Indy Eleven need to put a short leash on tactical innovation

A look at Indy Eleven’s formation and its shortcomings.

It was widely speculated that Indy Eleven would deploy a 3-4-3 formation in their season debut against Saint Louis FC in St. Louis and that’s what they did as Ilija Illic, Dane Kelly, and Thomas Envoldsen started atop a brand new formation for Indy Eleven. It wouldn’t hold up as Indy Eleven would drop all three to the home side. Diving deeper into tactical innovation by the second year head coach, Indy Eleven may need to pull back on the formation before it gets out of hand.

One game does not mean much

Before it gets tweeted, one game doesn’t mean much. This was just as much the first game for Saint Louis as it was for Indy Eleven and as such, it should be taken with that. All that being said, the first competitive look at the 3-4-3, a formation used in the team’s last preseason game, was anything but stellar. With the numbers they likely had in midfield, even against a 4-4-2 that St. Louis played, Indy Eleven struggled to gain any substantial possession until the 15-minute mark or so.

Stats courtesy of

Disengaged attack

The big debate when it comes to the starting XI is whether or not Martin Rennie would make an effort to include arguably the three strongest attacking players on the field at once. He did. Envoldsen and Illic lined up behind Kelly and off to either side. It was clear by the end of the game that the chemistry and the rust was an issue.

Kelly should be the one that primarily lines up at the top, but it’s still not totally believable to put both Envoldsen and Ilic on the field together. Considering that Starikov came on for Indy Eleven’s one of two academy signings,  Joshua Penn, there was more to be desired from the bench in terms of quality attacking talent. In the future for the “strongest” starting XI, fans should hope to see the likes of Eugene Starikov up front ahead of Ilic or Envoldsen to allow for the team to have a quality replacement late in games while Kelly fights through some issues of rust.

With Starikov, you likely get an attacking minded player who could hit a great final pass when presented. Starikov came on with only 10 minutes and put 6 (albeit) short passes in the opponent’s half. He’s a textbook defined attacking midfielder who can bring you more playmaking instead of relying on your forwards to generate those players.

Joshua Penn

Among the rust removal of Indy Eleven emerged a shiny new car. Joshua Penn, 18, is a new signing for Indy Eleven. He’s what’s referred to as an “Academy signing” which means he retains his collegiate eligibility while being able to play professionally. His starting is likely due to the bizarre vanishing of Ayoze, who was a “healthy scratch” (the team declined to comment when I reached out to them) but Penn, who is typically closer to an inside or center forward, played his role especially well.

Penn hugged his line while dipping inside where available. His play often felt like the type where you’d have to explain to someone that he wasn’t a traditionally defined professional. Statistically, Penn had only two crosses that were deemed successful, however, those two crosses nearly led to two goals. Rennie has stressed the need for depth and if Penn gets pushed back down later on in the season for a player like Ayoze, Penn’s play here will be something that Indy Eleven fans will be hopeful show up late in the season.

Short leash on 3-4-3

It’s widely speculated that Martin Rennie’s desire for a three defender formation goes back to last season. Due to injuries, however, the plan never took motion and he wasn’t able to achieve this, settling for a variation on 4-3-3. This season, he’s brought in the players needed to perform this formation and Saturday was his first attempt at it.

3-4-3 puts an enormous amount of stress, visually, on two parts of the field. The central midfield and the central defenders. The central defenders tend to have to branch out because the wide midfield players will likely be your playmakers. Ouimette and Hackshaw swing out to occupy the space left open by the lack of wingbacks. This calls for the central midfielders to likely play back enough to hang back on counters so the lone central defender, in this case, Paddy Barret, don’t get left behind. This, in a way, ends up looking like a five at the back formation.

It’s a risky formation, but you can often get outpaced and eventually lose people on quick counters. But, it piles your midfield in and can help you dominate possession, which Indy Eleven did to the tune of 65% possession. While the two goals conceded had little to do with the formation only having three central defenders, it felt often that players were either out of place or unaware of what they were required to do. This is completely on Rennie and the fact that the team really didn’t play this formation, let alone get a lineup that looked like a strong enough starting eleven on the field until the last preseason game against Nashville.

3-4-3 can work. It’s just a very high demanding formation. You can look up one league where the league champions, with a new coach, are playing like anything but the reigning league champions behind a 3-4-3 lead by MLS’ best striker, Josef Martinez.

Indy Eleven can’t really afford to “wait for it to develop.” It will get better, as many have said. 3-4-3 is a challenging formation that demands a lot of game time but when your expectations are not only so high and a team chock full of new players, you can’t afford to wait for a formation to come around. You need to start players in more natural positions until they can build that chemistry up.

With your only goal coming from a corner kick, and statistically, that should have been the farthest thing that happened, Indy Eleven need to stress the midfield playmaking and take strong chances at goal, putting Kelly, Envoldsen, and Ilic in better positions to score.

Five games need to be the limit for Indy Eleven’s tactical innovation. You have to talented of strikers and too much money invested in fixing the issues of last season to create new ones. Give the 3-4-3 a chance to grow and get more natural but at some point, it’s time to pull back and reevaluate your strengths and weakness.

It’s one game, but Indy Eleven can’t afford to not start strong.

Top photo courtesy of Robbie Mehling/Soc Takes. (Full gallery here)

Brian Cook

Brian has followed Indy Eleven as a supporter since their birth and began covering the team in a number of capacities in 2015. He can be reached at or @SoccerwithBrian on Twitter.