Sounders Tactical Talk: Who is The Best Holding Midfielder in MLS?

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By Liviu Bird

SEATTLE — Just when a game looks deliciously tactical on paper, perhaps a diamond midfield matchup between two teams who rely on key passes in the middle third to unlock opposition defenses, something goes awry to ruin all the fun.

In Wednesday’s 0-0 tie between Seattle Sounders FC and Real Salt Lake, that event was Zach Scott’s 30th-minute red card. However, the rest of the game was still telling, and it showcased two of the league’s best at the same position — Kyle Beckerman and Osvaldo Alonso — and how their roles in that same slot differ greatly.

Basic Shape: 4-4-2 vs. 4-4-2

In Seattle and Salt Lake, there are no secrets. The formation for both is the tried-and-tested, classic MLS 4-4-2. Both have diamonds in the midfield, and normally, both diamonds are fairly tight, with the team relying on outside backs for width in the attack.

However, on Wednesday, both sides had their outside midfielders playing more like true wingers than they have done in many games this year. For RSL, Jonny Steele pushed much farther wide than Luis Gil did, but for Seattle, both Christian Tiffert and Mauro Rosales stayed fairly wide.

RSL’s outside backs were much more willing to press, especially after the team went up a man, which left Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave (later replaced by Chris Schuler) to deal with Fredy Montero, who also played an unusual role for him, as a target striker.

Montero Makes Life Miserable for RSL Defenders

With Montero playing that lone striker role, all Borchers and Olave had to do was stay tight on him when long balls were played out of the back and not allow him to turn. However, Montero found space often because the center backs gave him too much time to find the ball and hold it up.

Seattle defenders and midfielders hit long ball after long ball out of their own half, and Montero got on the end of it and held off both of his markers. At times, he even found ways in behind and nearly got in on goal.

It was part of the reason this game was so ugly — Seattle didn’t have to make an effort to possess the ball when it realized just how much trouble Montero was giving the defense by himself. That, and being a man down doesn’t always make it so easy to string passes together.

Kyle Beckerman vs. Osvaldo Alonso

Beckerman and Alonso have been in the debate over best MLS holding midfielder for quite some time. Colorado’s Jeff Larentowicz and Kansas City’s Roger Espinoza are two others in the mix, but Wednesday’s game pitted RSL and Seattle’s midfield marshals against one another.

The result was symbolic of the differences between the two. Scott’s red card had an influence on it, but it only led to both players showcasing their best talents. It suffices to say that the words “holding” and “defensive” cannot adequately define the position that both of these men play.

Alonso is a disruptor, while Beckerman is a playmaker. Both roles are classic No. 4 archetypes. Alonso finds the ball when it comes to him on the foot of an attacker; Beckerman finds the ball because he seeks it out all over the pitch.

Both had the opportunity to show those skills because RSL was up a man, necessitating ruthless defending in front of the back four for Seattle and constant ball movement for the away team.

Look at the heat maps for the two players, and this difference becomes obvious. Alonso’s is heavily concentrated on the defensive side of the center circle, while Beckerman’s is both offensive and defensive around the middle of the park.

Further, note the differences in their passing patterns. Beckerman attempted 137 passes, 123 of which were successful, and Alonso went 44 of 52. The man with the dreadlocks runs the offensive game for his team, but the man with no hair controls the defensive side of things.

So who is the better player, Alonso or Beckerman? The answer: it depends on what the team needs to accomplish.

Alonso isn’t going to create many goal-scoring opportunities, but he will break them up all game long. Beckerman, on the other hand, will spray passes all over the field and put players in positions to make things happen offensively.

The real answer is, it would be nice to have both on your team. They sure made a difference when their teams needed them on Wednesday.

Full Sounders v RSL Coverage:

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RSL Player Ratings

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