A conversation on US tactics under Klinsmann and Bradley

Between the U.S. Men's National Team's away  loss to Jamaica last Friday (September 7) and tonight's match versus Jamaica in Columbus, Ohio, Daniel and I exchanged several emails discussing what went wrong in Kingston and what tactical changes the team has adopted under Klinsmann. A lightly edited version of the email conversation follows.

Daniel: I'm frankly confused as to what the thinking behind the US tactics was. Why press against Jamaica? They don't pass the ball out of the back; they just hoof it forward. Pressing isn't going to disrupt their build up. Instead, the US players are just worse off in terms of their defensive positioning. The strangest part is when Jamaica had possession in their attacking half and even third, the US continued with a press. Jamaica are weak in possession. Why not sit back, defend with two banks of four, and let the Jamaicans make the error? The result of the US pressing to try to force errors was, of course, conceding free kicks in dangerous positions. I know a lot of people, myself included, complained about Bob Bradley. His tactics might not have been terribly exciting, but they were pragmatic and made sense in Concacaf qualifying. Jurgen Klinsmann seems either naive or idealistic.

Kyle: Surely not idealistic. I thought Klinsmann said in numerous interviews he changed the team's shape based on the players available and the opposition. That suggests pragmatism to me. Did the US play ugly under Bradley? For some reason my memories are of the US scoring a lot and conceding a lot.

Daniel: I think the primary difference between the US style of play under Bradley and under Klinsmann is that the team are more likely to press under Klinsmann. I don't think the play is any prettier though. Bradley definitely preferred a 4-4-2, and that also seems to be the formation that Klinsmann has settled on. Though Klinsmann sometimes plays more of a 4-4-1-1 than a 4-4-2, and a 4-4-1-1 can morph into a 4-2-3-1 depending how high the wide players are. But, I am honestly struggling to remember how the US played under Bradley so who knows!

Kyle: What would you call the formation in the Jamaica game? 4-3-1-2? 4-3-2-1? 4-3-3? I guess they're all the same. It was a lineup void of creativity, but on paper seems like the perfect one to retain a one goal lead for 90 minutes. Playing three central midfielders, all of whom are known more for their tackling and/or defensive positioning than their creativity, in theory, seems like a formation designed to prevent the opposition from scoring. The way that formation was actually employed was a different story, and I'm not so sure what the actual plan was. I think the 4-3-3 could have been fine had it been executed a little differently. Jamaica's outside midfielders were not threatening--at no point did they show they could put a dangerous ball in the box--so I thought keeping the defense compact in the center of the field was fine. However, the weird pressing thing where certain guys were chasing the ball and others were playing deep created space between the seams for Jamaican players to receive the ball and get fouled. We know how that turned out. The positioning was downright bizarre.

Daniel: I think the US were trying to play a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield. I admittedly didn't watch the first half, but from what I read, Beckerman was sitting at the bottom of the diamond. When I tuned in for the second half, it looked more like the US were playing, as you suggested, a 4-3-1-2. That's a pretty subtle distinction and possibly a distinction without a difference. From what I saw, Dempsey rarely defended behind the ball. He would sometimes press the Jamaican midfielders from behind, but it seemed like the US defended with a bank of four (the back four) and a bank of three (the three midfielders at the bottom and sides of the diamond). To be clear, I am not trying to blame Dempsey; it's pretty obvious that his instructions were not to defend behind the ball.

As most everyone noticed, the US midfield three (if I say midfield three, I am excluding Dempsey) seemed to pressure the Jamaican players on the ball in our own defensive half and third to try to force a turnover rather than containing, maintaining a disciplined defensive shape, and waiting for the Jamaicans to make an error.

However, I am undecided as to whether the low press by the US midfield three was the cause of the problem or only a symptom of the problem. That is, were the three midfielders told to apply pressure on the player with the ball, or did they press because of the large gaps between the players in the bank of three? If a wide attacking player cuts to the inside, Edu (who was playing on the right) and Jones (on the left) may have felt like they had to close the player down otherwise the gap was large enough between them and Beckerman that the attacking player could easily split them. That wouldn't explain Beckerman pressing from a more central position, though from the short period of time that I saw him play, he didn't seem to be pressing nearly as much as Jones and Edu.

It is obviously considerably more difficult to defend with a bank of three than a bank of four, but it's criminal to defend with a bank of three and not be compact. Jones and Edu were usually positioned very wide, which left gaping holes between the three members of the midfield bank. If a team wants to defend with a bank of three in front of a bank of four, in all likelihood the outside backs will sometimes need to step up towards the bank of three to fill in the gaps in the wide areas. Because Jones and Edu were playing so wide, this couldn't happen, and instead gaps existed more centrally. Jones and Edu attempted to fill these gaps by pressuring players on the ball, but their pressure resulted in conceding free kicks in dangerous central areas rather than turnovers leading to dangerous counterattacks.

In sum, three interrelated factors seemed to contribute to the US defensive problems: (1) defending with a bank of four and a bank of three rather than the safer option of two banks of four, (2) the lack of compactness in the midfield bank of three, and (3) the pressing by the players in the bank of three that resulted in conceding set pieces in dangerous areas.

Kyle: That does make sense. I don't think you'll find too many examples of teams out there keeping three players in front of the ball and defending against a team playing with two center midfielders and two wide midfielders (that's what Jamaica were doing right?). It's always going to be difficult for a midfield three to cover the width of the field. Like you said, in that formation, you'd think it's the job of the midfield three to stay compact and shift as a unit. I don't think there is much of a problem if, say, Edu moves towards to the right sideline to close down the left-sided midfielder in possession as long Beckerman and Jones rotate that way as well to offer cover balance. Then it becomes the job of the left back to step forward from the back four and a little bit central to take away the threat of the big switch to the right midfielder (which you mention above).

I'm afraid we've discussed tactics more here than Klinsmann has with the team following the loss. All the solutions he's discussed with the media seem like they'd be quite obvious to a professional player: "move the ball quicker," "keep possession," "don't foul around the 18," "be patient." Of course those are all things that may help you win a game, but they don't get to the root of the problem which for me was team shape.

Daniel: Yeah, it's a meaningless answer to say "we need to keep the ball better" when asked what a team needs to improve upon. The real question is what you are going to do in order to keep the ball better. (Admittedly, they did say that they need to play simpler, short passes.) Like you, I frankly wasn't that concerned about their possession. Considering the lineup they fielded (which made sense given the personnel available and that this was an away World Cup qualifier in which a draw would have been an acceptable outcome) and the quality of the pitch, the US were never going to dominate possession. Again, as you noted, the team shape was much more problematic than possession.