double pivot.” The space in the flanks is created by the lack of true wingers but allows for any of the front four to combine with fullbacks to create crossing opportunities or to get in behind the opposing backs.

One additional advantage of the 4-2-3-1 that should not be overlooked is the ability to change systems into a 4-3-3 in attack or 4-5-1 in defense with minimal changes. In the attack, the two wider players of the attacking midfield trio can fly forward as out-and-out wingers to create a front three. On the other hand, if those three simply drop down to get more compact with the defensive midfielders and back four, they can form an extremely conservative 4-5-1.

The 4-4-2

Real Salt Lake predominantly played a 4-4-2 under Kreis all the way to an MLS Cup in 2009 and nearly a second in 2013. Players that were brought into the club were far from the big-money signings such as Kaká. Former RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey and Kreis worked together to find low-profile, hard-working, high-IQ players that would fly way under the radar but make an impact on the pitch.

Above is how Real Salt Lake lined up in their MLS Cup victory over LA Galaxy in 2009. While no big names truly stand out, the core of Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, and Nick Rimando made them perennial contenders throughout Kreis’ stint at the club.

Kreis’s 4-4-2 required constant movement to support the ball when in possession and to close down passing lanes in defense. The biggest advantages in the 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield is it will always outnumber the opponent in central midfield as long as the four stay compact and that it allows for a second forward to get on the pitch. What does that mean? That means it will typically allow a team to regain possession in good spots, and to retain positive possession with another player in the attacking third.

When looking at this set-up, it appears to be extremely narrow. If pinned in deep, that is most certainly the case. With that said, it was crucial that fullbacks got into the attack at every opportunity possible to give the necessary width.

The Diamond Midfield

At the peak of his RSL stint, Kreis would send out Beckerman, Morales, Will Johnson, and Andy Williams as his ideal midfield. Morales would serve as a true No. 10 while Beckerman was the lone defensive midfielder, also known as the “single pivot.” Johnson and Williams acted as what we call “shuttlers.” These types of players are typically the unsung heroes on their team for doing a lot of the dirty work with little to no recognition or impact on the stat sheet.

Johnson and Williams played these roles to perfection in 2009 constantly moving to support the ball when in possession regardless of whether the space was central or out wide. When possession was lost, they had to immediately get compact and close off passing lanes in the middle of the pitch. Their 90 minutes always consisted of covering a whole lot of ground to stay narrow in defense while supplying some width in the attack. Their work defensively also allowed for Morales to be a consistent pest to the opposition by being able to float about freely between their midfield and defensive lines.

Kreis was known for having the most compact midfield in MLS at the time while still playing an attractive, possession-oriented brand of soccer that Orlando City has been looking for since entering the league. The key to Kreis’s midfield was versatility. It was all about being able to find the space, wherever that may be, and showing up there at the right time to support possession. Players needed to be comfortable in possession and defending both centrally and in wide areas. To truly excel in the diamond midfield in RSL, there was no choice but to be a complete player.

Orlando City’s Future

Call me an optimist, but I believe that Orlando City should believe in Kreis’s system, and for good reason. It has proven to work at a level that the club has yet to truly excel at. If the club wants to reach a new level, it needs someone with new ideas, new approaches, and a new way of thinking. Kreis is exactly that person.

Real Salt Lake was consistently in contention from 2007-2013 without tinkering with the system. Year after year, their “Next Man Up” approach never seemed to fail, and that is a byproduct of their system and how well-versed Kreis is in it.

Realistically, Kreis needs time to buy and develop players that fit his system. With that said, we will likely still see the 4-2-3-1 at times along with the 4-4-2, but I fully expect the diamond to be a part of Orlando City’s soccer future. For Kreis to ultimately be successful, it is crucial that the club allows him to plays to his strengths. That diamond midfield machine that was so consistent in Salt Lake City would certainly be a start.