March 18th, 2013 by Michael Orr
Why do we always want Caleb Porter to tell us what formation he’s using? I’m as guilty as anyone, having just asked specifically about playing something called a diamond after last Friday’s training session. And when we do ask, why don’t we actually listen to Porter’s reply? He’s explained it before, after all.
Let’s go back to Porter’s introductory press conference on January 8. He concludes a strange combination of questions regarding Barcelona by saying, “I’m very realistic. We’re going to look at our team, we’re going to look at the opponent, and going into each game we’re going to come up with a way to win the game.” But that wasn’t enough. Porter was immediately asked what formation he prefers to use. Porter replied: “It’s interesting because at Akron, in seven seasons, I only played a 4-3-3 two seasons. Five of the seven I played a 4-4-2. Because of the (US) U23s and a few articles after that, I’ve been married to a 4-3-3. I’m in no way married to a 4-3-3.”
Right. So Porter is not married to a 4-3-3. He followed that up by explaining his approach both to team building and to system implementation:
“I look at my teams and the players on an individual, case-by-case, season-by-season basis. I come up with a system and a formation that fits the group of players that I’m going to be fitting together. They’re like pieces to a puzzle and there’s a lot of different formations that I can use. And yet, the philosophy and the style of play should remain consistent because that’s a coach’s vision of how they want their teams to play the game. In terms of the overall system, there can be some, and should be some adaptation from year-to-year and even game-to-game. We’ll have a couple of different systems that we’ll be utilizing unless we find one that works.”
Barely more than two months later, I couldn’t help but ask if Porter was considering switching from the 4-2-3-1 (we’ll come back to this shortly) he used in the first two games to a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield. Among other things, he answered:
“I have a number of different shapes and systems that I can use. I’ve never actually been a 4-3-3 guy to a fault. I’ve always used different shapes at Akron. I actually only played a 4-3-3 there two years. A lot of time I played a diamond and a lot of time I played lopsided, hybrid shapes. It has to fit the players and mostly it has to fit the game and the opponent that you’re playing. So we’re always going to be looking at those things. If it’s not working and there’s something that needs to be changed, we’ll change it. But it’s not always a system change. Sometimes it’s a personnel change. Sometimes it’s a training tweak.”
So it’s the system that matters, not the exact formation. In fact, Porter likes to use the word shape to describe how his players are aligned, rather than formation. Importantly he mentioned playing lopsided, hybrid shapes on Friday. Portland’s second half against both Montreal and Seattle fit much better into that type of explanation for a game plan than does a traditional formation description of ’4-4-2′ or ’4-3-3.’
I’ve been describing Porter’s formation for most of the pre-season and the first two regular season matches as a 4-2-3-1 while he simplifies the discussion and calls it a 4-3-3. Neither of these titles is exactly accurate, but Porter has decided it’s easier to explain using simple terms instead of having to relay the nuance of the varied movements, shifts and rotations within his system after every single game. Some managers really do believe they are playing the formation they describe. Porter exists in a different realm.
Now it has been established that there is more to the game plan than simply inserting players into pre-determined roles within a traditional formational structure. Yet the local media cannot help it and asks yet again what formation Porter is using. Here is the exchange from the bowels of CenturyLink Field Saturday night:
Q – It looked like you were using a diamond formation out there. Is that correct?
A – No.
Q – Not correct? 4-4-2?
A – No.
Q – I’m going to stop…
A – It depends on our rotation and our movement. I don’t get too caught up in the numbers game.
The final sentence is the perfect summation of Porter’s thoughts on what he must consider a trivial conversation. It’s not about the numbers. It’s not about the order of numbers or what they are supposed to represent. Formations are, of course, only a starting point for a discussion on tactics. But for Porter this is not a strong enough representation. The spaces and the movement tell the story of what he’s trying to accomplish through his players, not stationary circles on a green background.
So why do we keep asking? What are we trying to get him to say? Suggesting he did not play a 4-4-2 last night is a tough sell in the narrow confines of ‘tactical analysis.’ But Porter isn’t looking at the field in the same way. It’s not about whether Darlington Nagbe was or wasn’t a third forward in Seattle, or if the midfield configuration can be defined as a diamond. This is not to say he is a genius or a revolutionary. Only that the line of questioning thus far is missing the point.
If better questions are asked, perhaps a clearer picture will emerge from Porter’s answers. Or perhaps not. He may never exactly share his point of view on this topic. He might not even be able to. But either way, our half of this conversation needs to change.