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Midfield spacing kills Dynamo early against Seattle

How a tactical disconnect in central midfield killed the Dynamo in the first half against Seattle.

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Seattle Sounders FC Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Dynamo fans did not appear to be especially pleased with their team’s 0-0 result in Seattle on Wednesday night, at least judging from Twitter. The Dynamo gave away significant amounts of possession against the Sounders and failed to take advantage of Ozzie Alonso’s 60th-minute red card, prompting some fans to say that Wade Barrett should be fired.

I went in-depth on the organization and all the issues with it last week, so I won’t go back into that. Instead, I’ll look at things from a more tactical perspective and pretend like the Dynamo actually have something to play for.

The Dynamo put out a 4-1-4-1 formation that, admittedly, seemed particularly experimental. Jose Escalante, Eric Alexander, and Keyner Brown earned their first starts in a Dynamo uniform, and we saw Will Bruin back in the starting lineup for the first time since early August against Montreal. Here’s what it was supposed to look like from the get-go:

Naturally, that’s not how it actually looks during a game, because that’s how all formations work. Teams take different shapes throughout matches depending on a variety of factors: whether they are in possession, their usual playing style, game states, and location of the ball. The purpose of formations is primarily to dictate the personnel a manager uses and the general area each individual player is expected to cover.

This is especially true for a 4-1-4-1, due to the shape of the midfield. The formation implies that there is one pure defensive midfielder and two center midfielders who are playing slightly higher; this can’t necessarily be true, as the deeper midfielder would be completely isolated and would easily get overwhelmed.

That is why the formation often is really a 4-2-3-1 in disguise. The main difference is that in the 4-2-3-1, the central midfielders have more clearly defined responsibilities, with two double-pivot No. 6s, one of which will likely work more in possession and move up the field more. In the 4-1-4-1, the triangle in midfield is more free-flowing without obvious responsibilities; thus the ever-changing personnel used there by Wade Barrett.

Depending on the team, the 4-2-3-1 could become something of a 4-4-2 when defending high, as the more advanced midfielder (often known as the “CAM”) will play next to the lone striker and press alongside him, with the rest of the midfield condensing together. You see this with Colorado and Dallas at times, as Dillon Powers and Mauro Diaz (completely different players, by the way) will step forward next to Dominique Badji and Maxi Urruti.

The 4-1-4-1 could easily become the above if there is a player who is willing to advance forward and play like a second striker. The Dynamo sometimes have that when Boniek Garcia plays in the middle.

The personnel that Barrett used centrally against the Sounders gravitated more to the 4-3-3 rather than the 4-2-3-1, as the trio generally was narrow and without a designated attacker. Eric Alexander and Ricardo Clark played ahead of Collen Warner and often looked like this in the general run of play:

Warner mainly stayed deeper with Clark and Alexander (who are similar in their playing styles) roaming ahead of him, but it was clear that he had the freedom to fill gaps when needed and have either Clark or Alexander cover for him at times. In a sense, all three are playing both defensive midfielder and box-to-box midfielder, although Warner clearly has more defensive responsibilities.

Employing a trio of similar players in central midfield and having them interchange with each other defensively and offensively has been a staple of Barrett’s tenure as manager.

The goal of this is to condense play and to suffocate opponents in midfield. A triumvirate of ball-winners without specific positioning duties will do that effectively, and that’s one of the reasons why the Dynamo have been so stout defensively since Barrett was made interim manager.

While this requires a certain amount of freedom given to the players, it also requires discipline and organization, which was not a feature of the Owen Coyle regime. Barrett has re-introduced that to this team, and it goes hand-in-hand with the free-flowing strategies emphasized above.

With this organization, the midfield does a better job of condensing the passing lanes and preventing teams from breaking through the Dynamo’s defensive lines. They recognize runs and passes earlier and do a better job of sticking to their marker, which then suffocates players like Ignacio Piatti and David Villa out of the game for periods of time.

They didn’t do as good a job of this in Seattle, and that’s one of the reasons why the Sounders were able to keep their attack going for such a long time in the first half.

Take a look at this screenshot as proof. Notice how that midfield triangle has become scalene instead of isosceles:

Warner, Alexander, and Clark become disconnected, and while that’s not inherently bad, it can open up gaps that allow opponents to find passes through the middle more easily, which is what the Dynamo don’t want.

Why does this happen? Blame it on Lodeiro.

Nicolas Lodeiro, the Sounders’ masterful No. 10, has shown to be one of MLS’s best off-the-ball movers, and he proved it again on Wednesday. He moves quickly from side to side, doing his own little bit of quiet probing, before finally gaining space and then doing something magical. The Uruguayan has a way of messing with players’ defensive marking assignments and dragging them all over the field, thus creating space for Seattle.

His movement ranges all over the attacking half (or, as you see above, into the defensive half) and so the opposing team can’t put one single player on him. He forces teams to go more zonal, and that causes plenty of unwanted problems for the Sounders’ opponents.

Combine this with Jordan Morris’s speedy channel running and Cristian Roldan’s No. 8/No. 6 hybrid tendencies and teams have a noticeable problem on their hands.

The Dynamo struggled with this. Their disconnect in midfield allowed the Sounders to keep possession more easily through the middle and find space between the lines. Wondering why the Sounders came up with 70% possession in the first half? There you go.

These issues trickled down to the attack as well as the defense. The midfield was so preoccupied with Seattle’s complicated offense that they forgot about Will Bruin, who was left alone so many times he could have been the subject of the song “All Alone”.

Jose Escalante did what he could, but he was pinned back so much that he didn’t have a whole lot of first half attacking opportunities. Nobody in the midfield supported Bruin with nearby runs, service to his feet, or anything that’s necessary for a lone forward in a 4-1-4-1. Sound familiar?

Things tightened up in the second half, however, and culminated in Barrett implementing a successful two-forward system for the last 20 minutes or so.

Yet the Dynamo couldn’t score despite the fact that the Sounders’ starting defensive midfielder picked up a red card with a half-hour to go, and that Seattle had to make not one but two injury substitutions. I can’t think of a better microcosm of Houston’s season than that right there.