CINCINNATI — For some coaches, talking formations can sometimes be the opposite of straightforward.
“Everybody will talk about your formations,” offered FC Cincinnati head coach Alan Koch at the club’s training on Thursday. “Formations are [just] numbers, of course. It’s really about where you want to put the players on the field in their areas of influence.”
Not that shape isn’t a relevant topic of discussion for professional soccer coaches. But the 4-4-2; 3-5-1; or 1-2-3-4 a team sets out in, at least in the terms they’re normally spoken about, is a pretty simplistic way to look at their approach to a match.
A team might begin a match in one formation and then strategically switch to another. They might play in one shape with the ball and deploy a second while out of possession. And it’s not unusual to see one single player given freedom to abandon his role to nullify a dangerous opponent or take advantage of a weakness.
However, that doesn’t mean changes in the formations deployed from match to match mean nothing, either.
Take for example Koch’s choice to utilize a 4-2-3-1 in FC Cincinnati’s MLS debut at Seattle Sounders FC last Saturday. The shape caught more than a few by surprise, due in large part to the team mostly using a system situated around a back three during preseason. Even more surprising? Stu Holden declared on the national broadcast that FCC’s change was motivated by their 3-0 loss to Columbus Crew SC in their preseason finale.
Initially, that felt far-fetched. Abandoning the system they spent their entire preseason preparing to use after one bad result could be considered drastic. An overreaction, even. And after losing by three goals to both the Crew and the Sounders, did the change even have an effect?
Koch, however, didn’t shy away from the move when asked.
“We made that adjustment because, to be quite honest, we weren’t very good against Columbus in the shape we were playing,” he explained.
But why the switch to the system they went with?
Koch elaborated, “There’s so many different layers to it. Some elements worked at times. And other times it clearly didn’t work, because we went out and lost the game [to Seattle]. But it’s about getting the best players that you have at your disposal on the pitch within a formation that works for them, but also within the system of play that we’re trying to implement.”
For those familiar with Koch’s team selections, however, a 4-2-3-1 in particular also shouldn’t be that unexpected.
The South African frequently utilized the shape during the Orange and Blue’s last two seasons in the USL. That preference also helps to explain the bevy of holding midfielders the team has accumulated both this season and last. Having central midfielders of various skill sets gives the technical staff flexibility in how they approach each opponent while maintaining consistency in the system. In fact, the whole roster appears built with that shape in mind.
All that said, the players will still need a period to adapt to the formation. And they will still need the time they already needed to work out any understanding with one another. Remember, Koch’s squad has only been together for seven weeks.
“People question, ‘What is the identity?’ Let’s kind of take time,” said Koch, expressing a similar sentiment. “We’ve played one game. Everybody will analyze that one game to death. We’ll play a second game and they’ll analyze that game to death. And by the time we’ve played five or six games, then you’ll have a fairly large sample size to actually assess what the identity looks like.”
Unfortunately for Koch, that second chance to analyze FC Cincinnati’s progress comes with another difficult test away at Atlanta on Sunday.