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Cabrera makes important discovery in conference semifinal victory

In beating Portland on Sunday in the Western Conference semifinals, Wilmer Cabrera arrived at an important conclusion.

MLS: Western Conference Semifinal-Portland Timbers at Houston Dynamo John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

For most of the regular season, Wilmer Cabrera’s attempt at finding a balance between transition attacking and numbers in midfield was centered around a 4-2-4 attacking shape, which allowed a true, high-sitting No. 10 to play alongside two out-and-out wingers. He wanted to cover the midfield at a more considerable extent — three traditional CMs would tend toward bunkering — while also maintaining the advantage they have on the counter with their dynamic wide players.

March saw the Dynamo’s greatest success, but, not coincidentally, it also saw pre-4-2-4 times, a rarity in this brief Wilmer era. Alex, who started the season as a No. 8, racked up four assists in the first four games (Houston scored 11 goals in that span) by sitting in his deep position and spraying balls into space for Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis. Fairly quickly, the formation evolved from a straight 4-3-3 into the more liberal 4-2-4, which pushed Alex into a No. 10 role.

The high-flying system of old was dulled down, and so the Dynamo became increasingly pedestrian throughout spring and early summer, especially as Quioto and Elis missed considerable time. It became clear that Alex, who was the team’s best player in 2016 as an 8, is not a central creator, so Tomas Martinez was signed on a DP deal to theoretically take that spot.

In essence, the 4-2-4 defensive shape made the 10 a striker next to Cubo Torres or Mauro Manotas and forced the wingers to do a lot of pushing and pulling to maintain balance and cover for the central midfield. Here’s a clip from the October 15th game at Sporting KC that shows that shape in all its glory:

This is not an unusual or outlandish concept — Columbus Crew SC employ it with Federico Higuain, as do Montreal with Blerim Dzemaili. For the Dynamo, though, it took away from their strengths in transition while not creating enough build-up savvy to make the trade-off worthy. Results kept up, and they distanced themselves from the Western Conference bottom-feeders, but there was an element of frailty associated with them. Most, including myself, did not have them advancing past the conference semifinals.

Cabrera proved a lot of people wrong when the Dynamo went to Portland on Sunday night in the conference semis second leg and won 2-1, smoothly dismantling the No. 1 seed Timbers. How did they do this? Primarily, by making this their general shape:

It was mostly a 4-3-2-1, although it constantly evolved. The line of 2 consisted of Martinez and Elis, who technically were wingers in the 4-3-3 — Martinez was defensively responsible on the left flank (as shown above) but generally roamed free, while Elis switched between his usual hug-the-touchline role and a second striker position.

Most notable about this formation is the presence of Alex in midfield again as a true No. 8. After Martinez got his first game time in late summer, Cabrera and co. quickly realized that the Dynamo are better when Alex plays, so they tried a lot of stuff in an effort to either split time between him and Martinez or get them on the field together. It turns out that Alex can’t play on the wing.

The only option turned out to be putting the Brazilian back in his No. 8 role and Martinez out wide, which, as a result, necessitated the Argentine to find his fluid tactical role. It was a very roundabout arrival at a conclusion that helped tremendously in putting them through to the conference finals.

Soccer works in mysterious ways sometimes.