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Everything you wanted to know about soccer, but were afraid to ask: Now let’s get in formation

Explaining Caleb Porter’s formation philosophy, and the 4-2-3-1

Hello, and welcome again to soccer for dummies. Or futbol for football fans. Or footy for Americans. Or how to enjoy a soccer game without feeling intimidated and overwhelmed. Regardless of where you come from, I hope to bring a little more clarity and a deeper understanding as you support Columbus Crew SC.

Today I want to talk about soccer formations. While every soccer side has 11 people playing, how they are set up and their individual roles differ widely. Much like differing offensive or defensive strategies in football, a manager has certain personal preferences for their style of play, but must balance those preferences with the talent and strengths they have on the roster. Locally, how Urban Meyer handled the quarterback position was generally the same throughout his tenure, but was flexible based on the individual QB’s strengths and what other strengths (or weaknesses) were on the roster. But in recruitment, he generally preferred a certain style of QB. Similarly, Caleb Porter has a preferred strategic formation, and through the offseason, he worked with the front office to find players that fit that style.

Each soccer side has 11 players, beyond the one in goal, how the other 10 are arranged determines the strategy. You may have seen or heard of different formations as combinations of numbers (4-3-3, 3-4-3, 3-5-2, etc.). Those number combinations describe the formation. The first number refers to the number of defenders. Usually in modern soccer, that number is either a three or a four. Porter prefers four defenders, with two center backs (Vito Wormgoor and captain Jonathan Mensah) and two fullbacks, or wing backs, (Harrison Afful and Milton Valenzuela). The center backs’ main priority is defensive. They will reinforce the front of the penalty box, essentially trying to prevent shots on goal. They are also usually the first to touch the ball when fed from the defensive end or goalkeeper. They will often take the ball upfield to feed a midfielder.

Caleb Porter’s expected 4-2-3-1

The fullbacks act almost like another set of wingers in this setup. They are usually much more involved in the offense and you will see them on the other team’s end of the field more often than center backs, but they do fall back and help contain defensively. Obviously, they need to be speedy and fit, doing a lot of running up and down the field. On the offensive side, they are mainly responsible for bringing the ball in towards the goal from the outside, requiring excellent crossing abilities. The use of defenders as offensive assets does provide a somewhat bend-but-don’t-break philosophy, absorbing offensive pressure to allow time for fullbacks to come back and help. Fullbacks need to be very aware to protect the wings of the formation (where offenses can exploit). Strong and physical center backs can help keep offensive threats at bay as the fullbacks (or a defensive midfielder) drift back to try to regain possession.

The next number, or numbers, refers to the number of midfielders. In the case of the Crew, those numbers are typically two and three. When there are two numbers, the first number refers to defensive midfielders. This is probably the most important position for Porter, which is why he brought in a familiar face in Darlington Nagbe. The defensive midfield serves as the transition from defense to offense, often setting up offensive chances for the forward players. The Black & Gold’s only goal in their home opener is a perfect example of this. While a lot of attention has been paid (rightfully so) to Afful’s feed and Lucas Zelarayan’s skill in the penalty box, it’s Nagbe’s long pass from just behind midfield that creates the space possible for the goal. Defensively, the defensive midfielders must also fall back to help defensively when the fullbacks track back from an offensive positioning. The Crew’s second defensive, or central, midfielder, Artur, is especially helpful here. If the defensive midfielders can maintain discipline and compress backward, they can force play outside (obviously, not where the goal is located). If they track too far forward, opposition wide players can infiltrate deep, leaving the center backs out to dry.

The three attacking midfielders are key in creating offensive chances for Columbus. This is obviously why some of the greatest offensive talent take up these spots. Pedro Santos returns to a more wing-style attacking midfield position this year with the addition of Zelarayan at the No. 10 role. The fact that Zelarayan was the biggest signing in Crew history should tell you how important his position is to creating more offensive chances. As the central attacking midfielder, the No. 10 needs to be a creative passer and playmaker to help feed the striker or other forward players. The wider midfielders (or wingers, as they often play as) need to be fast dribblers in order to cut inside and make runs to the penalty box. Moving Santos back out from the center, where he played last year, obviously allows him to utilize his speed a little more effectively. On the other side, Porter hasn’t (or at least not the last time we saw the Crew play) solidified who will take that spot. While Youness Mokhtar started the season on the wing, many expect the young and speedy Luis Diaz to ultimately take that spot.

So far we have a 4-2-3 that adds up to nine players, and with the goalkeeper, that’s 10. There remains one more. This is where the striker comes in. The striker’s primary responsibility is offensive. When the ball is fed to him, he needs to be effective and on the same strategic page as the attacking midfielder. Defensively, the striker needs to support midfield and be ready to turn back up field when possession is regained. Gyasi Zardes, the Crew’s striker, is mobile and needs to make sure he is taking advantage of offensive opportunities when he gets them. If he can be a strong offensive threat, he can lure defenders out of position and create offensive chances for Zelarayan, something that they seemed to work at least in the small sample size.

Porter’s 4-2-3-1 relies heavily on a strong spine (the middle players on the field), and he reinforced that with some big acquisitions. If you look where the new names reside, it is obvious that Porter and the front office looked to strengthen the center of play. These roles are not set in stone, though. Positioning and responsibilities shift throughout a game and depending on personnel, situation and opposition. Similar to hockey and basketball, even the defensive-focused players bear some offensive role and vice versa for the front half of the formation. No matter the formation, strong soccer IQ is required for a successful side, how players are meant to be arranged and their individual roles are more a reflection of how a manager wants play to ideally move.