Throughout history teams have employed a variety of formations. Each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Over the past few decades, the norm has been for teams to play with a four-back defense, consisting of two centre-backs and two fullbacks. However, over the past five years, some teams –more in the international game– have begun to switch to a three-back defense.
The 3-4-3 formation is versatile but primarily played by offensive/attack-minded teams. The advantage of this system is the additional attacking players, especially through the deep-seated attacking wingbacks stretching the field. However, it is a dangerous formation if players are not well organized. Another concern is that centre-backs need to be of a specific type. Generally, all three need to be tall, strong, and good in the air. More specifically, the outside defenders need to be mobile and agile while the central defender needs to be dominant in the air. They need to be good at defending 1v1 and their communication has to be impeccable. If positioning and communication are not perfect it can be a complete disaster. Remember, there are no full backs to cover the holes should a defender be sucked in to an offensive trap; something Dean has been a victim of once in each of the last two games (more on that later).
At the beginning of the season, Carl Robinson expressed a desire to play a three-back formation, but stated the lack of personnel as the reason for not trying it. How serious he was about the desire to play a three-back formation or if it was just answering a common question in a media scrum is unclear. At the beginning of this season, it was clear that the Whitecaps did not have the players to pull off such a formation. Over the past few weeks, my opinion on the ability to play this formation (next year) has begun to swing into the affirmative category. Due to Kah’s injury and Waston’s call-up to the Costa Rica national team, we had the opportunity to see the pairing of Tim Parker and Christian Dean. While young and inexperienced, they certainly held their own. Their style and ability began me to thinking about whether they could be the outside defenders in a Parker, Waston, Dean back-line. Recall that Parker has played at right-back on several occasions while Dean was on the left side against San Jose, and has played that position several times for the ThunderCaps. I begin to wonder if Robbo and Koch are testing out their suitability for this possibility down the road through USL.
Without any indication from the Whitecaps on the possibility of playing a three-back formation next season, let’s attempt to determine whether this is actually a viable option for the team going forward. Recall that your three backs need to be tall, strong, and good in the air. Do I even need to go in to this? CHECK! Your outside backs need to be mobile and agile. Parker has been lauded for his acceleration, as has Dean at times. Dean’s mobility was certainly on display at multiple points in the game against the Earthquake where he made several great recoveries and his long stride allows him to make up distance VERY quickly. I think this is a CHECK as well. Your central defender needs to be excellent in the air, an effective communicator, and willing to go forward. Again, do we have to even explain this with regards to Waston? I think we can, again, say without question this is a CHECK. Although relatively young, the three players (Waston and Parker more) appear to be great communicators and well organized. While Dean is clearly the weak-link, I do not think he is much of one. In addition, it appears that his partnership/friendship with Parker this season has been instrumental in his growth. I believe that we will see the best out of both of those guys if they are kept together.
How does the notion of the three-back formation suit the rest of the Whitecaps players? I think the team is well-suited for this setup. The Whitecaps have, arguably, the best defensive midfielder in Major League Soccer in Matias Laba. He is certainly smart and mindful enough to provide support and cover a hole from time-to-time if required. Do Sam Adekugbe, and Jordan Harvey for that matter, not scream wing-back suited? Russell Teibert would probably be capable in that position too. Up front you would have Techera and Manneh on the wings, who are both great at cutting in and freeing up space out wide for the wingbacks, while Morales has the passing ability and vision to hit each of them with perfect opportunities. Finish up top with Rivero, who has great hold-up play and has proven adept at getting his teammates involved and tracking back to assist in defense. The bench, or other options? Next year, I would expect Rodriguez, Flores, Koffie, Bustos, Froese, McKendry, and Mezquida as possible options, with Mattocks, Harvey, and Beitashour being beneficial but it still unclear whether they would all be back next season.
One of the complaints I have heard in the media about the Whitecaps is their reliance on the 4-2-3-1 formation and the lack of a second option. It is possible that next year, we see a 3-1-5-1 formation. With the above mentioned names a switch back and forth between the two formations is very easily accomplished and uses the talents of all their available players to the fullest.
What are your thoughts?