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Backpass: Is this a ‘New Look’ Rapids?

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Goals galore, a new formation, and a win. These are things for fans to get excited about.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Colorado Rapids
Thumbs up to you too, Shkëlzen.
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday was exciting. It was refreshing. It was confusing.

I’m not sure what to make of it yet.

Padraig Smith was open about the team needing to fine-tune the balance between defense and offense: turn up the volume on attack, even if it comes at the expense of the defense. As a result of that stated desire for change, Sam Cronin was sent to Minnesota, and Mohammed Saeid joined the Rapids.

And then, something unthinkable happened. The Rapids abandoned the safe, suffocating defensively-minded 4-2-3-1 for a more fluid 4-4-2. And boy did it work, as Colorado thumped San Jose, 3-0.

I really want to get excited about this new-look, two-way, offensively dangerous Rapids. But not yet. Just as it might be premature to abandon hope on the 2017 season after 7 games, it is equally premature to declare that Colorado is a team reborn with a totally new offensive outlook. There are things to be excited about, but there is also the possibility it was a temporary, one-time shakeup, or that we could return to losing right quick. Our next two matches are on the road and on short rest as we face Chicago Fire Wednesday and Philadelphia Union Saturday. Both would have been easy marks last year, but the Fire have been rekindled with Bastian Schweinsteiger, and the Union have 2 draws and 2 wins in their last 4 matches, and most recently beat DC United and Red Bull New York by a combined score of 7-0.

But let’s savor Saturday before we start worrying about the next match. There are a lot of positive signs to look at.

The New Style

Matt Doyle is all in on this Rapids look being a permanent switch, and I hope he’s right. I can’t really improve upon his analysis, if only because he wrote his whole column using header titles named after three of the greatest Beastie Boys tracks of all time. Also his explanation of how the Rapids used the 4-4-2 with a Y-midfield is pretty damned astute. Seriously, go read his article.

I asked him about the team’s attacking shape from his perspective on Sunday:

I think that’s spot on. I’m going to unpack that more with a lot of illustrations.

Here’s the Rapids Opta average position map from Saturday. This map illustrates an aggregate of all of a players touches on the pitch, along with lines demonstrating passes which are thick or thin based on the main players he connected with.

via Matt Doyle, mlssoccer.com , Opta

When Mr. Doyle talks about a ‘Y-midfield’, he’s looking at that positioning of 22, 8, 90, and 11: Micheal Azira, Dillon Powers, Mohammed Saeid, and Shkelzen Gashi. Powers could play a medium-deep position, just ahead of Azira, who both shielded the back line and shuttled the ball from the back line up to the front five.

But the cool thing: look how narrow Saeid and Gashi are! Our wingers are either typically much more wide or much less involved in the offense. In this game, Saeid and Gashi often picked up the ball in very threatening midfield spots.

Here’s a snapshot early in the game of what I’m talking about:

Positioning in the 5th minute.

Saied is off and running after a quick ball is played into him from Dillon Powers (walking directly behind him). Azira is behind Powers; Gashi is supporting Saeid to his right and would play a quick combo in with him before the ball gets disrupted by a panicked San Jose defense. Badji, as one of the two strikers, is playing right on the defensive line - holding those defenders up, allowing Alan Gordon to drop back into a little pocket of space. This kind of play developed all throughout the first half. This is pretty much the ‘Y’.

There is one other similar iterations of the Rapids attack, which I diagrammed below. I saw this a bunch of times; most often right after the defense recovered the ball:

4-2-2-2, Look 1

Sometimes, right after a turnover, you’d see Powers and Azira roughly next to each other. BOTH strikers would go and occupy the back four of San Jose, and Saeid and Gashi would open up to the ball alongside each other. If two defenders tried to cut off the pass from Azira to Saeid, he’d be able to go quick to Powers or straight to Gashi, or the fullbacks would push up to create another option.

Gordon could also drop into space to receive a pass, allowing Gashi and Saeid to get a little wider.

Or Gashi could be the one dropping deeper and into space, as he does here:

This pass in the 16th minute shows us one really good reason the Rapids have been terrible until this week: they didn’t have a healthy, full-strength Gashi lacing filthy, cut-out-three-defenders type passes. And although Saeid couldn’t settle this ball, he would show his value on multiple occasions in this match.

Simply put, the team exchanged a base of 6 defenders and 4 attackers, for 6 attackers and 4 defenders. It worked. This time. But fans need to brace for a new system having its weaknesses exposed as well. A 4-4-2 can be exposed by stretching out the lines - drawing the 4 midfielders forward, turning over the ball, and getting a ball into a player between the midfield and the defenders. The 4-4-2 can also be stretched horizontally, then overrun and outnumbered by a three-man midfield of a formation like the 4-2-3-1 or the 4-3-3. Hopefully this system provides the Rapids with more goals, but be prepared to yield more goals too.

Two Strikers are Better than One

I think one of the most consistent complaints by Burgundy Wave commentators with the 4-2-3-1 is its propensity to leave the lone striker isolated. Hey, I actually read the comments! Usually they are good. Sometimes I regret it.

They’re right - a lone striker can get left on a island. Recently we’ve seen Kevin Doyle or Alan Gordon playing the role, with a big part of their jobs being occupying the defenders, playing back to goal, and facilitating an attack from Mohammed Saeid, Dominique Badji, or Marlon Hairston off of the wing. In this system, it’s hard for this player to be productive, because they’re often lying in hard to reach spots for passes and are out numbered by 2, 3, or 4 defenders or midfielders at once. Looking around the league, only Bradley Wright-Phillips and Fanendo Adi come to mind as lone strikers that have scored a lot of goals, and both have teams that have a little more offense punch and a more play-making, free-floating creative winger than the Rapids.

Two strikers can really open up space for each other. Observe.

First movement of the Rapids goal in the 30th minute.

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Off a free kick and quick restart, Azira has played the ball to Dillon Powers, who bangs a 25-yard pass to Mohammed Saeid at the bottom of the screen. Saeid is free, at least in part, because right back Cordell Cato is trying to keep Alan Gordon honest when he drops into space. Meanwhile San Jose’s center backs Victor Bernardez and Fabian Jungwirth have to babysit Dom Badji. It all results in this:

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It’s also really in evidence below on that first great chance that Alan Gordon missed in the early going. There are two things to point out here: one, Marlon Hairston making a great run as a fullback; and two, look at how deep Alan Gordon (16) has dropped into midfield to receive a pass:

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He can only do that, again, because Badji is occupying the back line’s attention.

I like using two strikers, but having Gordon play the role of your drop-back, creative striker, a lá Giovinco, makes me nervous. Gordon is not Giovinco, yet he still did good when he dropped back into space. Also, the real effect of playing two strikers is that the second striker is replacing a second defensive midfielder, since Azira is now really the only guy left to hold the fort in midfield. It’s a trade-off that I’ll take, but again, this will blow up in our face a couple times this season, and we’ll have to accept that.

The Hairston Experiment

Marlon Hairston played as a right back for the first time this year, and he was great! His pace and attacking mentality made him almost a pure wingback, giving the Rapids the effect of running a 3-5-2 more so than a straight 4-4-2. The last time we saw Hairston in that role was briefly at the beginning of 2016.

Hairston hadn’t really been effective in 2017 until Saturday. He’s the biggest threat when he is running through the defensive line to receive a through-ball, or picking up the ball midfield and taking-on defenders with the dribble. Teams have scouted him and they know that, and have adjusted accordingly.

Moving him to fullback gives him the opportunity to run into space again; something that had been denied to him by MLS defenses so far this year. His pace and fitness means he push high and still get back in time to defend; it didn’t seem like he gave up much on the defensive side of the ball.

I’d expect this experiment to continue, but not be a permanent fixture. When the Rapids play a dangerous attacking team with a pacey winger, like David Accam or Ethan Finlay, I think Pablo might still prefer to use the more known-defensive quantity of Eric Miller. Hairston feels like a valuable asset as a guy that can play 15 games at fullback, 15 as a wide midfielder; both in alternating spurts as starter and sub. Through the first seven games of the season, he didn’t look to be a game-changing attacker. Perhaps his natural place is as a game-changing attacking fullback.

More Goals (Plural!) to Look at

The Rapids had the goal above, and also these a second and a third goal. And goal number three? Wow.

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The second goal is a classic Mastroeni high-press turnover goal, but it’s the kind of goal that the Rapids really hadn’t produced this year because teams were wary to the types of traps the Rapids liked to run and could either prepare for them or just play it long from the goalkeeper. Also, if your team has the fewest shots in MLS, then opposing goalkeepers don’t have to play the ball out from the back very much, now do they?

That third goal on Badji’s butt-assist is just phenomenal. More of that, please (amazing assists, I mean. Players should generally not be forced to make all passes while supine.)

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I’m very happy to see the team’s success, and I’m hoping that this is a newer, more creative Rapids. Or at least more tactically variable Rapids. I will not freak out if we go back to the 4-2-3-1, or play Hairston somewhere else on the pitch, or lose a game, or fail to score. It is all part of a process, and no one game has definitive meaning. But it feels pretty good to win again, doesn’t it?