The new tool in the FC Dallas arsenal

Over the offseason, Luchi Gonzalez had been working on some additional flexibility with a switch in formation for FC Dallas. One of the problems cited under Oscar Pareja’s tenure was that there was often no plan-B, it was a 4-2-3-1 counterattacking look that didn’t have a lot of room to maneuver.

This year, we first saw a few glimpses of a 3-5-2 in the second week of preseason. The first scrimmage against OKC Energy was used to give the formation its first real test. It was a little shaky on both sides of the ball as players needed to adapt to new roles. The team was also missing a host of players between national team call-ups and injury, but we got to see the rough concept in play.

The opening day against Philadelphia saw the 3-5-2 used in the second half as FC Dallas looked to break the deadlock. A week later, as FC Dallas tried desperately to break down Montreal’s back five, Luchi opted to steer clear of the formation in the late surge to tie the game.

The plan going into week three was to start with the 3-5-2 at NYCFC. If the rumors of a three-game set against Nashville SC turn out to be true, the 3-5-2 is something we could see employed against the expansion side.

The Basics

Let’s start with the obvious, the defense. Three center backs allows for added cover at the back. We’ve seen the benefits on both sides in the first two weeks of the 2020 season.

In the opening game against Philly, Luchi opted to go to the 3-5-2 in part to cope with the Union’s front two of Sergio Santos and Kacper Przybylko. The added defender simply allows for additional cover as well as providing the opportunity for the additional defender to attack the ball aggressively.

We saw the other side of that the following week as Montreal played a back three. Joel Waterman was the spare defender in the three, closely marking Zdendek Ondrasek at all times.

If you want to see the of the third center back in action, I present this.

Rod Fanni is free to try and attack the ball since Waterman closely marks Kobra, and Luis Binks covers Jesus Ferreira before he bails out of a run on the near-side.

There is a knock-on effect from additional cover at the back for the fullbacks as well as the defensive midfielder. We’ll let Paxton Pomykal explain:

“I felt like a lot of the time our fullbacks weren’t breaking to their outside back, whereas if we have three center backs there’s an extra guy back there and they feel more comfortable. If Thiago [Santos] is playing as the six with the 4-3-3 and he comes in between the center backs and helps out, that gives more fluidity to Ryan [Hollingshead] and Reggie [Cannon] to push forward but I think tactically it worked better whenever we drop three in the back.”

Paxton Pomykal on the 3-5-2 formation after FC Dallas played Philadelphia

Throwing it over to Coach Gonzalez himself, here’s what he wanted to get out of the switch:

“They played double nine so we found ourselves two verses two in the last line. Thiago [Santos] was doing a good job helping the center backs, Tanner [Tessmann] even as well, but we just need to cover behind a little bit so we went into three center backs so that we could create a numbers advantage there.”

Luchi Gonzalez on moving from a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2 formation against Philly

There was a perfect moment to demonstrate that numbers difference at the back just one minute before the change was made. The video below shows a defensive breakdown in the season opening game vs Philadelphia, and compares how Nashville SC are likely to attack in the rumored games that will resume both teams’ seasons.

A little further up, the switch allows FC Dallas’ midfield three to transition from a double pivot to dual free-8/10s playing ahead of a single pivot. The most obvious effect in week one came on Paxton Pomykal’s late goal.

The clip below unfortunately starts a little late to show Reto Ziegler aggressively attacking the ball and heading towards Tanner Tessmann. Then both Pomykal and Tessmann ventured forward with sufficient cover from Thiago Santos and Bressan to quash any potential counter-attack.

A model of the 3-5-2 demonstrating the midfield rotation

In large part, this is aided by what former FCD midfielder Bobby Warshaw dubbed the triple pivot.

While a single pivot is a lone defensive midfielder – and a double has two players in the deep role – the triple pivot refer to a midfield trio who can seamlessly rotate roles. Dropping back between the center backs to win possession as a 6, supporting play as a linking-8, or getting forward as a free-8/10.

Where FC Dallas has a glut of pure linking-8s that can be shoehorned into a defensive role; the likes of Bryan Acosta, Paxton Pomykal, Brandon Servania, Tanner Tessmann, and Edwin Cerrillo can and have all played each distinctive role in their careers. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that relatively new signing Thiago Santos – who was signed as a true single pivot to allow Acosta to move up the field – was arguably the best player in transition across the first two games.

This wealth of talent across the three midfield roles frees the confines of a player-by-player role at the breakdown of an attack. The midfielder in the best position to cover back simply assumes the role of the single pivot rather than merely acting as a placeholder until the suitable player can get back into position.

What Gives?

It wasn’t long ago that playing a formation with a single striker at home could be seen as conceding the game and put a coach under pressure from his own club. Now that’s just the norm with the two-way nature of the modern midfield. Gonzalez’s 3-5-2 is closer to the more modern single-striker style with Kobra sitting up as a traditional target man.

In the opener, we saw Bressan replace Fafa Picault – so some sacrifice of attacking talent. Michael Barrios moves up as an off-striker behind Zdenek Ondrasek, with the freedom to move side-to-side in a supporting role.

While this formation does strengthen the spine of the team, you aren’t necessarily playing to the strengths of Michael Barrios and Fafa Picault. They can both occupy a ten or false-nine spot, but they’re most effective with 40 yards of space to run from wide.

Buzz mentioned the Jesus Ferreira conundrum, and this is it to a tee. Jesus Ferreira is the player you want in this supporting role off-striker role, but in a shape without wingers, this is where you put Michael Barrios. It’s his second-best position and he is far and away the most important player for FC Dallas of the past five years.

Isn’t it just empty numbers?

Formations can be ‘to a degree.’

Oscar Pareja preferred to refer to his 4-2-3-1 as a 4-1-4-1. Luchi’s shape isn’t too different but it’s referred to as a 4-3-3. The terms stay loose because the shapes and roles do. The rigidity of soccer has fallen by the wayside as what were once distinct lines moving forward and back on the field become players switching responsibilities.

Fullbacks were once scolded for running with the ball beyond the half way line, and your attackers held firm on the half while others defended. Now we’re used to seeing Reggie Cannon getting to the opposition end line and Zdenek Ondrasek tracking back to the defensive third as the sport has evolved.

The 3-5-2 becomes a 5-4-1 in defense, and in attack a 3-4-3 as individual roles shift in transition. While we sometimes struggle to put labels on a shape as we digest the game, Jimmy Maurer prefers to consider the why than the what in terms of a player’s role.

“To be honest, I think in the modern game formations are less and less important. I think it’s really about the attributes and qualities of the different players we have out there and it’s really about moments. There’s moments where you’re in a back five, but that you know the wing back needs to fly up and within two seconds you’re back into a back four and that wing back has become basically a midfielder. You’re in a back four and everyone shifts.”

FC Dallas goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer on differing formations


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