Let's talk tactics... What is the formula for success in Orlando?
With the MLS Is Back tournament only days away, I thought it might be interesting to pick apart this club's roster and analyse our strongest line-up. Whilst no-one can be absolutely certain who will take the field for Orlando City when they face-off against Inter Miami on July 8, it's fun to hypothesise.
When Orlando City opened the 2020 season with a 0-0 draw at home to Real Salt Lake, Oscar Pareja's team operated in a variant of the 4-2-3-1 formation. This formation then gave the team the fluidity and personnel to revert to more of 4-5-1 when out of possession, whilst simultaneously allowing them to get numbers forward on the offensive side of the ball.
Things could not have been more different, however, when the Lions travelled to Colorado in game week 2. Ultimately, City fell to a late set piece goal. In a game they arguably didn't deserve to lose. Oscar Pareja's men were lined up in a 3-5-2 formation with João Moutinho and Kyle Smith operating as wing-backs. At this point, I implore you to ignore the social media graphic formations, but I'm sure you all know that these are never accurate. The 3-5-2 has a number of advantages for Orlando; as such I think it's this team's best bet going forward in this tournament.
So what is Orlando's strongest XI? And which formation suits them best?
Personally, I believe the following to be Orlando's strongest line-up and formation:
This particular line-up and formation contains a number of interesting nuances and characteristics which allow the team to adjust their shape seemlessly when in and out of possession. It's also a game plan that can be tailored for the opposition.
We all recognise that overlapping full-backs, particularly in the case of Ruan, are probably our greatest weapons. The 3-5-2 is the formation that allows for this the most, whilst also ensuring the team is able to provide adequate defensive cover when the full-backs (or wing backs) go on the hunt. With the likes of Junior Urso and Sebas Mendez in a midfield two, they are able to interchange providing cover for Ruan and Moutinho when they get forward. Both midfielders have great engines and strong defensive and positional capabilities to adequately cover on either side, particularly if the team are worried about the counter attack.
This formation also allows the defensive 3 to push up and squeeze opposition offensive lines, particularly when in possession. When going for the jugular in search of a crucial goal, or when Orlando are dominating, they may not want to lose Mendez's and Urso's running ability in the final third. In such situations it's possible to push the backline up and have Gallese act as a sweeper keeper. This allows Orlando to compress the opposition. This could prove to be a useful tactic if and when we return to Exploria Stadium, and indeed during MLS Is Back. This is mainly because of the heat, combined with the way Oscar Pareja likes his team's to play. This is something that was evident during the opening day draw with RSL.
Figure 1. This heatmap highlights how Orlando were using their defensive line and defensive midfielders as a springboard to formulate attacks. Something that worked very well in the opening game against RSL.
The above heatmap highlights the movements of the back four of Ruan, Jansson, Carlos and Moutinho as well as Mendez and Urso. You can see how Ruan was the main attacking arsenal for Orlando down the right flank. Particularly in the absence of Dom Dwyer and Nani. Also note the positioning of Robin Jansson and Antonio Carlos in figure 3 (below). Carlos and Jansson were often shifting play to the right, which reflects the emphasis on Ruan. But also, note the blue markings around halfway (figure 3). At times both were even playing in the opposing half. This is a prime example of Orlando trying to strangle the game and push up their defensive line, particularly in the first half as the Lions were in the ascendancy. This was done with a back 4. I would argue a 3 gives you a greater platform on which to build when utilising this style of play.
Figure 2. This heatmap shows how Orlando were using their defensive line to push up and clampdown on RSL's forwards. Also note how RSL were using Glad and Herrera to push up on Moutinho, who was fairly isolated. Thus limiting the Lion's options.
Figure 3. This heatmap shows how Orlando were having to shift focus down the right side, because of how RSL were managing our left flank. Orlando typically focus attacks down the right anyway, because of Ryan's ability. This play by RSL just meant we had to.
The main issue I have with 4 at the back, is that the formation makes it more difficult to play out from your own defensive third. Particularly when faced with a high press. Your options are simply more limited as you are relying on your defensive midfielders to come and collect the ball more often than not. It only requires opposition forwards to press the 2 central defenders, and then your full-backs have to tuck in and offer themselves for the ball. This in turn encourages the opposing wingers to press. Which really only leaves your defensive midfielders or goal keeper as a viable option. This is something we saw in the RSL game, with both Glad (RB) and Herrera (RM) pushing up on Moutinho. This meant Orlando had to focus many of their attacks through the right and centre with Mendez in particular, having to drop into defensive third and operate as a 6. This ain't where we want him.
Soccer is almost like a game of chess these days. Something I think Pareja recognises. Whereas with a 3 you have the option of stretching your own defensive line, thus allowing the wing-backs to camp further up the field. This then discourages the opposition wingers from pressing too far forward for fear of getting caught out. The fact that Orlando now possess ball playing central defenders (and a keeper) makes it much easier for them to launch attacks by playing out from their own defensive third.
Figure 4. This heatmap shows, how the movements of Jansson, Carlos and Schlegel opened up more passing lanes for the team during the defeat in Colorado.
Playing out from the back is a fine art, and is something that few teams have perfected. FC Barcelona 2009-11 with their 'tiki taka' are arguably the standard bearer. Whilst Orlando are never going to be as good as Barcelona, I certainly think playing out from the back is the way forward for this team. Particularly when you consider our attacking options. With a likely pairing of Dom Dwyer and Nani up front, we simply do not suit a more direct style, whilst possessing players with an innate ability to play between the lines. It would be folly to use a more direct style. The particular variant of 3-5-2 that we saw in the Rockies lends itself well to interplay. With Nani and Mauricio Pereyra linking up in the attacking third, and with the likes of Moutinho and Ruan providing width you can man ipulate opposition defensive lines more easily. This is something a fully fit and confident Dom Dwyer will thrive off of. And he has to.
So, what about Orlando's depth?
There are unquestionably weak areas still within this team; left back being one such area. That being said, this is probably the strongest squad, on paper, that the club has ever had. There are players in most positions that could slot easily into this formula. Which is absolutely crucial in any season, but particularly during this MLS Is Back tournament. None of the team are going to be fully match fit from the off, risk of injury in the central Floridian heat is perhaps higher than it has ever been. The whole squad will be crucial if Orlando are to have any hope of success in this tournament.
As you can see, there is a steep drop off in quality in certain areas of the pitch. But not so much in others. Brian Rowe is as capable a backup stopper as you are ever likely to find in this league. Alex DeJohn, Kamal Miller and Kyle Smith are all capable stand ins along the backline. It's wingback where he have a real lack of adequate cover. As solid a defender as Kyle Smith is, he simply does not have the ability Ruan has when charging down the wing. You can use Chris Mueller in that position, but I'm not convinced he is a long-term solution there. I know he's not really been used as an out and out striker all that much, but I genuinely see that as being his best position.
People have often spoken about the clubs apparent need to bring in more depth in terms of wingers. And I partially agree. We have very little in the way of effective wingers. This is part of the reason I see the 3-52 as being the way forward for this team. A 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 just doesn't work with this roster. In his Manchester United heyday, Nani was arguably one of the best wingers in the Premier League. But that's no longer his calling. He is by far at his most effective as a number 10 or second striker these days.
In conclusion, I firmly believe that the 3-5-2 formation is the way to go for this team, at least initially. If reports are to be believed the FO are actively searching for wingers, which says the Oscar Pareja is looking for more options. I just think 3-5-2 is the best option when you consider the pieces he has at his disposal. Let me know what you think via the usual channels. Vamos.
All statistics courtesy of whoscored.com