When Sounders FC midfielder Freddie Ljungberg was ready to join the team after off-season hip surgery, it didn’t just mean that one player in their successful midfield would be supplanted in the starting lineup. His addition has meant a change in the entire midfield, as his deft play with the ball at his feet has altered the Sounders midfield formation and the way opponents defend them.
Formerly, Brad Evans and Osvaldo Alonso, two defensive-minded players, manned the central midfield. With Ljungberg providing such an on-field presence, Evans has moved to the outside, where his play differs from that of the other wing options, Steve Zakuani, Sebastien Le Toux and Sanna Nyassi. While that trio plays a forward-thinking, attacking style, Evans is more balanced, pressing forward when he needs to like when he scored the Sounders’ second goal of the year in a 3-0 win over New York and falling back like he did opposite Kansas City’s midfield powers.
The difference has come in what the players do once they pass the ball.
“I think in the first three games, it was just us four in the midfield working hard, then playing the ball up and getting forward. Now the three midfielders have to work a little harder on both sides of the ball and get the ball to Freddie and let him do his thing,” Evans said. “It’s nothing but positive.”
This move from a traditional 4-4-2 to a diamond-shaped midfield means moving some of the defensive pressure and responsibility from the middle of the field to the wings.
“I thought our spacing and positioning was okay on Saturday,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said. “Brad tucked in a little bit more, which is what we wanted from the week before. So if you compare the 90 against Chivas to the 30 that we played 11 against 11 against Kansas City, I thought our defensive shape was much better and I think our shape overall was much better. And again I thought we created a lot of things going forward that were right on the edge of the final third that didn’t come off or result in anything. It’s more of an emphasis of that then I think the shaping in midfield.”
With Ljungberg starting much of Seattle’s offense, the Sounders seek him out when they get the ball. And they see benefits once he does get the ball. With each touch, he draws double- and triple-teams creating more openings for his teammates.
“I think everybody’s looking for him, we just have to move a little bit more and he will get us the ball. That’s a little bit different,” said Evans. “He draws two or three players every time he touches the ball. That gets you a little more freedom.”
With only two full games with Ljungberg in his midfield role, the team may have a few more games before they iron out all of the wrinkles and Ljungberg and his teammates develop chemistry. But according to Schmid, the end result will likely outweigh the cost of the two early-season losses.
“We need to design training sessions that will address those issues. But the other thing is that part of it comes with time. Ljungberg and Montero have played together now a total of maybe 180 minutes. Once they got like 700 minutes together, I think they’ll understand each other a lot better,” Schmid said. “So an awful lot of that depends on guys getting to know each other better.”
The next opportunity to grow that relationship will come Saturday when the Sounders FC takes on the San Jose Earthquakes at 7:30 at Qwest Field.