The flat 4-4-2 formation was popular for years in MLS and the world as a whole, as the ability to play two forwards up top and allow them to run at the defense was an attractive quality to managers. AC Milan dominated the Italian Serie A and European soccer overall with the formation during the late 1980s and early '90s, and Alex Ferguson's Manchester United saw stars like David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs blossom in it during the Red Devils' run at the top of the world throughout the later '90s and first part of the 21st century. The 4-4-2 was the formation of choice for the majority of managers for many years.
But over the past couple seasons, it has steadily been fazed out of teams in MLS and around the world, as the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 have become the more favored setups. FC Barcelona's Tiki-Taka possession tactics have popularized the art of keeping the ball away from the opponent and slowly building an attack before using speed and skill to penetrate exhausted backlines and as more sides have moved toward that strategy, the 4-4-2—in which only two center midfielders are played, making possession less of an asset—has fell out of favor.
Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders are two recent examples of clubs who moved away from the formation in order to use a 4-3-3, which includes three center midfielders. The advantage in the middle of the park has become so important that when teams don't have the personnel to go with a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, they instead use something along the lines of a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3; Patrick Viera and NYCFC are a prime example of this. Only a select few MLS clubs still employ the 4-4-2—D.C. United and the LA Galaxy come to mind—but despite its falling popularity and multiple weaknesses, it can be a productive system if used correctly.
This was shown by the Vancouver Whitecaps.
The Whitecaps, a team with an abundance of attacking talent and depth, were floundering in their 4-2-3-1 formation during the first two games of the year. They lost both—to the Montreal Impact and Sporting Kansas City—and struggled to create much of an attack from open play. Vancouver scored a respectable three goals in those two matches, but they were all from set pieces. That trend hasn't changed even after two wins—Pedro Morales has already scored four penalties this season—but their fortunes changed after Carl Robinson switched the formation to the 4-4-2.
There are multiple reasons why they have found success with their new alignment: The two forward setup at the top allows Octavio Rivero to play off of Blas Perez, who is great at using his physicality and hold-up play to generate space for Rivero; the central midfield numbers disadvantage, which has plagued 4-4-2 teams in the past, is offset by defensive midfielder Matias Laba's impressive work rate and defensive ability, as well as the fact that Morales, the main playmaker on this team, helps out defensively; and the backline is unchanged, unlike New York City's in a three at the back formation.
Even though Perez was away with Panama on international duty when the Whitecaps faced the Houston Dynamo Saturday night, Robinson deployed Masato Kudo up front as a replacement, and the rookie MLSer fared well in his debut. All the working parts in this formation have come together well and seem to be a possible long-term solution.
So what does this have to do with the Dynamo? Well, Houston were the first team to encounter the Whitecaps and their new look after the Sounders fell victim to it last week, and they failed to score against it while losing 1-0 despite having some semblance of how to stop it, unlike Seattle. The Dynamo didn't end up with many really good chances on goal, and when they did come, most of them weren't part of any sustained build-up. One reason for that was Laba and Morales, who did a good enough job in central midfield that penetration through that area of the field was a tough task all night.
The three center midfielders in Houston's 4-2-3-1, Alex Lima, Ricardo Clark and Cristian Maidana, were unable to provide consistent service to Will Bruin and struggled to connect on any threatening balls. Crosses from the wings were the only key passes the Dynamo made.
This map of completed passes by Leonel Miranda, Andrew Wenger, Maidana, Clark and Alex shows their inability to break through a makeshift Vancouver backline:
There are plenty of passes being made around the center-circle, but almost none entering the final third. This can be attributed to a couple of factors, but perhaps the main one was the absences of Boniek Garcia and Giles Barnes.
Garcia stepped in for Maidana last week in New York and showed the value of the box-to-box midfielder, running all over the place and distributing well from various areas on the field. The Honduran, who played for his home country against El Salvador on Friday, would have helped a lot against Laba and Morales, as he would have both been able to help prevent the Chilean from sending balls into the final third from deep in midfield and take Laba out of the game by running at him and dragging him away from his post as a number-six. That's what he did against the Red Bulls' Dax McCarty, and it resulted in three goals.
Barnes's dynamic presence on the wing also played a part. The Jamaican, out due to a hamstring injury suffered against FC Dallas a couple weeks ago, could have run the channels and challenged Fraser Aird down the left flank a bit more than Miranda did. Nothing against the Argentine winger, but I think we can all agree that he is no Giles Barnes.
To be honest, the Dynamo still should have done a better job in the midfield, even with Laba and Morales and the crucial absences of Garcia and Barnes. It's why they didn't score any goals, which, in turn, was why they failed to come away with any points. You can blame the loss on the generous penalty call given by referee David Gantar all you want—and while I'm no expert on officiating, I didn't think it should have been called—but it wasn't the only reason.
It never is.