When Anthony Hudson was brought on as the new head coach of the Colorado Rapids, the club’s supporters quickly learned that the Englishman had a penchant for three-at-the-back.
Throughout the first half of the 2018 MLS Season, Hudson cobbled together a wide variety of lineups that fit this mold. The manager alternated between his primary tactic of placing two out-and-out-strikers ahead of three central midfielders (5-3-2) and a secondary strategy that dropped a striker in exchange for additional help in the attacking midfield (5-2-2-1).
Hudson’s three-at-the-back formation was a staple during his tenure at the head of New Zealand’s national team. When faced with elimination against Peru in the 2018 World Cup Qualifying playoff round, Hudson held firm and lined-up his side in the same 5-3-2 he utilized a year before during the Confederations Cup.
In soccer parlance, Hudson could be referred to as a “system manager” – a head coach whose tactical approach or formation rarely deviates from game to game. Columbus Crew S.C.’s Gregg Berhalter (heavily rumored to take over the vacant USMNT manager position) is regularly regarded as the MLS gold standard for this aspect of managing when it comes to his 4-2-3-1.
The benefit to running a squad in that manner is simple: if the system is working, it becomes incredibly easy to bring in new blood to the side and replace players as necessary. In Columbus, the Crew were completely untroubled when they swapped out striker Ola Kamara for Gyasi Zardes this year just like they were unfazed when Kei Kamara departed the club for New England in 2016. Berhalter’s system does not require every man on the field to be a superstar. Rather, the Crew rely on bringing in undervalued players who excel at particular attributes to combine their efforts to deliver consistent results.
While the tactic that Hudson employed was unsuccessful in leading New Zealand to the World Cup, it did land the manager his current position in Colorado. However, the transition from Oceania-level World Cup Qualifying to Major League Soccer certainly came with its own set of problems.
Relying on a three-at-the-back formation has often forced the Rapids to field players outside of their natural positions, leading to unimpressive results. Central defender Danny Wilson has occupied the defensive midfielder role more than a handful of times this year, wingback Deklan Wynne has been forced to apply his trade in central defense, and central midfielder Johan Blomberg has found time at right wingback. Additionally, left-winger Sam Nicholson has apparently proved capable of playing in every third of the pitch – appearing at wingback, central midfielder, and striker.
Halfway through the season, lack of results made it clear that this method was not working as planned. The Rapids found themselves second-to-last in the Western Conference and unable to consistently find the back of the net. Rather than provide the “attacking soccer” promised by the club’s front office, Hudson’s three-at-the-back turned into a cowering-bunk-and-counter strategy that rarely ventured forward.
It was not until the club’s second match in Utah against arch rivals Real Salt Lake that Hudson showed any attempt at changing his ways.
After his side allowed two early goals in the opening twenty minutes, the manager was gifted a one-hour weather delay to modify Colorado’s shape and strategy. Shortly thereafter, RSL was unable to handle the first glimpse of truly attacking soccer the Rapids had displayed in 2018.
Colorado had started in a 5-2-2-1 prior to mother nature’s interruption. The front three of Nicholson/Boli/McBean was largely stagnant in the opening minutes and the Rapids’ best chance came from a long-range effort taken by Johan Blomberg that swung inches wide of the post. After the break, Hudson substituted Yannick Boli for Enzo Martinez and switched up to a 4-4-2-diamond – the first departure from a three-at-the-back formation in MLS this year.
[Left: Hudson’s 5-2-2-1 vs. Salt Lake pre-weather delay; Right: Hudson’s 4-4-2-Diamond vs. Salt Lake post-weather delay]
“The response was instantaneous,” Hudson would comment after the game. Indeed, the Rapids were on the front foot for most of the remaining seventy minutes. Colorado’ press limited RSL’s passing opportunities in the midfield and prevented the Claret-and-Cobalt from creating many chances of their own. Ultimately, the press paid off: Jack McBean buried a penalty in the first half and late substitute Dillon Serna bagged the game-winning goal after a wonderful effort from Edgar Castillo.
The Rapids faithful would later learn that the manager had been toying with a tactical shift for quite some time. After the club signed box-to-box midfielder Kellyn Acosta, Hudson spoke of the change to Burgundy Wave’s Abbie Mood. Colorado’s manager explained that the Rapids had “worked on it many times throughout preseason and early season” and that he believes the change is being made at “the right time.” Hudson also referred to Acosta as “the type of player that can play in any of the two or three systems that we want to play,” implying that a more fluid approach to match tactics might be around the corner.
Days later, the Rapids overcame another two-goal deficit and defeated South American giants Boca Juniors (on penalties) in a friendly match hosted at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. The following weekend, Colorado suffered a heartbreaking defeat in the ninetieth minute to D.C. United. In both matches, the 4-4-2-diamond proved to be the formation of choice.
[Left: Hudson’s 4-4-2-Diamond vs. Boca Juniors; Right: Hudson’s 4-4-2-Diamond vs. D.C. United]
The D.C. match – in which the Rapids failed to garner a result against the Eastern Conference’s bottom-dwellers – perhaps indicates that there is more work to be done if Hudson desires to move forward with the tactical switch.
MLS Analyst Matthew Doyle rightfully-mocked the decision to play defensive midfielder Jack Price in the 4-4-2-diamond’s playmaker role, others have questioned Hudson’s continued insistence on playing Danny Wilson in Price’s natural position, and a majority of Rapids Republic twitter followers believe Tim Howard should not be starting in goal.
The questions asked of Hudson all point to a central theme: the Rapids have a depth problem.
Following the trade of leading goalscorer Dominique Badji to Dallas and the waiving of striker Joe Mason, the Rapids are left with five under-performing forwards and no true central playmaker (a.k.a. “a number 10”) on the roster.
Striker Yannick Boli has failed to find the back of the net in open play across fourteen league appearances, Designated Player Shkëlzen Gashi has been unable to remain fit to contribute consistently, LA Galaxy-castaway Jack McBean has averaged 0.8 shots per game, and new acquisition Giles Barnes has not managed to provide anything other than a few skillful dribbles in his limited appearances since joining the Rapids. While the club recently recalled Niki Jackson from loan to assist with forward depth, it is unlikely that the inexperienced SuperDraft acquisition will prove to be the missing piece in the new tactical approach.
The depth issues extend to other regions of the field as well. When Marlon Hairston missed two months due to a knee injury, Hudson could not seem to settle on a second-choice right wingback – Dillon Serna, Johan Blomberg, Bismark Adjei-Boateng, Sam Nicholson, and Deklan Wynne all featured at the position across April and May. Hairston’s return from injury merely posed more inquiries, as the versatile midfielder was relegated to the bench or left out of the Starting XI entirely in competitive matches after Colorado’s 3-2 win against Minnesota. Central defender Kortne Ford has seemingly taken up Hairston’s mantle, playing the right-fullback position in both iterations of the 4-4-2-diamond utilized in the league.
In net, Colorado’s goalkeepers have also faced increased scrutiny. While Tim Howard is getting paid $2.4 million a year to let in ugly goal after ugly goal in the league, backup Zac Macmath failed to impress in his most recent outing against Boca Juniors.
However, the season is not entirely lost. General Manager Pádraig Smith has hinted that the club could make a couple more signings this window and the arrival of Kellyn Acosta (who scored a fantastic goal in his debut) demonstrates that the club is serious about turning around the side by bringing in quality talent.
Insofar as the Rapids have looked better since the switch to four-at-the-back, acquiring a true No. 10 should be at the top of Smith’s wishlist (the attempt at signing Romain Gall certainly indicates the club are in the market for another attacking midfielder). Bringing in such a player would provide Colorado’s forwards with a bit more service and would join Price and Acosta in a well-constructed midfield. Additionally, the Rapids would do well by signing a true right-sided fullback to cease the endless player rotation in that role. Finally, bringing in a clinical finisher to solve some of the issues up front would take the burden off a defense that currently has two members competing for Rapids’ top goalscorer.
Making these changes would yield the following Rapids squad:
The problem facing the Rapids’ Front Office is that clinical attacking players rarely come on the cheap. Colorado does have an open Designated Player spot that could be used to target a hypothetical No. 10, but “the club isn’t expected” to fill that position this window. That leaves the wild world of Targeted and General Allocation Money (TAM/GAM), of which Colorado has acquired a decent amount through various mechanisms this season. However, it is difficult to see how five hundred-odd grand could be enough to bring in a player with enough quality to carry the woeful Rapids attack. In the meantime, the Burgundy faithful will find themselves counting down the days until Tim Howard and Shkëlzen Gashi’s contracts expire.
More has to be done on the rebuilding front in Colorado if the Rapids wish to improve. Indeed, for as long at the Rapids continue putting out a defensive midfielder at the top of a 4-4-2-diamond, it will remain difficult for the Rapids to achieve the results Anthony Hudson desires.
[Note: If you’d like to see how the Rapids could line up without bringing in a No. 10, Reddit user /u/TheAgeOfTomfoolery made an interesting case for utilizing an empty-bucket 4-4-2 here that sparked a fantastic discussion on the /r/Rapids subreddit]
Image Credit: SBI Soccer