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The Dynamo’s 4-4-2 diamond solves a lot of problems

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Houston’s 4-4-2 diamond was a problem-solver against San Jose, but it leaves crucial players off the field.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time this season, Dynamo manager Wilmer Cabrera unveiled a formation other than the 4-3-3 on Saturday against the San Jose Earthquakes. The Dynamo ran with the 4-4-2 diamond, a formation that seems to be gaining in popularity in MLS, in a 2-0 home victory.

This look fixed many of the issues they had last week in their loss to the Revolution: a disconnect from the front to the back, failure to find midfield passing outlets, and avoiding getting trapped in the defensive half. I said after their loss last week that Cabrera needed a fix, and this appears to be it. Credit to the first-year manager for recognizing the issues at hand and being bold enough to find a solution.

We don’t know whether the diamond will continue in the coming weeks yet, because it’s possible that it was a short-term filler after Ricardo Clark went down in training the day before the game. I doubt that they would put out an entirely new formation just to supplement one midfielder, but I haven’t seen confirmation on that yet, so we’ll have to wait until next week.

The diamond’s positives start with the solutions its provided for the spacing issues they’ve seen between the forwards and the midfielders, and the defensive problems those create. In the 4-3-3, their defensive shape was narrow and often excluded the two wingers, who focused on getting in position for potential counter-attacks rather than help defend. Here’s a clip from their game against Minnesota to illustrate this:

There is a subtle problem here, and one that is not obvious to anyone’s eyes at first glance (this took a few looks, believe me). Notice that when d-mid Sam Cronin takes the ball, Alex jogs over to act like he will defend him, but instead decides to back off and head back in a line with his other two midfielders. Cronin then finds Kevin Molino, who has all the time in the world to hit a center back-splitting through-ball to a running Christian Ramirez.

Molino overhits his pass, but giving any player this kind of time on the ball is never ideal, especially when lanes are open for other passes or runners. In fact, I’m a bit surprised that Molino didn’t wait for Miguel Ibarra (10) to get into that space between the backline and the midfield, because it certainly was there.

The reason Molino has so much time and so many options? 1) The Dynamo’s offensive system was dependent on two wingers already being positioned high up the field for a direct, quick-fire counter, so neither Elis nor (in this case) Quioto were in position to defend, and 2) their 4-3-3 was structured so that the midfielders stayed close together and compact to suffocate forwards and advanced, central attackers while giving space to deeper distributors. Cubo Torres can only press for so long.

Eventually, teams started using the space afforded to deeper passers to allow movement from higher players to confuse the Dynamo’s midfield and eventually overwhelm them, resulting in opportunities for skilled players to get on the ball in good areas. They also started drawing Alex or another midfielder out to chase the ball, leaving more gaps open in the Dynamo’s midfield. It got to the point where Dynamo full backs would station themselves closer to the middle of the field to mark inverted wingers, naturally leaving room for an overlapping full back and creating odd-man situations on the flank.

Cabrera’s solution to this problem was to implement the diamond, a formation that, by definition, puts players in more positions around the field. It has its flaws — width is the obvious one — but when used right, it can be very fun to watch and extremely effective.

There is no “correct” way to use it; it depends on the coach and squad, as we’ve seen with the differences between Orlando’s current version of it and New England’s. Every team that employs it has their own reasons for choosing it, be it the places their talent is situated (Toronto and their strikers last season, for example) or the way they want to attack (Revs).

Houston’s reason for choosing it primarily lays in their desire to fix the problems described above: spacing issues in the midfield and problems with pressing across the front of the formation. The diamond allows for more flexibility in their defensive and attacking shapes, and frees their best player (ready for a hot take?), Alex, to play to his complete potential.

For evidence of how the diamond affected the Dynamo, here is what they often looked like when defending:

football formations

If it looks more like a 4-3-1-2, that’s because it was. When the Earthquakes had the ball and attempted to move it forward — whether through passing or route 1 long balls — the d-mid (Cabezas) and the two shuttlers (Boniek Garcia and Eric Alexander) would push back together and, individually, cover the three inside channels along the backline.

“But that’s exactly what the three midfielders in the 4-3-3 did!” Yes, you’re correct. But the difference here is that they have one of the best box-to-box midfielders in MLS ahead of them, and that solves a lot of problems.

Alex does a lot at the point of the diamond: he’s important in the attack (more on that in the future); he prevents distributors from getting time on the ball in deeper positions along with the two strikers ahead of him; and he’s the lead presser from the midfield. His presence gives the other three midfielders the flexibility to swing wide and prevent 2v1s against the full backs, solving yet another problem the 4-3-3 created.

The midfield was much better defensively thanks to the switch to the diamond, as well as the ever-present skills of Alex, who probably should have made MLS Team of the Week. San Jose, as a result, finished with 0.44 expected goals.

No obvious problems arose with the design of the formation. Clark could easily slot in to one of the deep midfielders’ spots, and the results speak for themselves. There’s one problem: the trio of Torres, Elis, and Quioto can never be on the field at the same time. It’s very hard to leave one of those players on the bench every week for Eric Alexander.

For that reason alone, I have trouble convincing myself that the formation will stick. If Cabrera returns to the 4-3-3 on Friday against Toronto FC, don’t be surprised, and realize that in all likelihood, it was because it’s impossible to bench any of their three best attackers.

Should he make the diamond a one-time thing, he’d have to make some adjustments to the 4-3-3, which may not be sustainable in its current form. If anyone can do it, though, it’s Cabrera.