I saw a reference to "Bobby Ball" in reference to the England v. Ukraine Euro 2012 Group game today. I thought about the parallels between the English coach Roy Hodgson and the Crew's own Robert Warzycha. There is a reason that England looks like the defense first English team.
A little bit about Hodgson, he's a coaching vagabond who got his start in Sweden in the 70's and 80's but was a firm follower of English tactician Allen Wade. Wade had laid out the beginning of the 4-4-2 that would dominate England for decades. After a decade and a half in Sweden, he moved to Switzerland, took a job with Blackburn Rovers, Inter (twice), and back to Scandinavia.
He came back on the English scene in 2007 after he saved Fulham from relegation. His work there earned him an ill fated move to Liverpool. He helmed West Brom and now the English team. His teams often featured impeccably trained defense, two banks of four, width coming from fullbacks, and long balls played out of the back. Essentially, it's the "English Game".
Warzycha doesn't go in depth regarding his philosophy on tactics, but it's apparent that he is an English disciple. He's certainly a defense first coach. He does have some history with the English style. He played three years in Everton during the 90's during the 4-4-2's heyday in the English Premier League. The experience must have been indelible as he's been a firm adherent to the 4-4-2 for the bulk of his tenure.
This starts at the back where the goalkeeper will look to play long, as will the defenders to start the counterattack. The back line will stay compact and focus on defensive positioning. Josh Williams currently acts as the interceptor and Marshall stays at home. The fullbacks have license to move forward into the attack as Vukovic especially has done quite well.
In midfield, there is another bank of four. There is player who is primarily a defensive midfielder, O'Rourke and George in recent weeks have played this role. There is also a two way player who plays from box to box. Mirosevic is cast in this role now, even if it isn't ideal for his skill set.
The wingers will be expected to push forward and swing in crosses, but be responsible on defense. Gaven is the prime example of the wide player who tracks back. Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay, and Bernardo Anor have all tried to fill in at left wing to mixed results. Again, the focus is on positioning and keeping shape.
The forwards will either be a typical target/runner combo, or the target player with a runner underneath who will check back into midfield. Olman Vargas plays as a target and has had Emilo Renteria, Finlay, or Gaven all run off of him.
The strengths are obvious. This is a team that is hard to break down and hard to score on. Even without Marshall, the Crew are once again near the top of the league's defensive numbers. Rarely are the Crew out of a game, they just don't get blown out. The New York Red Bull game not withstanding.
The focus on defensive stability does have it's drawbacks. It's rigid; players are often expected to hold positions. This doesn't lend itself to offensive fluidity. The transition from defense to offense can be slow with everyone shifting from their ultra defensive positions to support the attack.
To be most effective, like every tactic, it requires the right people. Warzycha has most positions sorted, but some of the fits aren't ideal. Mirosevic has settled in as the box to box midfielder, but it's not an ideal fit for him. He's known more as an offensive force. His defensive duties draw him away from goal and lessen his impact.
This rigidity can also be seen at left wing. Meram was drafted as a forward, but has seen playing time at left wing most often. He's shown a goal scoring spark, but he's been very inconsistent as his defensive requirements pull him from goal.
The lack of goalscoring can make for some boring games. Offensive excitement can be hard to come by with a keep it tight at the back defensive posture. "Bobby Ball" certainly isn't new to soccer, it's merely one answer to the age old question, results or style. Roy Hodgson came to the same conclusion in the 70's. Roy Ball doesn't roll off the tongue though.