The Most Demanding Position in Football

Charleston Battery - 1-0 Charleston 90+4 - Cross - The ball is played out to their left wing. A low cross is put in that McMahon tries to clear but ends up skipping over. Nicholson checks his run while tracking back (he would've reached the ball) perhaps thinking Mitch had it. Mitch also doesn't attack the ball, appearing to think it would come to him. Battery striker nips in and beats Mitch at his near post.

Bethlehem Steel - 2-1 Cincinnati 90 - Cross - A short corner leads to a cross because Derek Luke stands off his marker while he is shaping up for a cross. The cross is headed up in the box and a frankly amazing overhead kick by a Beth Steel attacker puts it away.

Charlotte Independence - 2-1 Cincinnati 53 - Cross - Polak heads a long ball toward goal and into the path of the Charlotte attacker. A corner is conceded. A white shirt wins the ball, outjumping Okoli. Ball bounces out and is put back in. Miscommunication between Delbridge & Mitch causes the ball to rebound out. Weidemann is outjumped, allowing the knockdown to go to a Herrera, who puts it away.

Louisville City - 1-1 Draw 16 - Penalty - Berry sees the flight of the ball late and it strikes his arm in the area. Mitch is beaten on a perfectly placed penalty.

Louisville City - 2-1 Louisville 24 - Cross - Polak charges forward from his leftback position and tries to intercept the ball but whiffs. Ball over the top to their right wing (who Polak should be tracking) who dribbles in and sends in a ball that passes three FCC defenders before being slotted in at the back post.

Louisville City - 3-1 Louisville 34 - Cross - McMahon leaves LCFC's left winger to attempt a 2 on 1 press. The ball is played to his abandoned marker and a cross is sent in before McMahon can close down. Polak allows his maker to get goalside and is too far away allowing Hoffman the opportunity to trap and shoot.

Toronto FC II - 1-0 Toronto 45+1 - Counter - Poor ball by McMahon who is then too high up the pitch to cover the long ball to Toronto's striker in the channel on his side of the defense, Dellbridge is poorly positioned (a step too high up the pitch), ball was available to tackle, roasted with a burst of pace, and Mitch is nutmegged.

Wilmington Hammerheads - 1-0 Wilmington 24 - Corner - Okoli allows his marker to beat him to a near post corner (McMahon, who'd just given away a penalty, doesn't get there either). Tomaselli is supposed to be covering the near post but is one step outside of it. Mitch reacts one second too late and is beaten. 

One of the first challenges of watching soccer from a tactical point of view is understanding how the formation that is listed with the starting lineup translates to the formation in realtime on a field. Often when we describe formations as being 4231 or 433 but we are missing the fact that teams generally appear on the field in three separate formations: a defensive one, a transitional one, and an attacking one. FCC, for example, uses a 4141 in defense, 433 in transition, and a 343 in attack. Looking at the formations below, it should be easy to see how one flows into the other. FYI - It won't look exactly this on the field because the formation tends to be sucked towards wherever the ball is at any given moment.

Defensive 4141, Transitional 433, & Attacking 343

Defensive 4141, Transitional 433, & Attacking 343

Harkes uses this wingback system in attack at FC Cincy. This means he likes to push both fullbacks forward, splitting the centerbacks wide, and has Tomaselli play the sweeper role in deep midfield (I would say regista because of his less defensive minded nature but that sounds too pretentious). While this is well suited to building a pass-based attack from the back and allows the maximum number players in the attacking areas, it is vulnerable to quick balls over the top in if possession is lost because of all the open space left by those pushed-forward defender.

The fullback has one of the most difficult positions in modern football. They're expected to have the skill set of defenders, midfielders, and wide attackers, all while bombing up and tracking back on the flanks, covering a lot of ground and completing a lot of sprints.

A basic 433 and how that would look while attacking down the right hand. The LB is not as pushed forward and the centerbacks collapse toward the open space left by the atacking RB.

A basic 433 and how that would look while attacking down the right hand. The LB is not as pushed forward and the centerbacks collapse toward the open space left by the atacking RB.

A standard system in modern football is to have one more attack-minded fullback and one more defensive, this is how Chelsea (Azpilicueta & Ivanovic), Arsenal (Monreal & Bellerin), Atletico Madrid (Juanfran & Felipe Luis), etc operate. The sight majority of the attacking play tends to move down one side where that fullback will push up and often overlap the winger ahead of him, who cuts inside. This puts the fullback as far forward as the opposite touch line, in the position of an old school winger to deliver crosses. While the ones side's winger/fullback combo are pushing forward the other fullback will be less far forward and centerbacks will shift over to the ball side of the field to cover, creating a semi-back 3. This covers more defensive space.

Teams are always the most vulnerable in transition from attacking to defending. Players have to recover position while tracking their opposite numbers. This is why counterpressing became such a huge focus in the last five years, it takes advantage of the chaos that happens right after a loss of possession.  

When a turnover happens, FCC will often directly pressure the ball player (though it is usually an individual pressuring and not a team coordinate press). The pressured opposition player on the ball can play backward or, if he looks up, he'll often see teammates running in the channels (in red on the first graphic) created by the fullbacks absence and wide centerbacks. With both fullbacks up the pitch, often they are trying to recover against the opposition winger running into those open areas and are less confident about closing down the cross. I'm not implying that the fullbacks should be able to stop every cross but in a majority of these goals, they allow the attacker too much space to make a cross.

A well drilled centerback pairing can generally handle crosses all day long but FCC’s so far haven't developed the coordination to be particularly great in the air either. This is doubly hurtful because Mitch lacks a bit of assertiveness in charging out to catch balls sent into his box.  Thus the strategy against FCC is often, "get the ball down the flank quickly and whip in a cross." It has worked.

In summation, the balance is just a bit off. Some restraint on the fullbacks would go a long way towards correcting that. If Harkes is insistent on dual wingbacks perhaps a more imposing defensive midfielder is needed (Nicholson, if he weren't needed at CB). I don't know if he will make adjustments (he's stuck with he same lineup for six matches save one injury substitute) but it seems, as he said on the radio show, as long as FCC score more goals than the other team, he's doesn't feel wholesale change is needed.