Bob Bradley is not a system coach.
Despite fielding LAFC in the same 4-2-3-1 formation through the first four matches of the season, he is not committed to any one setup.
What Bradley is committed to is a set of football ideas that make up a team’s identity. So when his team conceded nine goals over three halves coming into the match with Vancouver, it shouldn’t be a surprise the coach tinkered with his formation. It’s the identity on the field that makes the team, the formation is just numbers after all.
Against Vancouver on Friday, Bradley set out his team in a 3-4-3 formation. It was a change that both frustrated the opposition and gave LAFC stability from back to front.
Inserting Dejan Jakovic into the lineup, Bradley went with three center backs playing in a low block, and de facto wingbacks Jordan Harvey and Steven Beitashour forming a line of five at times. The result was a virtual fortress set up in the back for LAFC.
Looking at the Whitecaps passing map for the match, you can see almost a buffer around the LAFC penalty area in terms of passing. Not only did Vancouver rarely attempt to complete passes in dangerous areas, when they did, they were completely unsuccessful.
How blunted were Vancouver’s chances by LAFC's trio of center backs? The Whitecaps’ expected goals of .31 were the lowest of any home team in an MLS match this season.
All our tables are updated!— American Soccer Analysis (@AnalysisEvolved) April 16, 2018
-Elis, Almiron, and Zardes continue to dominate xG+xA.
-Houston and Philadelphia lead in xGD/game.
-Vancouver's 0.31 xGF this weekend was the lowest for a home team in a game yet this season.https://t.co/a9Kd3xsUFe
But it wasn’t just in stifling the Whitecaps’ attack that the formation switch was a success. The addition of a center back provided a stable platform for midfielders Benny Feilhaber and Mark-Anthony Kaye to stay higher up the pitch.
In a team deploying a back four and consistently playing out of the back - which Bradley likes his team to do - a midfielder is usually tasked with dropping deep to assist the two center backs and starting the attack from deep. In previous matches, Kaye and Feilhaber have rotated in this role to mixed results.
In a 3-4-3, the midfielders are freed from this responsibility in the build-up, as the added center back ostensibly takes the role of deep-lying playmaker. In this instance, it was Laurent Ciman pinging accurate balls out of the back, while Kaye and Feilhaber were able to dictate play and take their touches higher up the pitch. And not surprisingly, Kaye and Feilhaber each had a strong performance.
Best game so far of #LAFC central midfield— Jason Foster (@JogaBonito_USA) April 14, 2018
Kaye: 87 touches, 47/55 (85%) passes, 1 key pass, 2 shots, 6/8 dribbles, 5 tackles, 3 ints, 11 recoveries
Feilhaber: 75 touches, 56/60 (93%) passes, 2 key passes, 5/5 long balls, 2 shots, 2 tackles, 4 recoveries, 1 int.#VANvLAFC #MLS pic.twitter.com/VL0wEJXohy
At the end of the day, Bradley’s formation tweak secured three hard-fought points on the road by shoring up the spine of the LAFC team in both defense and attack. Whether we’ll see the 3-4-3 in future matches remains to be seen, but after the match, Bradley reiterated his focus on ideas and not formation numbers:
“All year we’ve talked about building different ideas into the team, where the starting points of where we play stay the same, but you have flexibility on certain nights. We’ve done different things in training to make sure that we’ve got some of that flexibility, and I think on that end tonight that went really well.”
Come the end of the season, that flexibility could be LAFC’s biggest strength.