A Tactical Breakdown of San Jose’s 3 Man Back Line Against Columbus Crew SC
PHOTO: ISI Photos
Since Chris Leitch took over as boss in San Jose, the Earthquakes have adapted a three man back line that has completely changed their tactical approach to matches.
In Dominic Kinnear’s 4-4-2 “empty bucket,” the majority of the offense came from the wide areas. One of the two defensive midfielders would win the ball, they would get the ball out wide, and either a winger or an outside back would cross the ball or cut to the middle of the pitch in the final third.
Under Chris Leitch, the Earthquakes have played through the middle of the pitch in a narrow 3-5-2. Tommy Thompson, following the Earthquakes’ 2-1 win against Columbus Crew SC at home, gave us a little insight into their tactical approach. “Darwin [Ceren] does a great job of holding down the center midfield defensively and Jesse [Fioranelli] and Chris [Leitch] have given me the license to go forward and be brave and to take guys on.” he said. “I think Darwin [Ceren] has been given a lot of responsibility defensively and he’s stepped into that role and done a great job. So that allows me and Jackson [Yueill] to be a little bit more free and to put teams on their back foot with forward passing and dribbling at defenders.”
Darwin Ceren, the lone defensive midfielder, was tasked with packing the center of the pitch and closing down any space that opposing attacking midfielders Justin Meram or Kekuta Manneh may have had. Against Columbus’ lone striker Ola Kamara, Florian Jungwirth and Andres Imperiale rotated as “man-markers” while Victor Bernardez acted as a spare defender to pick up loose balls (especially ones in the air for the towering Bernardez). The two wing backs, Shea Salinas and Nick Lima, had to neutralize the opposing wide midfielders and push them back into defending.
This system, like any other, has it’s strengths and weaknesses. One of it’s weaknesses is that against a lone-striker system, the opposing team’s attacking midfielders can easily find pockets of space because there is a spare, redundant man-marker on the back line. Meram and Manneh were able to break down the defense on a couple occasions early in the match because of this. This instance in the 19th minute is a good example – Andres Imperiale is marking Kamara. Kamara receives the ball and drops back into the midfield, draws Imperiale out, and combines with Trapp, Meram, and Manneh to create a scoring opportunity. Darwin Ceren did not fill up the space in the central midfield well enough by marking Meram, which the Crew took advantage of.
Offensively, the system allows Tommy Thompson and Jackson Yueill to get forward and attack much more. Thompson and Yueill have the job of connecting the back 6 (the 3 central defenders, the defensive midfielder, and the 2 wing backs) with the front 2 (the two strikers). As Thompson mentioned, he has much more freedom to run at the defense, which is arguably where he is most effective. Yueill can make the incisive passes in the final third to the strikers or to the overlapping wing backs. This system allows for exciting attacking soccer that has been very successful for the Quakes at home, where Chris Leitch has won every match since taking over.
Of course, the Quakes have struggled a lot on the road – especially in the second half. Losing 4-2 in Atlanta, 5-1 in New York, and 3-0 in Seattle tells us there are still some kinks that the Quakes need to work out, and there are a few ways the Quakes could address that problem. One solution would be fielding two defensive midfielders instead of just one. An attacking midfielder like Vako shielded by Darwin Ceren and Anibal Godoy could be very effective. In Seattle, the Quakes fielded a 4-4-2 diamond midfield with Florian Jungwirth playing left back and Nick Lima getting forward a lot as the right back. It is a tough task, but the Earthquakes will have to figure things out soon as they are fighting for a playoff position with 5 road matches coming up in the next month, including a huge US Open Cup semifinal in Kansas City tomorrow.