Olsen, D.C. United Test New Formation Which Could Help Down The Road

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Like acing a perfectly cooked gumbo, the 3-4-3 is an incredibly tricky task to master. Again like gumbo — whether that’s a chicken-and-sausage variety or one incorporating a more shellfish-forward recipe with crayfish, shrimp, crab, etc. — the 3-4-3 has a ton of ingredients needed to make the final product worth the effort, and it also needs a good deal of simmering to get just right. 

D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen has turned to the 3-4-3 in recent weeks due mostly to the injury monster that has ravaged the ranks of the Black-and-Red. The fullback position in particular, which looked so strong in the preseason with the addition of Leonardo Jara, has been decimated to the point of moving in the market to acquire Marquinhos Pedroso from FC Dallas.

It seems, then, that Olsen would like to return to his preferred four-man backline. Even so, United have already used the formation on a couple of different occasions and may return to it in the future. 

If you want to get it right, you’re at least going to need the following five ingredients:

1 | Rangy center backs

The 3-4-3 — when it’s really a 3-4-3 and not a park-the-bus defensive variation as a 5-4-1 — is an intensely offensive-minded formation, prone to counter-attacks from the opposition focused on the flanks. The three-man back line may be vulnerable to wingers who receive the ball ahead of the 3-4-3 wingbacks. The outside center backs need to be able to move from the center of the pitch all the way to the touchline.

The center backs also won’t be able to dump the ball off to their own fullbacks to retain possession; instead, they’ll need to do be OK with a few touches and some directing from the back line. (For a case study in a three-man back line and the various roles the three center backs can take, all you need to do is flash back to the days of Antonio Conte’s 3-5-2 with Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, and Andrea Barzagli.)

Does D.C. past the test? 

Yes, definitely. Pretty much any center back Olsen tends to field can cover a lot of ground — Steve Birnbaum, Frederic Brillant, Donovan Pines, Jalen Robinson. Comfort in possession varies between these guys, but they’re adept enough to make it work.

2 | Iron lungs in all 11 players

The center backs have to do a lot of running in the 3-4-3, but really everybody has to do a lot of running. The wingbacks are there to attack and overlap with the true wingers — or provide flank support if the top of the formation is a diamond in attack — but may need to retreat the entire length of the field to defend. 

The two midfielders will also have a heavy workload here. If they’re playing in a double-pivot, they’re both facilitating attack and also trying to disrupt counter-attacks before they get too much steam. There’s certainly a danger here of the midfield being overrun and asked to cover so much ground in the center of the pitch.

Does D.C. past the test? 

Yes. One of the strengths of this team, which we’ve talked about since the beginning of the season, is the willingness of every player to sacrifice for high pressure and defense.

3 | A tactically disciplined coaching staff

In my mind, the 3-4-3 is a kind of high-risk, high-reward. There are spots of extreme vulnerability, and you need a set of players who are in sync with each other and the coaching staff to defend against those vulnerable spots and wield the formation’s strengths effectively. D.C. has done a so-so job of this, certainly stabilizing defensively (often lapsing more into the 4-5-1 approach for long stretches) but not generating a ton of high-quality chances.

Does D.C. past the test? 

Yes. Olsen drills his team well, and even when the team first busted out the formation against Colorado — albeit more as a 5-4-1 — the result was a “bend but don’t break” situation. He has to be happy with the resiliency his side has shown defensively, offensive issues notwithstanding. 

4 | A field general in the midfield 

In a formation with tons of movement, fluidity, and soft spots, you need a central midfielder who’s a connection point between the back and the front and who’s going to direct traffic in the middle. If you don’t have the communication, breakdowns are going to happen.

Does D.C. past the test? 

Sort of. With Russell Canouse having missed a few games because of injury, the Black-and-Red are missing the most poignant combination of voice and experience in their midfield. Junior Moreno and Chris Durkin are both solid players, but they don’t quite have the on-field direction-giving that Canouse does.

5 | Attackers who can retain possession & beat defenders

The midfield and three center backs are going to always be under threat, and they’re going to need physical and mental breaks from all the possible counter-attacks that will inevitably come their way. When the 3-4-3 is executed well with the right players, it can apply and retain a ton of pressure on the opposition at every pressure point.

Does D.C. past the test? 

Sort of. As we’ve discussed at length on FloFC, the attack has been lacking for quite some time for D.C. United, but the strange truth remains that United have one of the better attacking units in the league: Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta are two of the better players in the MLS at their respective positions, and Paul Arriola and Lucas Rodriguez provide good options as well. 

One last thing to note: The sudden success of Pines is both an awesome story and a helpful, auspicious development for the team. Brillant and Birnbaum do a good job holding down the fort, but the former is turning 34 years old next month and depth is always needed in the MLS calendar. Pines and Robinson probably let Olsen rest a little easier at night.

Here, for me, is the takeaway about the 3-4-3 for D.C. United: United should rely on Olsen’s preferred 4-2-3-1 — and with the Pedroso move that seems to be the decision from the boss as well — while at the same time honing the 3-4-3 for use on a tactical, ad hoc basis. 

(Also, for what it’s worth, my favorite gumbo is one that incorporates both a little land and a little sea. I like one of chicken or sausage in there plus at least crayfish, but if not crayfish then shrimp.)

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