Talking Tactics: Three new coaches, three takes on the 4-4-2

Steve Davis analyzes Backe, de los Cobos and Nowak

Peter Nowak, Philadelphia Union

Photo Credit: 
Getty Images

So now we know. We had hunches and suspicions about how three particular
debuting managers would align their sides prior to MLS opening weekend—but you
never really know until you know. You know?

New York’s Hans Backe and Chicago’s Carlos de los Cobos were
new managers to MLS. We’ve seen Peter Nowak’s handiwork before at D.C. United,
but now he pulls strings at expansion Philly, which is clearly a whole new jar
of Cheez Whiz. (Nowak, in particular, approached his selections of personnel
and tactics with a “State Secret” level of caution.)

In preseason, Backe had shown himself to be a 4-4-2 guy, and sure
enough, Sinisa Ubiparipovic and Joel Lindpere were central in a “straight line”
four-man midfield.

Across the field, de los Cobos opted for a diamond midfield.
Logan Pause screened the defense while Peter Lowry, and later, Baggio Husidic, worked
closer to the strikers. So much for innovation.

Nowak also went with a 4-4-2. Here, it wasn’t the alignment
but the choice of personnel within that alignment that drew attention—and
reminded everyone that it’s more about players than tactical deployment.

Philly started Michael Orozco and Danny Mwanga in the middle.
Orozco is a defender, inserted awkwardly and surprisingly into a central
midfield role. Mwanga is a forward, inserted awkwardly and surprisingly into
the same. All of Mwanga’s scorer’s instincts, all that size, skill and
athleticism seemed wasted on a player clearly not comfortable with the 360-degree
bustle encircling him in his first pro game.

Regardless, Philadelphia’s shape and personnel were never
going to matter so long as Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso was lurking. The Sounders’ little
fireball of a defensive midfield destroyer was all over the place, back to his
early 20009 best. So Mwanga and Orozco, stationed centrally opposite Alonso and
Brad Evans, were at a loss from the word “go.”

Notes from the Chalkboard:

San Jose manager Frank
Yallop
made a great adjustment at halftime, removing one his brainy little
skill saws in the middle of the park in favor of a sledge hammer. Brazilian Andre Luiz and Argentine Javier Robles started centrally in Yallop’s
4-4-2. But they were being out-worked and pretty much out-everythinged by Kyle Beckerman and Will Johnson, who was stationed nominally wide left but worked
inside liberally. So Robles came off for Brandon
McDonald
, who added considerable steel and effectiveness.

Problem was, San Jose already trailed by two goals at that
point.

It will be interesting to watch Collins John and Brian
McBride
play in tandem in Chicago—though de los Cobos has said he’s not
sure if he’ll do it. The pair partnered formerly at Fulham, but the reality is
they might cancel each other out. John likes receiving service with his back to
goal and the ball at his feet—a classic target man. If a defender is crawling
up his shirt from behind, well, he seems OK with that. And we know this because
he spent significant portions of his MLS debut (as a sub) reminding his Chicago
teammates through word and gesture. McBride, of course, is also a classic target
presence. So, de los Cobos either must find a way to blend their similar skills
or stick with Patrick Nyarko in the big-man-little-man combo he started with
against New York.

Geoff Cameron’s
first run-out as a central midfielder? Eh. He never really found the game,
although he did finally pinpoint a couple of moments after the intermission to
stretch those long legs and run at FC Dallas’ defense.

Remember all the talk of Landon
Donovan
finally gaining a settled role? For LA late last year, for Everton in
the winter and for Bob Bradley’s national team, Donovan has recently spent his
time out wide on the left. It has worked brilliantly. So in the Galaxy’s 2010
MLS opener he was … yep, at striker. Donovan partnered Edson Buddle at forward while
Eddie Lewis
lined up on the left and Mike
Magee
on the right. Go figure.

Backe wants his fullbacks getting forward, adding pressure
through extra numbers. Roy Miller
listened. And how. He pushed forward liberally, overlapping left midfielder Danleigh Borman. And Chicago midfielder
Julio Martinez never made Miller pay
for it. Say what you will about former Fire attacker Cuauhtemoc Blanco, but he’s the kind of player who would have
noticed and exploited Miller’s risky bravado.

Rapids boss Gary Smith provided the week’s surprise, inserting
Marvell Wynne into the center of Colorado’s
defense, alongside Drew Moor. This
meant Kosuke Kimura kept his spot on
the right for now. Wynne looked good, using that trademark recovery speed to
atone for occasional slipups. (Although Wynne was lucky not to concede an early
penalty kick when he ran down—literally—Chivas USA’s Maykel Galindo.)