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Backpass: The 4-3-3 Blues

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We’re playing a new formation, and it really isn’t working. Why isn’t it?

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Los Angeles Galaxy Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

With the Rapids out of the playoff picture (practically, not officially - the Rapids are still listed by fivethirtyeight.com as being a >1% to make the playoffs) it seems almost pointless to spend time trying to understand what isn’t working. But that’s what I’m going to do.

There are three fundamental problems.

First, the team’s personnel aren’t performing particularly well at their given roles. Our midfielders don’t connect the front to the back. Our defenders are getting beat, individually and as a unit. The attacking three don’t penetrate the 18-yard box to generate shots. Those are all significant problems.

Second, there is a crisis of belief. Losing creates a psychological fear that embeds itself in the players and makes them perform differently. They hold back the pass they might have made otherwise, because they’re unsure. They second-guess instincts that hitherto-fore were second nature because they know things are working. That problem is magnified on the road, and is also magnified with a new coach, not because Steve Cooke is bad, but because he’s trying to figure stuff out too.

Third is a new, tactical problem, that I’ll spend a little time on now. The team changed formation when Steve Cooke started, to a 4-3-3. It was supposed to help the attack, and it hasn’t. Meanwhile, it has created new problems that, based on the poor result in Los Angeles, clearly haven't been solved.

A 4-3-3 is a strong attacking format, especially if your team is effective at getting the ball from the the midfield to the front three. If it isn’t, the 4-3-3 potentially exposes the team to counter-attack, as the midfield can be exposed if too many players have pushed into the attacking third. There’s also an expectation that the 4-3-3 is effective because the additional attackers put pressure on your opponent to defend more and play deeper. But if you can’t generate pressure, then the opponent isn’t taxed, and you lose your advantage. Here’s a chart of the first half Rapids passes. We did not generate pressure. At all.

An ideal setup, from my perspective, in the 4-3-3, is to have two dangerous dribblers at your wings, or at least one and another winger that crosses beautifully, a big burly striker with pace, two creative fulcrums at midfield, and a defensive midfielder that can shield the backline by attacking the ballcarrier through midfield and do the defending by himself.

We don’t have the dangerous dribblers. Gatt has flat-out speed, but he can’t seem to convert it into something useful. Serna used to be a dangerous dribbler, but apparently, he’s not anymore. Aigner is an unknown. Gashi is a long shooter and set-piece delivery specialist. We don’t have the burly center forward with pace. In the midfield, Mohammed Saeid can do the creative job, but not all alone.

And then there’s Micheal Azira. Azira was so effective when he had a d-mid partner to harass opponents, allowing him to step into passing lanes. But by himself, he’s not big or pace-y or reckless enough to shield that backline - that’s a Jermaine Jones-type guy, or a Dax McCarty type guy. It’s not his fault - a better Rapids team would hold possession more, and require less of Azira. But this Rapids team, which was badly out-possessed in the first half, makes him do a tremendous amount of work just closing off the central attacking lane down the middle, known as zone 14. His partners in midfield, Saeid and Luis Gil, don’t harass either.

The hope, I think, was that Nana Boateng would be the partner to Azira. Boateng would be the offensive threat, both with the pass and the dribble, and would also do the running and annoying of ballcarriers that Sam Cronin used to be. Boateng hasn’t done that yet, and it makes Micheal look like a sub-par d-mid. I don’t think he is, but the team around him and the formation he’s asked to play makes his job damn-near impossible.

The last thing I’ll say about this 4-3-3 is something I’ve already written twice, and will now stop writing. IT’S. TOO. STRUNG. OUT. Somehow the Rapids are constantly relying on 20- and 30-yard passes to move the ball upfield. Gil and Saeid run way forward of Azira when he gets the ball. The front three are usually out of TV camera view entirely. Even the fullbacks are too far off the ball. Nobody’s forming little triangles; nobody’s checking back, or if they are, it’s too late. And the Rapids are usually too far deep in their own end to dribble out of pressure safely - so they pass long. And what you get is: bad pass, turnover, bad pass, turnover.

I don’t know if you can fix this in practice, or by starting a different XI, or what. I want the Rapids to keep tinkering with the 4-3-3 this season, because learning for 2018 is about all we’ve got left. But I also want to see this team be capable of rolling out a 4-3-3 lineup that can penetrate the defense. Because if it’s just a more forward team for the sake of not being Pablo Mastroeni’s overly defensive ‘Mastronaccio', and it concedes three and four goals every time out, then you’re going to push us Rapids fans to the brink of madness.

Fire Luis Gil into the Sun

Micheal Azira had three passes into the final third against LA. Mohammed Saeid had three passes into the final third. Luis Gil had zero. Gil had two poorly conceived shots from 35 yards out or more; both of which were blocked. On defense, he was a nothing burger. And on the third LA goal, this happened. On this play, Gil (#27, upper right corner of the 18-yard box) lets Romain Alessandrini have 10 yards of daylight, and the Frenchman makes the Rapids pay.

That’s just terrible. Do something, Luis. Anything.

Am I being unfair to the new guy? Am I basing my opinion on just one game? Yes. The week before in Salt Lake, Gil was better on both sides of the ball. Still, I don’t see what Steve Cooke sees in him. Gil seems more interested in floating into space, on both offense and defense, than running to create danger.

I was excited to see whether Gil was going to take the opportunity to impress and get himself a roster spot for next year. At this point, I’m not excited to see Gil on the match day roster. All he can do at this point by getting minutes with the Rapids is to let USL scouts get some tape on him for next year.

Did MacMath blunder?

The first goal against the Rapids came on a PK from a collision between Gyasi Zardes and Zac MacMath. Here’s a refresher:

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I’m going to sort-of defend Zac MacMath. The ball that Kort Ford played towards him was nebulously either a weak clearance or a pass to the GK. If it was a weak clearance, then Ford is a bit at fault for not getting it out. (I mean, to be fair, he cleared a ball off the line in the first place and was probably the Rapids best player on the night, but still.) If it was a pass, then of course MacMath couldn’t pick it up. And then he starts to scramble to his feet, and Gyasi Zardes crashes into him. From my viewing, MacMath isn’t going for the ball, but he ISN’T running into Zardes - Zardes is running into him. Between either a terrible set of circumstances that are unavoidable, and rightly called a penalty, or normal contact, I’m gonna say normal contact: no penalty. This might also be my first homer opinion of 2017 regarding an officiating decision. Sue me.

Maybe next week will be better, against a Houston Dynamo team that just survived a literal hurricane and will be a little tired after the international break. Maybe.