clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Houston's 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2?

An examination of the two formations and whether or not Houston needs to make a switch.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Dynamo's 1-0 win against Columbus was great results wise -- three points trumps everything -- but it was easy to see the Dynamo's attack isn't where it needs to be. Some fans want to see a change in formations, but would such a change yield the results they want?

4-4-2 v 4-2-3-1

I'll go ahead and try to explain the two formations.

The 4-4-2 is considered a traditional look and is popular in English football (England used the formation on its way to winning the 1966 World Cup). The league's two most prominent teams, Los Angeles Galaxy and Seattle Sounders, run their own versions of this formation. There are several ways to run it but the Dynamo run a flat 4-4-2 (four backs, four midfielders that go box to box and two center forwards), which is pretty much synonymous with boring football in this day and age, whether or not you agree with that assessment.

Some experts have argued on whether or not Owen Coyle's Bolton side actually played "attractive football" as he says (check out this post by Zonal Marking to get a good picture of how Bolton played). Coyle's stuck with that for most of the preseason, save the matches against the Aztex and Orlando City. The midfield has looked solid in this formation.

The 4-2-3-1 has origins tracing to Spain, where its popularity surged in the late nineties and early parts of the 21st century. It's still a popular formation in Europe and is frequently used by Jose Mourinho at Chelsea to take advantage of the surplus of talented midfielders the club has acquired through the years.

Leonel Miranda's substitution in the 57th minute for striker Will Bruin was interesting in the fact that it changed Houston's shape to look more like a 4-2-3-1. This is the look Houston had in the club's 3-0 romp over Orlando City in the Carolina Challenge Cup, with the exception of Barnes up top in Saturday's match compared to Bruin serving as the "lone" striker against OCSC. It might have just been a preseason match and was roughly half an hour of regular season time, but it produced goals. If you're not convinced on how it works, look no further than Houston's next opponent, Orlando City.

The formation exploits Orlando City's greatest asset: Kaka. It's built around his ability to distribute, drop down to receive the ball, move to the flanks to combine with an attacker -- usually Brek Shea on a run down the left or Kevin Molino coming from the wing on the right -- and to score goals.

Kaka provides the expansion side with something (I mean, he was the consensus greatest player in the world in 2007) Houston, or the majority of MLS clubs for that matter, doesn't have: a true number 10 style midfielder.

What should be done?

One of the first things Coyle said when announced as the Dynamo manager is he doesn't want to be a long ball team but rather one that plays "attractive football." It didn't happen Saturday night (again, there is debate on whether or not that happened at Bolton) if you think that "attractive football" is a product of possession, crisp passing and chances created.

Houston was flat out bad in possession. had the Dynamo tied for first with Toronto FC in unsuccessful touches (17) and second in times dispossessed with 21. Two things about those numbers: one, Toronto and Houston both won last weekend despite tying for most unsuccessful touches and two, Columbus was the only other team dispossessed more than Houston, so you can look at it as Houston was tops in winning possession last weekend.

The club finished 17th in short passes per game (268 compared to Philadelphia's league-leading 440) and 10th in long balls (69 to the Colorado's league leading 85), which is the opposite of what most people consider "attractive football."

Brad Davis and Oscar Boniek Garcia provide about as good of width as you can find in MLS. Both take their defensive responsibilities seriously but aren't afraid to venture up to provide width to the attack or stay back while DaMarcus Beasley or Kofi Sarkodie overlap.

Ricardo Clark and Luis Garrido must be paired centrally. That's a fact. Garrido's defensive skills allow Clark to roam a little bit higher up the pitch and the duo does a good job winning the ball. Following MLS' resident online analyst Matthew Doyle, the link play from center midfield to the central strikers might be the problem, specifically converting in transition.

The main problem is figuring out how to play Giles Barnes and Will Bruin together under Coyle's system, and the best thing might be Barnes' dropping down to collect the ball as a deep-lying forward much in the manner of Boniek Garcia or Alexander Lopez in the preseason.

So maybe the 4-2-3-1 is the way to go. It would still flatten out in defense with two layers of four but a straight switch to the 4-2-3-1 would require a central midfield with exceptional prowess. Alexander Lopez should be that guy but it hasn't worked out that way. Boniek Garcia can do it but I'd want to see more out of Leonel Miranda on the right side before committing to that idea.

Then again maybe it's not formation. Perhaps it is more a result of the team still determining its identity under Coyle. The defensive work rate and the strength on the wings scream counter-attacking soccer.

It's way too early to hit the panic button and blow things up after one lackluster attacking performance, considering it resulted in a win against a quality opponent. Fans have been frustrated by the lack of scoring over the last few seasons but patience is required while Barnes, Bruin and the rest of the squad figures out their attacking approach. The Dynamo will eventually find their identity in the early parts of the season.