Should the U.S. continue to attack after taking the lead?

The U.S. conceded a goal to Portugal in the 5th minute, but the team admirably fought back. After dominating the run of play for lengthy periods and creating several scoring chances, the U.S. scored in the 64th minute from a Jermaine Jones wonder strike after the Portuguese muffed the clearance of a corner. The U.S. looked especially dangerous down the right wing exploiting the space behind Cristiano Ronaldo who unsurprisingly focused on attacking and neglected his defensive responsibilities. In the 81st minute, the U.S. scored the go-ahead goal off of a DeAndre Yedlin cross that bounced around the box until Dempsey deliberately used his abdomen to guide the ball into the net.

In his recap of the U.S.-Portugal game, Michael Cox makes an important observation about the U.S. tactical approach after taking the lead:

[T]he wider problem is the USA’s tendency to react too much to the game state. Throughout their opening two matches they’ve showed some great attacking play when behind, or drawing. They started brilliantly against Ghana, and responded superbly to conceding an equaliser – but during the period they were ahead, they sat extremely deep and invited so much pressure.

Similarly, in this game they were excellent for long periods when needing a goal, but then immediately conceded the midfield ground when ahead. It’s almost like they need someone to shout out that old Sunday League call of “Still 0-0, lads!” after a goal, and continue to play their usual game, regardless of the scoreline.

Cox’s observation is apparent from the figure below, which shows the passes completed by the U.S. and Portugal in each 5-minute increment of the game. The U.S. indeed reverted into a defensive shell after going ahead in the 81st minute and attempted to absorb the pressure of Portugal’s attack. Quite remarkably, the U.S. team completed only 8 passes in the final 15 minutes of play (which includes the final 10 minutes of regulation and the 5 minutes of stoppage time). By comparison, throughout the entire match, the U.S. on average completed about 60 passes per 15 minutes of play.

In their final game of the group stage, Mexico faced a similar situation to the U.S. after going ahead of Croatia 1-0 in the 71st minute from a Rafa Márquez goal. Yet, the Mexicans seemed to maintain a relatively attacking approach, which paid dividends in the form of two insurance goals in the 75th and 82nd minutes. While Croatia scored a consolation goal in the 87th minute, Mexico had already all but secured a berth to the round of 16.

Looking at the equivalent figure above which shows completed passes in each 5-minute increment for the Mexico-Croatia game, the Mexicans yielded much of the possession to the Croatians after scoring in the 71st minute. However, they continued to push forward when opportunities arose, exploiting the huge spaces that resulted from the Croatians pushing forward in search of goals. As is obvious from the passing figure below, the Americans struggled to connect on their passes while the Mexicans repeatedly advanced the ball into dangerous positions, especially down the right wing.

It’s not unusual for teams to take a defensive approach in the latter stages of the game after taking the lead. Yet, that sitting deep and absorbing pressure is the norm doesn’t mean that it’s in fact the most effective strategy. Unfortunately, from an analytics perspective, this is a particularly challenging issue to investigate, as teams that choose to sit back and defend are probably more likely to concede and less likely to score regardless of the strategy they choose. Nevertheless, it’s something for viewers of the game to consider on the many occasions that they witness their team choosing to sit deep and invite attacks.