USA 1-0 Costa Rica: CR 5 man defense frustrates US but provides little going forward

A well-executed counter-attacking goal from a Costa Rica corner allowed the USA to run out group C winners in the Gold Cup in what was a cautiously played and uneventful game. 

Tactically, the game was defined by the Central American side’s rather unusual use of a flat back 5 playing an aggressively high line and thereby making the middle of the field very compact for the US. From a defensive standpoint the strategy worked well but fielding a five man defense was a strange decision from Costa Rica manager Jorge Luis Pinto. His team had already clinched a top two berth in the group no matter how severe a loss they may have suffered and only a win would have won them the group. I expected his strategy to therefore be a bit more adventurous. His side may have frustrated the US defensively but they created only one meaningful chance of their own.

Costa Rica defends 5-4-1
Costa Rica played a flat five man defense behind a midfield bank of four with Jairo Arrieta as the lone striker up top. When the US had possession in their own defensive third, the Costa Rica midfield four would drop off towards the halfway line and the back five would step forward towards the bottom of the center circle. As a result their defense was quite compact and the US had very little space between the lines to collect the ball and run at the defense. As the US advanced the ball towards the center circle, Costa Rica put high pressure on the ball- particularly on holding midfielders Stu Holden and Mix Diskerud and fullbacks Michael Parkhurst and DeMarcus Beasley- making it difficult for them to find the time to pick out forward passes.  The image below shows just how compact the Costa Rican defense was and how little space the US had in the middle of the park. 

Playing a high line worked particularly well for Costa Rica given Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to start Chris Wondolowski at center forward. Wondolowski’s strengths are as a poacher inside the penalty area. He’s not a gifted passer capable of dropping off the defense and providing neat link up play in tight spaces with midfielders nor does he have the pace to be dangerous on balls played over the top in behind a high back line.  By playing such a high line, Costa Rica was taking him 30 yards away from the penalty area where he is most dangerous.  In the image above you can see him 40-45 yards from goal surrounded by two defenders. In the image below, taken in the first minute, he’s in an offside position taken completely out of play by the high, flat line. He was ultimately subbed off in the 77th minute, goalless for the first time in three games and looking a visibly frustrated figure.

With Costa Rica’s back line positioning itself 40 yards from goal, the space for the US was in behind the back line rather than in midfield. Klinsmann could possibly have used a pacier striker to stay on the shoulder of the center backs but to do so requires a deeper lying player that can accurately hit those balls over the top of the defense (see Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli operate for Italy against an opponent with a high line). For all of their strengths circulating possession, I’m not sure Diskerud and Holden have the ability to consistently hit those diagonal long balls accurately.

Costa Rica Attack
With their emphasis on a high defensive line and midfield pressing, Costa’s Rica’s attacking strategy was to win the ball in midfield and break forward quickly before the US had time to recover defensively. At times in the first half the strategy looked dangerous. The clip below shows what Los Ticos were looking to do- they press well to win the ball at the halfway line then play two quick vertical passes looking to get behind the US defense. However, the move lacked a quality final ball and highlights Costa Rica’s struggles in the final third all game. US center backs Clarence Goodson and Michael Orozco deserve credit as well as I thought their positioning was decent throughout. 

In the second half Costa Rica tired and their pressing grew less intense. They dropped deeper defensively, won fewer balls in midfield and allowed the US to control possession. As a result, Arrieta was left isolated up top. Costa Rica created little and the US defense looked comfortable. Los Ticos’ only real chance on goal in the second half was a header off of a corner kick that rattled the crossbar (initially it looked like Sean Johnson had made a wonderful save but after watching the replay I think it went straight off the bar). From that corner the US was able to find the space to counter and get the winner (a game of inches). Second half substitute Joe Corona played an excellent outlet pass down the right flank to Donovan who played an even better one-touch crossfield through ball for Brek Shea (also a second half sub) to tuck home.

In the end it was a professional, if not overwhelmingly impressive performance from the US. Costa Rica’s five man high back line frustrated Klinsmann’s side in midfield but also left Arrieta isolated up front as the game wore on and didn’t provide them with the necessary firepower going forward to get the win they needed to clinch first place in the group.