I guess it is the time of year for long-winded retrospectives. Sanguine's excellent post on Alecko's evolution as a player got me thinking about the evolution of DC United's offense throughout the year. I don't post much but I lurk obsessively and though much has been made of players buying into Nowak's system and of course the 3-5-2 there hasn't been a lot of detailed discussion of what roles Nowak's offense has and who has filled them. This is important, in my view, because while we like to say a good coach tailors the system to the players, IMO Nowak has played almost the same system through quite a bit of starter turnover. Since his system is constant regardless of the players, as fans to understand why United is doing well or poorly at a given time we have to understand more about the system than Nowak, the TV commentators, etc. are willing to explain. A disclaimer: I'm not a soccer expert and, worse, I watched most of the games on television and so I couldn't see a lot of the off the ball movement. Unlike Sanguine I didn't go back and watch old games. In fact, I didn't even stay at a holiday inn express last night. But this is BigSoccer, so let's get into it. I'm sure others can correct my mistakes here. Nowak uses the same system except in a few unusual situations. After Dema got booted in the Cup, for example, we switched to a 4-4-1. Here is the basic formation as I see it that Nowak used up until Gomez was match fit: ----------Target Forward---------- --------Withdrawn Forward-------- Left Wing---Central Mid---Right Wing ------------------Holding Mid------- ----------Defensive Mid------------- Left Back---Central Back---Right Back ------------Goalkeeper------------ The system is offense oriented. Apart from the obvious lack of the typical fourth defender, everyone except the defenders and the defensive midfielder has a role to play in the attack, and I would classify the central mid and both wings as attacking midfielders. The defense is uncomplicated, relying on the sheer numbers of midfielders to disrupt passing lanes through the middle of the field and the defenders to be solid in their 1v1 matchups to hold out on counters until the three attacking midfielders have time to track back and help. The forwards do not help very much in defense unless DC is trying to hold a lead (however they do pressure the ball in the opposing half as much as possible to try to force bad passes into the crowded midfield). This being modern football the positions I outline above are by no means static...players switch as the game flow dictates. Here are what I consider the offensive responsibilities: Target forward: Pressure defenders when they have the ball, attract defense on counters, and make runs into the box for service from all other attackers Withdrawn forward: Pressure defenders and defensive midfielders, receive the ball on counters to attract defenders and generally play behind the wings and target forward until ball nears box, then make a late run Wings: Move down the sidelines aggressively, receive passes from central mid and withdrawn forward then cross into box, and rely on hustle to get back on defense Central mid: Work with the wings and the withdrawn forward to get the ball into the attacking third, then serve as a distributor around the box Holding mid: Serve as an outlet pass for pressured players, disrupt counters As we should all remember, for a large stretch of the season DC United, to put it bluntly, wasn't very good. Here is why I believe this wasn't working: - The midfielders tend to be so far forward there is a ton of space at times for opposing midfielders. Many MLS midfielders are not talented enough to exploit this, and some MLS teams are too lacksidaisical (KC in the final, for example), but against good passers it is a big vulnerability...recall Herzog's assist-fest in the 4-2 LA game - Because of the above, there is a lot of pressure on the three defenders. At the beginning of the season, Namoff and Petke were shaky, and even though they got better Nelson missed a fair number of games. That the defense was so bad may be more an indictment on the front office for having more or less one central defender on the roster the entire year (and no, EZ doesn't count) than the fault of the system however. - DC did not have a true target forward. At the beginning of the season only Jaime Moreno had the ball skills to play withdrawn forward. Alecko could finish but wasn't fast or tall enough to receive anything less than a perfect pass as well as being a turnover machine when he didn't have an immediate shot. He was also injured or benched for a lot of the first half of the season. Adu had better ball skills than Alecko but was impossible to pass to because though faster than Alecko he isn't any taller and was much worse when it came to making off the ball runs - The system is designed to get goals almost exclusively out of the forwards. Part of the lack of scoring balance might be attributed to poor finishing from the midfielders (Convey, Stewart) but most of those chances were the result of defensive misfunction. The offense is not structured for the wings or the central midfielder to get the ball in the box. Towards the midpoint of the season United transitioned from bad to middle-of-the-road because: - Alecko got healthy and got enough playing time - Jaime Moreno got match fit - Convey's national team absences and subsequent departure paved the way for players who were perhaps less talented (don't want to start yet another Convey brawl right now) but fit better into the system. While Convey had a few very good games at central mid and left wing, his replacements in the midfield (Josh Gros, Freddy Adu, and ultimately Gomez) fit into the system better. There were still two big problems that were keeping United from being a good team, but they were solved in the end: - Central defense. Nelson simply had to play. Thankfully he got healthy (and stopped getting called up) at exactly the right time. - Offensive midfield. The emergence of Adu as an offensive midfielder was a nice stopgap, but the Gomez acquisition, Alecko's improvement in ball-handling, and the changes I believe Nowak made once Gomez was match fit, put United over the top offensively. I don't read every post obviously but I don't think I've seen anyone mention the fact toward the end of the season and during the playoffs Alecko Eskandarian started playing as a withdrawn forward. I was quite perplexed when I saw it because like most I took it for granted that Jaime's superior ball-handling and passing made him a lock for the position. Jaime certainly was no target forward. However, I think Nowak's offense is designed to move the ball quickly up the field, taking advantage of the large number of attacking players to stretch a recovering defense into providing openings for the forwards. For the most part in 2004 Moreno's game has been slow. We all saw it when he was playing in the midfield, but I think even as forward Nowak wanted faster development. Moreno and to a lesser extent Gomez are both capable of sitting back and picking out a devastating pass, but there's only so much you can do from nearly midfield with the entire opposing defense and midfield in front of you. When Alecko has the ball he does something with it immediately, whether it is a pass or an attempt to run past his defender with it. In the first half of the season, this was usually the choice between a backwards pass or losing the ball, so he was kept forward to serve exclusively as a target. (Incidently this is why the Esky-Adu pairing didn't work out--when he was paired with Adu neither were especially proficient running at defenses and they were both too difficult as a target for the other's passes) Toward the end of the season, however, Esky was receiving the ball just past midfield with his back to the ball and then sending short diagonal balls to sprinting wing players that allowed them to get behind the opposing midfield. Further, he was actually capable of beating defenders on the dribble, and although obviously not nearly as proficient at it as Moreno, when he did he did it quickly. All this seems to have convinced Nowak to move him to a withdrawn role where he played closer to midfield. We stopped seeing the hard far post runs Alecko used to make to receive balls from others. Instead, Gomez and Olsen made those runs out of the midfield. Deprived of his easy tap-in goals, for a little while Esky didn't score and instead it was Gomez who got four goals. But Alecko got even better with the ball, and in the playoffs emerged as a "true" forward instead of the one dimensional post-runner/free kicker he was in the regular season. All four of his post-season goals were the result of Esky beating someone with the ball at his feet and finishing perfectly. The final scheme that led DC United to storm to the second seed before the end of the season, through the playoffs, and finally to win the MLS Cup had roles for Eskandarian, Moreno, and Gomez that do not fit into the system I described above. Eskandarian played as a withdrawn forward during the build up. His ball-handling was at this point underrated, but defenders had to respect his shot even from distance. Esky would attract defenders to open up space for the offensive midfielders...the wing players near the side and Gomez and Olsen through the center. Once the ball was in the box he would come to the top of the box and "clean up" by either receiving either passes back out of the box or poor clearances. For most of the regular season Carroll, Stewart, and more rarely Dema played this role, resulting in cover-your-eyes bad field goal attempts. Eskandarian is the only player on the team who is threatening from outside of the box, Adu's goal against LA notwithstanding. Moreno was still involved with the build up at times, especially when United was ahead (which, happily, was frequently) and playing (by Nowak standards) conservatively. On offense however his primary role appears to have been getting to the edge of the box to receive and then distribute passes to and from the other offensive players. This was most noticable in the New England game where he received a pass on the side of the box to cross in front of the goal...of course Matt Reis foolishly cheated that way and let him score an easy goal, but that was a bonus. Gomez meanwhile acted as a typical offensive midfielder during the build up, but when the ball neared the box he switched to what most would associate with a target forward and made hard runs into the box. Most notably, he scored his amazing header against New England on a cross from Stewart this way, but even in the opening stages of the final he had almost all the chances because he was serving in this role. It is tempting to describe this as a 3-4-3 but it is more accurate to say that when Gomez converts into a forward in the final third either Moreno or Esky as the situation dictates (occasionally both when Olsen also makes a run) converts into a midfielder. Hope some of you found this interesting. Incidently, while DC's late run bodes well for next season we could be in for another rocky journey if a couple things aren't resolved: - Central defense. We need at least two true central defenders on the roster than can be allowed on the field. Unfortunately it looks like neither one will be named Nelson, so the front office needs to get cracking. - Where to put Freddy Adu? If he gets better at even half the rate he did this year he must get on the field, and in fact probably will need to start. But where? He played his best at offensive midfielder, and certainly Jaime and Alecko have the forward slots locked down. Gomez isn't quite as exciting as Adu but right now he is both a better midfielder and a better target...although I suspect by next season Adu may be a better finisher if he isn't already. My impulse is to stick him at left wing with Gros on the other side and Gomez in the center, backed by Carroll and Olsen. But this might be a waste of Adu's increasing creativity, and also if Dema doesn't depart via expansion draft as some have speculated he or Olsen will be on the bench. The struggles United faced before triumphing in the end has made this an extremely satisfying season. Hopefully we've got more to look forward to--err, triumph that is--next year.