One of the reasons that the move from Oscar Pareja to Pablo Mastroeni didn't look nearly as ill-fated as some people thought was because the tactics on the team essentially stayed the same from one man to the other. Attacking soccer, possession in the back and speed in the front, a 4-2-3-1 with a destroyer and a passer in the defensive midfield, a streaking left back and tons of chances created only to be foiled by mediocre finishing. (I'll admit that the last one there might not have been in the game plan.)
Pablo's first three games in charge of the Rapids followed that pattern. Pablo might have put a bit of a stamp on things -- he has lacked the negative road tactics we saw out of Pareja at times last year, and has been far more willing to mix and match his lineup -- but it wasn't really much of a difference overall from your average Pareja tactical makeup last year, at least to the layperson.
Against Vancouver, Pablo decided to, for the first time, veer way off into his own territory and gave the Rapids the biggest tactical shakeup since about a year ago, when Pareja first started using that 4-2-3-1 himself. This time, Pablo put the Rapids into a pinched-in 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield -- the kind that Real Salt Lake have used to great effect for the past five years.
Early returns on that 4-4-2 are obviously not horrendous, since the Rapids took a 2-1 win out of its first appearance. Will Pablo use it again next match, or was this simply a one-off experiment? Personally, I'd love to see him trot it out again when the Rapids play Toronto FC, because there was enough good looking stuff against the Caps to make me think it could be a very good tactic for Pablo's Rapids teams in the future. That being the first time we saw it though, there were some quirks. What worked and what didn't in that first appearance of this new tactical wrinkle?
Two Strikers: Let's face it, the majority of the players with star potential on this team are attackers, and playing with essentially only one true forward in the 4-2-3-1 sometimes hurt the potential of the attack. Gabriel Torres and Deshorn Brown were occasionally left on an island by the midfield (more on that later) but when they did hook up there was very nearly magic several times. Two-striker systems work for a reason, and the Rapids have such variety in their forward corps that they can put out all kinds of pairs depending on the situation. Need size? Edson Buddle and Deshorn Brown. Speed? You can pull out Marvin Chavez and Charles Eloundou. Finesse? Vicente Sanchez and Gabriel Torres, anyone? It's a great way to make sure the Rapids always have attackers up the field, and can allow for even easier interplay than we saw with the 4-2-3-1. That could turn into goals.
The Pivot Man: Last time that the Rapids played a formation that involved a single pivot-man, it was Oscar Pareja's ill-fated 4-3-3 back in 2012. Jeff Larentowicz held that position, and was absolutely awful. Jeff had always done better as part of a pairing and it was clear why that was the case when he got left to his own devices. He seemed more interested in tackling than passing, and very often was left out of position on counter attacks because that Golden Boot award in 2011 left him in an attacking mood. Now, the Rapids are absolutely awash in solid Number 6-type guys. Jose Mari, Nathan Sturgis, Nick Labrocca, Jared Watts and even Shane O'Neill can hold the pivot down, and not having Hendry Thomas any more means that we'll pretty much automatically see a cleaner affair from the man back there as well.
Too Much Similarity In Midfield: This isn't a knock on any of the four players who started in the diamond on Saturday (Jose Mari, Nathan Sturgis, Dillon Powers, Kamani Hill), but there's just too much similarity going on there to work out. All four of those guys are great possessors of the ball who aren't particularly pacy. Hill is a converted striker and so likes to get forward a bit more, Powers is the best playmaker of the bunch and Mari obviously has a belter of a shot when he wants, but all four still did just about nothing but possess the ball among each other on Saturday, while the flanks were wide open and absolutely begging for someone to make a run. Most of the time, none of them did; getting a Ned Grabavoy or Luis Gil type of guy who would add flair and unpredictability to the midfield would be a huge help. And for my money, placing Powers at the point instead of Hill wouldn't hurt matters either.
Defense, Left Back In Particular: This 4-4-2 is absolutely begging for Chris Klute. One of the remarkable things about Klute is that he is incredibly adept at getting forward and then re-appearing back in his defensive position in the blink of an eye. In a diamond 4-4-2, fullback play is necessary to create width, and Marc Burch was very adept at that half of the game, but defensively the entire team seemed shaken by the aerial game that Vancouver launched. With both fullbacks forward and Burch having trouble tracking back, the Rapids were stretched far too often by the speedy Caps forward corps. Some of it was simple mistakes by Shane O'Neill, and those will continue to improve as he does. But Burch at left back is always going to leave the team in a cardiac kids scenario or two every game if they keep this formation.
Should Pablo keep this 4-4-2? It's up to him to decide, but I think it's a very intriguing idea.