New England Soccer Today

Formation Flexibility

Photo credit: Kari Heistad/

Photo credit: Kari Heistad/

When the Revolution welcomed back forward Juan Agudelo 13 months ago, many believed that the squad was ripe for a formation change with two talented strikers in Agudelo and Charlie Davies both on the roster. But coach Jay Heaps took a longer view of the situation.

On paper, a traditional 4-4-2 setup would seem to be the best way to get the duo on the field on the same time. However, Heaps kept the preferred 4-2-3-1 throughout the entire 2015 season, and with the new season on tap, he doesn’t appear to be tempted to make any changes this year, either.

“I would argue that in between that at times, we play a 4-3-3, a 4-1-4-1, or however you want to put that formation,” Heaps said. “But I look at it like this: How aggressive do you want your wingers to be, and where do you want their positions?”

It’s not surprising to hear Heaps talk style of play over personnel groupings. Agudelo’s return was a fortuitous development for a squad that thought it had seen them last of him when he signed a pre-contract with Stoke City in Aug. 2013. But even though Agudelo is the first to say he’s striker at heart, Heaps managed to find ways to get him and Davies both on the field at the same time last year without altering the formation.

At various points of the 2015 campaign, Agudelo was stationed on the right side of the midfield while Davies was assigned to the lone striker’s spot, but neither was tightly bound to their respective spots. In fact, they often interchanged on the fly when the occasion called for it.

But attacking isn’t the only area that Heaps looks at the way his squad behaves in the 4-2-3-1, a formation that’s become increasingly popular in MLS in recent years. When the fifth-year coach looks at his personnel behind his line striker, he sees a number of variables that can be altered much easier in real-time.

“In the midfield, how defensive-minded do you want them?,” Heaps said. “I would argue with where Jermaine (Jones) played, he almost played an a lot more aggressive forward, and Scott (Caldwell) was a lot more of the 6, and Jermaine was a lot more of a no. 10 in a 4-3-3 straight up.

“It’s a formation that if you have two really good defensive midfielders, you can cover space in front of your center backs, and allow your outside backs to really push forward and get into the attack. So at times, we want to have that flexibility.”

That flexibility isn’t just limited to the middle of the park, either. A former fullback himself, Heaps asks his outside backs to contribute to the offense when the occasion calls for it.

“We have players like Chris Tierney and London Woodberry that can add to the attack,” Heaps said. “So we like that flexibility to have a ball-winning central midfielder that can protect our center backs, and we can do that at different times.”

While the loss of Jones and the likely season-long absence of Xavier Kouassi due to an ACL injury didn’t make Heaps’ job any easier, the addition of a physical and athletic Gerson Koffie should allow the Revolution to stay true to the spirit of the 4-2-3-1.

“Having a player that’s really disciplined who can sit in front of the back four – you can (then) gamble even more and release that outside back and still have that defensive midfielder who can be a part of that triangle with the two center backs,” Heaps said. “If you’re athletic enough, you can really close down a lot of plays, and break up a lot of plays.”

It could be argued that breaking up plays to set up the counter is exactly the brand of football in which the Revolution truly thrive (see: tail end of 2014), and the use of two defensive midfielders allows the locals to do that in the most effective manner. Rest assured that when talking about the 4-2-3-1, Heaps sees a level of flexibility and freedom that that the 4-4-2 simply doesn’t offer to a team built like his.

“It’s about how you set up at different times,” Heaps said, “(It’s about) different scenarios, and different games, and different tactics.”

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