When the New York Cosmos Came to Town
With captain and stalwart center back Aaron Pitchkolan missing, Armada head coach Mark Lowry decided it was time for not one change, but a litany of change. The starting line up contained three new players.
Lowry’s tactics also changed substantially. Gone was the 4-3-3 out-of-possession, and in was the classic 4-4-2 out-of-possession. The in-possession tactic still contained a back three, but in the shape of a 3-2-2-3, rather than the 3-4-3 of previous games. The injection of change certainly brought a bit of life to the Armada.
Mark Lowry loves his fluid formations. The practice of switching formations is a high-risk/high-reward strategy. If executed effectively switching formations based on possession can provide an extra attacker, or defender, as necessary. However, the downside is that if the opposition catches the team “mid-switch” there are rampant opportunities to exploit space.
However, to exploit space teams need pinpoint passing and pace. Mark Lowry has astutely realized that as a league the NASL lacks both of those qualities. The narrow 4-3-3 the Armada played against Edmonton allowed the Edmonton forward wingers acres of space, but that acreage was not exploited due to inaccurate passing.
To date the Jacksonville Armada are, on average, allowing half a goal a game. Teams are not catching the Armada mid-switch. That has been the case all season. Why then did Mark Lowry deviate from the narrow 4-3-3 and the attacking 3-4-3? Let’s take a look. Up first is a tweet of the Armada’s starting line-up.
— Jax Armada FC (@JaxArmadaFC) May 6, 2017
The differences between the 3-2-2-3 and the 3-4-3 the Armada started the season with are nuanced. The 3-4-3 essentially removed all midfield play and divided the team into three defenders, a line of four on the edge of the box, a striker in the box, and two wingers (If readers would like to review the tactics of the first game they can do so here.). The 3-2-2-3 allowed for Kevan George to shield the back four, while Jack Blake made runs from deep positions.
The seemingly subtle switch, in theory, forces a greater sense accountability from the opposition. Rather than just worrying about seven players in and around the box, they have to be concerned about runs from deep, central through balls, and crosses. The formation utilized against the Cosmos while in-possession of the ball allows for a greater variety of attack, which was quite obvious in the first ten minutes of the match.
The composition of the back three further aided the new 3-2-2-3. Keeping Kevan George in front of the back three increases his passing range and keeps him in his most effective position. Utilizing left back Kalen Ryder as the third center back instead allowed Jemal Johnson a bit more creative freedom moving forward, as he did not have to worry about overlap play. He was direct at every opportunity.
Speaking of Johnson, the changes in the starting lineup greatly enhanced the effectiveness of Lowry’s formation change. Johnson is a more direct, and natural, wide player than Zac Steinberger. His inclusion provided a much needed burst of direct attack. Derek Gebhard replaced Jonathan Glenn as the main forward and proved to be a bit more versatile. Gebhard showed a greater ability to complement the increase in attack variety than Glenn, who has been playing as a post-up target man.
Devon Fisher certainly did not have a great game, but once Aaron Pitchkolan returns that position will be occupied by Drew Beckie. Beckie loves to get forward and put in crosses, something Fisher struggled with against New York. Lastly the decision to move Blake to defensive midfielder in place of Nicklas Maripuu created a wild card element. While better defensively, Mariupuu does not make runs from deep, nor is he particularly potent on the ball. From the defensive midfield position Blake was able to play some solid box-to-box football.
When the ball was the lost, the team immediately switched to the 4-4-2. The greatest burden was on right back Devon Fisher. Fisher was frequently sprinting forty to fifty yards against the Cosmos to get back into position. However, as stated earlier, there is yet to be an opponent capable of exploiting the brief opportunity in the time it takes to switch. Drew Beckie also possesses a greater positional awareness than Fisher, and will not have so much ground to cover, should the Armada stick to the same formations.
The 4-4-2 is perhaps the most resolute formation that still allows for two strikers. However, Steinberger and Gebhard were certainly not a striking duo. They were assigned one mission by Mark Lowry and that was to press continuously. Standing anywhere from ten to fifteen yard inside the opposition half the two lads pressed like men possessed. Two men pressing from the middle, rather than three pressing from across the width of the pitch (as was the case in the narrow 4-3-3) prevented New York from playing through the middle, as they prefer to do.
In the narrow 4-3-3 the wings were ripe for exploitation, however the 4-4-2 presented New York with a different opportunity. As the Armada sat fairly deep, the long ball was out of the question. What was available was the space in between the defensive and midfield lines.
Playing between the lines is a popular tactic employed by many top level clubs. If an opposition player sits in the hole it forces a defender to step up, or a midfielder to drop down. Either scenario creates a break in shape, unless of course you leave the player to pass or shoot. New York declined Lowry’s opportunity, and opted instead to attempt the odd long ball after obtaining a one goal advantage.
What the switch from the 4-3-3 to the 4-4-2 represents is Mark Lowry’s ability to adapt his defensive tactics to ensure the opposition is as uncomfortable as possible. Edmonton lacked the long range passing to exploit wide space downfield, so the Armada played narrow and watched as ball after ball sailed out of bounds. New York likes to play through the middle, so the Armada played a spine of six players with two people with the top two pressing.
Tactical diversity is not a common trait in the footballing world. From the highest level to pick-up games most organizations master one or two formations a season. The Jacksonville Armada have utilized four different formations (Not counting the “two center backs on the half-way line, throw everyone forward” move in the final minutes of the game) in the first third of the NASL season. That is staggering.
The ability to be tactically fluid is not just a credit to Mark Lowry, but to the players. Every formation contains a different set of instructions, a different set of responsibilities, and a different approach to the game. Committing each set to muscle memory is no simple task.
There are plenty of managers who can draw up four formations, but what makes Mark Lowry and the Armada special is that they are utilizing them effectively. The team looks well-drilled, focused, and tactically aware at every moment.
There are always football “purists” who will say “Play a damn formation and stick with it!” While that approach has it’s merits, watching the tactical journey of the Jacksonville Armada, and the evolution of Mark Lowry’s strategy is an absolute treat.
On Thursday, May 11th, Offside will be publishing an article by Zac Furlough (@furlough43) that will take a closer look at the Armada’s upstart coach, Mark Lowry. Feel free to tweet any questions, thoughts, or input to Zac as he works on the article!