FCC Analysis: Tactical Pragmatism
--Guest contributor FCC Analysis can be found on Twitter here writing about FCC and diving into stats.--
Is FC Cincinnati’s reversion to tactical pragmatism an indication of a conflict between the short-term and long-term strategy of the club?
FC Cincinnati started the season with a 4-2-3-1 that emphasized intense pressing and direct play. It had some serious issues, which were likely due to tactical problems that were compounded by mismatched personnel and a lot of new players. After a few games of this, people were clamoring for more pragmatism to be injected into the tactical setup.
Following the Inter Miami game FC Cincinnati switched to a 5-3-2 with a low block, which resembled the approach that FCC took after the 4-0 loss to Columbus during the MLS is Back Tournament. Stam’s tactical change in 2021 coincided with FC Cincinnati’s first win of the season, which was against the Montreal Impact just two games ago.
Against the New England Revolution there were some good moments, but the same issues that plagued the start of the season were still present. FCC did not have any control in the middle of the field which led to a lack of possession. Against the Revolution they were also defending way too deep, allowing the Revolution to have an alarming number of shots, 23(!!!) in the first half alone.
In the game against the Montreal Impact, FC Cincinnati reverted to the 4-2-3-1 at around the 70th minute mark, while against the Revolution, they went to back to the 4-2-3-1 at halftime. In both games, FCC looked better after these changes. This leads to the question; is the return to full-blooded pragmatism short-sighted and will it harm the development of FC Cincinnati’s long-term philosophy?
Why this may be the case
FC Cincinnati are currently in a difficult place. After two years of gross incompetence on the field, they must find success immediately to sustain the fan base, avoid long-term hard to the club's brand, and build momentum for the club moving into the new stadium downtown stadium. And the club deserves the pressure. The problems have been caused and continued by the lack of organizational structure that are ingrained at most successful clubs.
FC Cincinnati’s attempt to play a hybrid 4-3-3/4-2-3-1, with an emphasis on pressing and rapid attacking interchanges, was shortsighted in the first place, as the personnel were never, and are still not, there to play this way. This is in an indictment on the front office and maybe Stam depending on how much input he has hadon transfers. But tipping the scales unevenly towards pragmatism and praying for a result is just as shortsighted.
FCC’s tactical approach continuously reverting back and forth between the two tactical extremes of pragmatism and full-on attacking play is a revealing example of the lack of planning. Successful clubs have an overarching tactical blueprint, in which they create a balanced squad with compatible player profiles. This also requires patience, and an understanding that poor results in the short-term do not necessitate a complete tactical overhaul. Instead, FCC seem to make massive changes, both on and off the field after a few poor games, shown by both last season and so far this season.
There is not anything wrong with making tactical adjustments. Specific game situations call for varying tactical setups and ideas. But there is an issue with the club cyclically rotating between the extremes of bunkering in and going full pressing and attacking mode.
Any club can adopt the bunkering, "park the bus" approach, even with mismatched personnel combinations. Playing this way can provide you with immediate results. But it does not provide long-term growth. Instead, long-term success comes from a vision in which every decision is calibrated with the future in mind. FC Cincinnati must adopt an identity, stick with that identity, and overhaul the roster to fit this identity.
There are of course nuances that effect this. The identity must make sense. The intricacies of MLS roster rules and overall roster construction must be navigated. The club has to be more careful with international players and target specific age profiles that create more continuity within the roster. But either way, if all decisions are calibrated towards the long-term vision, you will not have to overreact when short-term results do not go your way.
If the long-term vision is the 4-3-3, 3-5-2, (or both) then so be it. More importantly, it must be based on a style of play such as a high-pressing system. FCC cannot continue to have incompatible personnel that are signed in the short-term, under a play style that is liable to change in the following month once results turn bad. All this does is create a bloated squad, inhibiting maneuverability within a roster build, which is especially bad when a club requires significant personnel changes to find success.
So, should FCC revert to the 4-2-3-1 from the start of the season? Maybe, but it really depends on what play style and specific formation they see as their long-term future. Importantly, this overarching structure should never be dependent on a specific manager.