Fresh off qualifying for the quarterfinals of the Concacaf Champions League, the Montreal Impact hosted the New England Revolution in their season opener and secured their first three points of the year.
Impact head coach Thierry Henry maintained his back-five formation against the Revolution but emphasized the importance of playing direct and further forward. This set-up may seem conservative on the surface, however, it’s anything but that in possession.
“It makes me laugh when it’s called a back-five. With the ball, it’s a back-three as our full-backs get forward. Without the ball, it becomes a back-five,” said Henry. “When people hear five defenders, they think all we’ll do is defend, but Zach (Brault-Guillard) and Jorge (Corrales) played really high today.”
While it’s still early days in the Henry era, the French tactician has been very clear about what he’s looking for from his team moving forward.
“We needed to be brave on the ball, be more direct and play higher,” said Henry. “We’ve been working on this. This formation opens up the space for the wing-backs and allows them to play further forward and whip in dangerous balls.
“They didn’t know who to mark at times. It’s not all perfect, but the team is slowly turning into something.”
Canadian Premier League standout Joel Waterman made his MLS debut and is enjoying the freedom afforded to him by Henry’s back-five.
“I really like this set-up. It gives us security and a lot of bodies moving forward. We’re headed in the right direction,” said Waterman.
Besides his turnover early in the second half, the 24-year-old was assured in possession, completing 51 passes, the third-most on the team, and even registered an assist.
With Henry putting a particular emphasis on playing out of the back, Waterman may see his importance in the side increase as the season wears on. “Our defenders did a better job progressing the ball today and moved the ball well,” said Henry.
Beyond ball-playing center-backs and aggressive fullbacks, Henry is keen on more directness from his midfielders. On Saturday, Saphir Taïder got the nod alongside Samuel Piette and often looked to break opposing lines in possession. The winning goal stemmed from this newfound direction as the Algerian released Maxi Urruti in space with an over-the-top through ball.
“It’s extremely important that our midfielders play positively. We have to make the other team move from side-to-side,” said Henry.
Samuel Piette, typically deployed as the side’s deepest midfielder, is adapting to his new role further forward. “I’m getting in different areas, there’s one less midfielder with this formation,” said Piette. “I’m higher up the pitch, it’s something I’m going to have to adapt to, but it will come with time.”
After besting Deportivo Saprissa largely thanks to pragmatism and a deep defensive line, Henry used this game against the Revolution to slowly embed new elements into his young Impact side. Chief among them is directness from his midfielders and aggressive fullback play; something that wasn’t evident against the Costa Ricans.
Whether the back-five, or back-three as Henry likes to call it, is here to stay remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: If Henry’s message is well-received by his players, the Impact will be aggressive and hard to break down this season. That is, of course, if they figure out how to defend set-pieces.