Spring break… Spring break… Spring break, forever... Alright, now that you have James Franco’s gold grills and cornrows firmly implanted in your brains, I welcome you to climb into my virtual Camaro as I take you on a verbal cruise through the Montréal Impact's first 14-or-so games.
Disclaimer: I Know it’s not technically "spring break" at the moment, but the MLS is on a kind of break, and its officially still spring, so work with me people…
The Curious Case of the Feeble Fullbacks
So what, if anything, have we learned about our beloved #IMFC through the first 1/3 or so of the season? And by "we" i mean us, the fans, the journalists, the armchair analysts, etc.,. I make the differentiation, because I’m starting to see that old habit we’d gotten accustomed to seeing from the Impact's most recent coaches, that old, "if it ain’t completely obliterated into a million pieces, don’t change it" approach.
I bring this up to segue into my first talking point: Montréal’s Curious Case of the Feeble Fullbacks (Brad Pitt not included). The Montréal Impact started the season with two decent but not amazing fullbacks. Mauro Biello’s message to both Donny Toia and Ambroise Oyongo at the beginning of the year was clear: push up the pitch, help the offence, be effective on crosses. For about two games this concept worked pretty well, and the results proved it. IMFC started the season with 2 wins and an almost mind-boggling six goals, all scored without star man Didier Drogba.
But then an unexpected thing happened, or at least, it was unexpected to the IMFC coaching staff: Toia got injured. Now, a lot of people I’ve talked to tell me this was not an important injury, in the sense that a fullback getting injured is apparently NBD (Dad, that means no big deal). Well, maybe they’re right most of the time. In the case of the Montréal Impact, though, it was, and has been, devastating.
Since Toia's injury the team has shown but mere glimpses of their early season form. The problem has been simple: with the reshuffle of players to make up for Toia’s loss, no LB/RB pairing has shown any consistency on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. The biggest issue has been, dare I say it, Biello (yes, he can make mistakes).
It’s not wrong of him to want his fullbacks to play an offensive, aggressive style. This is what’s expected from the modern day fullback: be solid on the backend, but also be available on the offensive end to make crosses and support the winger. In a nutshell, they have to be able to run for miles and be effective on both sides of the ball.
The problem Biello has not come to grips with is that with Toia out, and Oyongo missing a number of games as well, there hasn’t been satisfactory cover at that position. So instead of changing his message to the likes of Hassoun Camara (a CB), Maxim Tissot (a hybrid winger/defender) Eric Fisher (another CB) and Jérémy Gagnon Laparé (a midfielder), he’s watched under-qualified players attempt to play like modern fullbacks. Camara managed for maybe a half to look the part, but beyond that they’ve all failed in their assignments. And really, it hasn’t been their fault: They’ve simply been asked to do something they’re not very good at, and the coach should have known better.
"Winging it" at the CAM position
The first thing you need to understand about players who play on the wing in 2016, is that most of them play like our Argentinian contingent (Ignacio Piatti, Lucas Ontivero and Andreas Romero), and less like, say, Dominic Oduro. To view Oduro as a winger is already a mistake, because really he’s more of a striker than anything else.
The bottom line is this: none of our talented wingers like to take wide positions and cross the ball. Almost everyone on the team wants to cut into the middle to make a play, which means that the only players who you can logically expect crosses from are, you guessed it, fullbacks.
The reason why I get angry at Piatti sometimes is because he’s reluctant to pass the ball, but Piatti isn’t always at fault. The problem he faces as he goes on those marauding runs of his is that he often lacks sufficient passing options. Often the striker will be covered by more than one defender in the box, and the winger to his right, too far away for an open pass.
The easy pass that "should" generally be available to a Piatti or Ontivero is the fullback on their left or right. This of course requires said fullbacks to be running full tilt up the pitch to support the wingers. Unfortunately, IMFC don’t have the right personnel at the moment to fulfill those roles, so adjustments need to be made.
The question I’ve been asking myself of late is, "do we need a player at the CAM (Central Attacking Midfielder, Dad) position?" Considering the fact that almost every wide player on the team wants to play in the middle, isn’t it just superfluous to have another midfielder there? In a way, I think so. A player like Harrison Shipp just gets swallowed up by Piatti and Ontivero when he plays in the middle. He rarely touches the ball, and more often than not, just gets in the way. This is his not because he’s a bad player. He’s just suffering from a formation that ignores his best qualities.
Formation change? Roger 10/5… -3-2
At some point we will have both Toia and Oyongo back, and maybe the current formation of a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 will look decent. But this is the time of the season to try things out, especially when the defence is clearly suffering.
I would opt for a 5-3-2 or a 3-5-2, two formations which are basically the same except the former is for defensive setups and the latter, offensive. Even with Laurent Ciman away in Europe till July, Camara, Wandrille Lefèvre and Victor Cabrera would more than suffice at the CB position.
In midfield, you can have Tissot play wide on the left as a failsafe defensive winger, probably the position he’s the most effective at. His best skillset is, after all, crossing the ball, and he’ll be able to focus more on that than on defense. On the far right you can play Oyongo, who is also adept at crosses, and like Tissot, is not fantastic defensively. With an extra CB covering for them in the back, both players would have a greater chance of becoming the consistent pass option on the wings that Biello has been looking for.
In the middle of the pitch you still have your defensive midfielder (Marco Donadel, Kyle Bekker, Calum Mallace, Eric Alexander,) playing behind the pair of Piatti and Ontivero (or Patrice Bernier and Shipp), who will have the room they need to maneuver.
Up top, Drogba will play with a secondary striker in the form of either Oduro, Michael Salazar, Cameron Porter or Anthony Jackson-Hamel, all players who will be eager to showcase their skill next to the Ivorian star.
What I like about this formation is the flexibility as well as the versatility it offers. In defensive postures, the 5-3-2 will put a lot of players behind the ball, making it difficult for opposing teams to counter attack. It also covers for so-so defensive players like Oduro, Piatti, and Ontivero, putting slightly less pressure on them to track back.
Offensively, there’s simply less clutter in the middle and better spacing overall. The defensive mid (Donadel) can play a much safer game, staying closer to the back 3, while the pair of midfielders ahead of him (Piatti, Ontivero) can attack centrally, with passing options on the flanks (Tissot, Oyongo) and in front (Drogba, Oduro). The offence will run more smoothly, and for once, everyone will be playing in their best position.