Diamond 4-4-2 not viable option for USMNT in Brazil

The United States controlled the battle in midfield and created meaningful scoring chances in the first half largely because of the partnership between Michael Bradley and Kyle Beckerman in the middle of midfield. The deep lying positions Beckerman takes up and his strong defensive positioning allow Bradley a platform to push into advanced areas in the final third where he offers an intelligence in possession and vision no other USMNT player has. The formation was labeled a diamond 4-4-2 with Bradley operating at the top of the diamond as a #10 off the two forwards Clint Dempsey and Chris Wondolowski. Playing a #10 off a front two is an incredibly attacking formation. Its positives are that it allows a side to get plenty of players forward, creating numerous passing options in the final third and getting players into the box to get on the end of crosses.

Against Mexico in the first half last night the Bradley-Beckerman midfield pairing created a nice balance. Mexico's defensive shape was far less compact than it needed to be and Bradley was easily able to move into dangerous pockets of space between the lines. Throughout the half he was given the space to comfortably receive possession in threatening areas in front of the Mexico defense and pick out penetrating passes forward. His delayed runs into the box were also a huge problem for Mexico. With the US playing two forwards, both Mexico center backs had a direct opponent to mark (ie Mexico didn't have a spare center back to sit in and offer cover). This meant that when Bradley burst in behind Mexico's midfielders, there was no spare center back to pick up his run. The US's second goal came from one of these runs. When the US conceded possession, Mexico wasn't able to transition forward quickly enough to
overwhelm the space in front of the US back 4 patrolled by Beckerman.

The negatives of a formation that employs a #10 behind two forwards is that it sacrafices a deep lying midfielder for the advanced #10. This can leave a team too thin in the middle of the pitch when they lose possession with only the single holding midfielder positioned to slow down counterattacks. This creates an open contest which against an effective counter attacking team will nearly always be costly. Mexico weren't able to transition from defense to offense quickly enough in the opening 45 minutes to exploit the space behind the US's advanced attackers but a strong counter attacking side like Germany or Portugal certainly would have. As impressive as the US looked in possession in the first half last night, the diamond 4-4-2 we saw is not a viable option for the team in Brazil. The US will have to play two holding midfielders in a double pivot. Playing a single holding midfielder in a diamond simply asks too much defensively of that player- most likely Beckerman- in slowing counter attacks. Germany is probably the strongest side in the world at transitioning rapidly from defense to offense. They showed in the 2010 World Cup against Argentina if given open space to break into on the counter they can be deadly. Since then their squad has gotten even more talented. Likewise, Cristian Ronaldo will destroy a defense if he's allowed to receive the ball in space and sprint at an opposition back four.

When the US has played a double pivot it has mostly consisted of Bradley and Jermaine Jones. This partnership has had its own problems. Too often the communication between the two players of who is staying deep and who is pushing forward hasn't been good enough. As a result at times they'll both get sucked high up the pitch, leaving no cover for the back four. For me, the solution is to employ a double pivot 4-2-3-1 but with Beckerman as one of the two holders alongside Jones with Bradley in a more advanced #10 role. Jones and Beckerman (two unfairly derided players) compliment each other well. Beckerman is positionally disciplined and reads the game intelligently. His weakness is a lack of pace and athleticism. Jones brings that pace, athleticism and bite in the tackle. His main weakness is his often suspect positioning which would become less of an issue with Beckerman providing cover alongside him. The big question of course is what do you do with Dempsey if Bradley is playing behind the main striker. Dempsey is capable of the spectacular and can turn a game on its head in an instant and therefore needs to be on the field. However, for me he's not a gifted enough distributor to play in the #10 role. Too often his passes force his intended target too far wide or force his target to slow their run up to receive an underhit ball. I'd prefer him starting in a wide position and tucking inside where he can run at the opposition fullback.

A three man midfield of Beckerman, Jones and Bradley gives the US a nice mix of positional discipline, energy and athleticism, and technique and vision. Playing with two up front and a #10 was certainly entertaining last night but not a realistic system to play in Brazil.

Di Canio's 4-4-2 allows Arsenal to overwhelm Sunderland in midfield

Paolo Di Canio's decision to field a 4-4-2 enabled Arsenal to overwhelm Sunderland in the middle of midfield and were it not for some wasteful finishing from the Gunners in the first half they'd have had the game won by halftime.

Di Canio played both Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher up front while David Vaughan and Ki Sung-Yueng played a two man center midfield. Arsene Wenger played his normal 4-2-3-1 which meant Arsenal had a man advantage in the middle of the pitch. Mathieu Flamini was the deepest of the three center midfielders with Aaron Ramsey operating as a box-to-box shuttler and Mesut Ozil in the hole behind Olivier Giroud. With Santi Cazorla out with an ankle injury, Jack Wilshere played on the left side of Arsenal's attacking midfield three.

After Arsenal's 1-0 win in the North London Derby, Michael Cox highlighted how Cazorla had tucked inside from his starting position on the left, in effect playing as a fourth center midfielder. With Tottenham employing a 4-3-3, Cazorla tucking inside gave Arsenal a 4 v. 3 advantage in the center of the pitch. Against Tottenham's physically imposing midfield trio of Moussa Dembele, Paulinho and Etienne Capoue, the extra man in midfield enabled Arsenal to compete in central areas.

Yesterday Arsenal used a similar strategy, this time with Wilshere tucking in from the left. But rather than competing 4 v. 3 as they had against Tottenham's imposing center midfielders, they were 4 v. 2 against Vaughan and Ki, two players with nowhere near the athleticism of Dembele, Paulinho and Capoue.

Passes received by Jack Wilshere vs. Sunderland. He started on the left but was given the freedom to come inside to flood the middle of the pitch
Arsenal were therefore able to overwhelm Sunderland in the middle of the park. Flamini, Ramsey, Ozil and Wilshere were simply able to pass around Vaughan and Ki, allowing Arsenal to keep possession high up the pitch. Ozil and Ramsey received deserved praise for their excellent performances but Sunderland's two man midfield made it easy for them to find the space to pick out penetrating passes. By halftime Arsenal had completed 92 passes in the attacking third to Sunderland's 22.

Overall Passing Statistics: Sunderland vs. Arsenal
It should have been job done for Arsenal by halftime but Walcott missed two 1 v. 1 chances to make it 2-0. They would almost prove costly. Laurent Koscielny's needless 48th minute challenge on Adam Johnson in the box allowed halftime substitute Craig Gardner to level from the spot. Arsenal continued to control possession high up the pitch in the second half but, chasing a winner, the game became more open and Sunderland had their opportunities on the break. Had Walcott taken one of his first half chances Arsenal could have been more cautious in the second half and looked to play on the break as they've done this season after taking leads. Ramsey would provide a stunning game winner but the contest turned out to be a bit tighter than it should have been. Sunderland were right to feel aggrieved when referee Martin Atkinson failed to allow an advantage that led to what appeared to be a Sunderland equalizer.

Still, on the balance of play Arsenal were much the better team and looked comfortable for most of the contest. Ozil's performance suggested he won't need much transitioning into the squad or life in the Premier League and Ramsey looks to be developing into a top class box-to-box midfielder.

Future opponents of Arsenal should take note of just how much they can dominate a game when up against just two opposition center midfielders. With their gifted passers and tendency to flood the middle of the park, a 4-4-2 is unlikely to be a winning strategy against this Arsenal side.

Pending Willian purchase could be ominous sign for Mata

Chelsea have agreed to a £30 million deal for Willian pending a work permit hearing. The Brazilian ads to a roster already filled with a wealth of attacking midfield options. The Brazilian played on the left side of a 4-2-3-1 formation at Shakhtar Donetsk, who advanced from the group stages of last season's Champions League at Chelsea's expense, before moving in January to Anzhi Makhachkala. If the deal goes through he joins Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Juan Mata, Andre Schurrle, Oscar and Victor Moses in competing for the three attacking midfield spots Mourinho will generally play in either a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation.

So what would Willian's arrival mean for the attacking midfielders already on the books at Chelsea? In a preseason press conference Mourinho stated how important it was for him to have depth in the attacking midfield spots.
"We will have Schurrle, De Bruyne, Mata, Oscar, Hazard and Moses for these three positions and so we have more options than Chelsea had in the last year. These are crucial positions for me. I like these players to play with high intensity so to have five players for three positions is, I think brilliant for me."
He actually named six players, Willian will be the seventh. With Chelsea once again competing on several fronts this season and Mourinho's desire for depth in those positions, there will be plenty of squad rotation so most of those seven will likely play significant minutes.

If there is an odd man out it is almost certainly Victor Moses. He's the only one of the seven that can't also play centrally in behind the striker. Although he's the only true out and out winger of the bunch, Hazard and Schurrle both have the pace to beat opponents 1 v 1 in the channels and get balls into the box if Chelsea need to play with more width and they're also more dynamic coming inside. Mourinho prefers his wide attackers to have the versatility to come inside and combine short passes with the central attacker and forward. Oscar, Schrurrle, Hazard, Mata, De Bruyne and Willian are all more suited to pinching inside from the wings than Moses. I'd be surprised if the Nigerian wasn't sold or loaned out before the end of the transfer window.

Based on the first two games of the season, it appears Mourinho prefers Oscar in the central role, although Chelsea are very fluid and at different times against Aston Villa Hazard played off the forward in the middle. Interestingly, Mata was the third attacking midfield starter that game and spent all his time on the left or right flank. Mata has been Chelsea's best player by some distance the last two seasons playing in the #10 role. For all Mourinho's assurances Mata is part of his plans, it does not appear those plans include playing Mata in his favored position just off the striker. The diminutive Spaniard looked out of sorts in his wide role against Villa and as a big fan of his, I fear he is not suited for Mourinho's style and won't have near the impact he did the previous two seasons. He was subbed off for Schurrle in the 65th minute and my suspicion is that Mourinho prefers De Bruyne and Schurrle to partner with Oscar and Hazard over Mata.

It'll be also be interesting to see how the move impacts Hazard given both his and Willian's main position is on the left side of a front 3. I'd expect Hazard and Oscar to finish the season with the most appearances of the seven but it's difficult to predict where exactly everyone will play. Regardless, Mourinho has an enviable array of attacking midfielders and his most difficult task may be keeping them all happy.

Review: Arsenal 7-3 Newcastle

Theo Walcott bagged a hat trick as Arsenal hit Newcastle with four unanswered goals in the final 20 minutes to give the Gunners a wild 7-3 win. Had Olivier Giroud's late header off the woodwork been a few inches lower, it would have tied the record of 11 for most goals in a Premier League match (Portsmouth beat Reading 7-4 in September of 2007).

It was a match that typified the first half of the 2012-2013 Barclay's Premier League season- plenty of action and drama but desperately lacking in convincing team performances and tactical intelligence. That 10 goals were produced was a shock given the rather dismal performance of both sides in the first 45 minutes- the scoreline is more a reflection of silly mistakes and perhaps fatigue than any scintillating team display. With both teams fielding three man central midfields and getting numbers behind the ball defensively, neither side was able to dominate the midfield in the opening 45 minutes and the game was played at a remarkably slow pace by Premier League standards.

Team tactics played virtually no role in the game and there was very little tactical development over the course of 90 minutes. There was some fine finishing on display, with Walcott in particular deserving of praise for an excellent performance, but lapses in concentration on defense were largely responsible for the bulk of goals. With the scoreline at 3-3, all 6 goals could be blamed on silly errors (footytube highlights here):

  • 1-0 Arsenal. Danny Simpson pushes forward from his right fullback position to join a Newcastle attack. The Magpies lose possession. Arsenal look to counter quickly through Podolski who had burst into the space behind Simpson. Cazorla hits a pass behind Podolski forcing him to turn around and put his back to goal to retrieve the ball. This allows Simpson time to recover. But rather than pressing Podolski and forcing him to go backwards, he continues to retreat towards his own goal, allowing the German winger the space to turn, lift his head and slot a through ball to Walcott.
  • 1-1. Bacary Sagna makes a silly foul on Papiss Cisse in a dangerous area just outside the box.
  • 2-1 Arsenal. A horribly underthrown throw in from Danny Simpson falls to the head of Podolski- he's able to play his header forward to Cazorla whose pass to Oxlade-Chamberlain is finished off well by the Arsenal teenager. I realize it sounds like I'm looking for someone to blame pinning the goal on a throw in but watch the highlights at 2:18: it really is a dreadful throw in that gets nowhere near a Newcastle player.
  • 2-2. Sylvain Marveaux is 40 yards from goal when Obertan collects the ball on the left wing in the build up to Newcastle's second goal. He makes a casual run towards the back post as Obertan dribbles at Sagna. Not a single Arsenal player notices his run in the entire sequence and he's allowed to tap in the simplest of goals unmarked at the back post.
  • 3-2 Arsenal. Tiote is carelessly nicked of possession by Wilshere in midfield leading to an Arsenal counter that ends in Podolski's tap in header. Wilshere did excellently to close in on the Ivorian midfielder but Tiote got his first touch stuck under his feet leaving him unable to get rid of the ball before Wilshere could pounce.
  • 3-3. Marveaux bursts forward with the ball from midfield. Sagna and Wilshere have the chance to double team for Arsenal at the 18. The two fail to communicate and both back off allowing Marveaux to pick his head up and play a clever ball to Ba at the back post with the outside of his foot. Gibbs was guilty of ball watching and switching off on Ba.
Arsenal's fourth was the first goal of the game that had more to do with the team shape of the attacking team than mistakes by the defensive team. Throughout the second half Podolski had been tucking inside on the left, forcing Danny Simpson to track him into the middle of the box and leaving space for Gibbs to overlap in the channel.  On the fourth, Podolski mad a run into the center of the box. Simpson followed and Gibbs dutifully made the overlapping run into space and provided the cut back for Walcott to smash home.

Arsenal's fifth, sixth and seventh goals came when the game had become very open. That Walcott had a hand in all three was no surprise. His pace and ability to run in behind defense is suited for open games, something he stated himself in the post match interview. He turned provider for Olivier Giroud for the fifth and sixth goals and finished off his hat trick in style with a slaloming run into the box for the seventh.


Manchester City 3-1 Newcastle: Pardew goes 4-4-2, leaves Y. Toure free

The main tactical feature of this game was Alan Pardew's decision to set out in a 4-4-2 rather than a 4-3-3. This was a bit of a surprise. Pardew tends to be quite concerned about being outnumbered in midfield and nearly always lines up with as many center midfielders as the opposition. Knowing Roberto Mancini would line up in what is basically a 4-2-3-1, with Aguero behind main striker Tevez, Nasri and David Silva drifting in very narrow from the wings and Toure and Garcia occupying the holding midfield roles, it seemed likely Pardew would opt for for the additional body in midfield provided by the 4-3-3 to better allow his team to compete in the center of the pitch.

However, given Newcastle's recent problems offering Ba support high up the field, it's easy to understand Pardew's thinking. I mentioned several times over the last week how direct Newcastle have become in the absence of Yohan Cabaye- Newcastle's most creative center midfielder and one capable of linking defense to offense through the center of the park. Hatem Ben Arfa did an excellent job in the second half of the game with Fulham tucking inside from his position on the right wing to provide that link but with Ben Arfa also out with an injury it was always likely Newcastle would have to play their fair share of long balls forward out of the back. Had Ba been the loan center forward in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 he'd have been isolated after receiving those long balls and would have had the difficult task of holding the ball up until his midfielders could join the attack.  By pairing Cisse alongside him as a front two, Ba either had a passing option or could flick long balls on to Cisse running in behind.

Defensively, Pardew's 4-4-2 meant at least one of Manchester City's holding midfielders was left free to receive passes in deeper midfield areas. Had he gone with a 4-3-3 the midfields would have matched up evenly: Gutierrez would have likely picked up Toure, Anita would have picked up Garcia and Tiote would have tracked Aguero in the space just in front of the back four. Instead Pardew paired the defensive-minded James Perch alongside Tiote and both sat in deep to protect the back four and prevent City's four creative attacking players from receiving the ball in pockets of space between the seams. This meant Garcia and Toure were free to receive the ball deep in midfield but this wasn't a huge concern to Newcastle- their plan was to form two compact banks of four between the ball and their goal and force City to try to patiently break them down.

Again, Pardew's reasoning for playing two deep center midfielders and leaving Garcia and Toure free near midfield was sound. He was trying to keep the defense compact and deny City space between the seams where Aguero, Silva and Nasri thrive. Secondly, had he gone with a 4-3-3, Gutierrez would have been responsible for joining the attack from his shuttling left center midfield position and then running back defensively to track Toure. Anytime Toure was able to break past him with one of his trademark powerful runs from midfield, Newcastle wouldn't have had the spare holding midfielder to pick him up. The hope was the holding midfield pairing of Perch and Tiote would keep the defense more compact and deny Toure the space to dribble forward from midfield. In effect, Pardew was betting Toure was more likely to be dangerous dribbling in behind the Newcastle midfielders than he was receiving passes in space deep in midfield and looking for a penetrating pass in behind the defense.

However, on 10 minutes Toure would prove otherwise. He received the ball near midfield and, with no one closing him down, had time to pick his head up and play a perfectly weighted, curling through ball to Nasri in behind the Newcastle defense (certainly one of the passes of the season thus far). Nasri did brilliantly himself to unselfishly lay the ball off for Aguero to tuck away into an empty net. Following the goal, Manchester City began to stamp their authority on the game with Toure, Tevez, Aguero, Silva and Nasri combining some tidy passes around the penalty area to create a few good goal scoring chances. The amount of space Newcastle's 4-4-2 was affording Toure was becoming an increasing problem. Their back four was getting deeper and deeper as the half progressed. With Perch and Tiote continuing to help the back four pick up the runs of Nasri, Silva, Tevez and Aguero, Toure was allowed to receive the ball in more advanced positions. Shortly after City's opener Toure received a pass 25 yards from goal and was again able to slip it behind the defense to Nasri. Nasri's pass across the face of goal just eluded Tevez at the back post but it was becoming clear Toure was more then capable of ripping Newcastle apart with his passing. At that point it appeared that if Pardew didn't make the change to a three man central midfield and find someone to stick tight to Toure, City would put 4 or 5 in. Garcia headed in their second on 38 minutes and the Manchester side went into the dressing room up 2-0.

Newcastle's approach throughout the game was fairly consistent. They played plenty of direct balls into Cisse and Ba, looking to use the height and power of the two Senegalese forwards to overwhelm Nastisic and Kolo Toure. They looked to get the ball wide to either the outside midfielders or outside backs and hit early crosses into the box. They played an incredible 41 crosses, 30 more than City. After being dominated in the first half the Magpies were much more threatening in the second. Their approach was unsophisticated- they continued playing long balls and crosses into their forwards and looked to win corners and set pieces where they could allow their two center backs to get forward into the box. However, they also did a much better job putting pressure on City higher up the field and winning the ball back quickly. After Ba's header made it 2-1 they looked capable of adding an equalizer. That hope quickly diminished however when Toure added a third for City.

In the end Newcastle could be proud of the spirit they showed in the second half but the better team won this game. Pardew's decision to play a 4-4-2 made life uncomfortable for City's center backs at one end of the pitch but also gave Yaya Toure far too much time and space at the other. In the end he was the game's key player.



Tactical Preview: Juventus vs. Shakhtar

Juventus's Champions League fate will be decided tonight as they head to Donetsk needing only a draw with Shakhtar to secure qualification into the knockout stage. A Juventus loss and a Chelsea win over Nordsjaelland in group E's other fixture will put the Blues through. Shakhtar have already wrapped up qualification.

Starting Lineups
Shakhtar will likely set out in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation. Juventus will be in their normal 3-5-2.

Antonio Conte's side will be aided by the suspension of Shakhtar center forward Luiz Adriano after he was suspended by UEFA for an unsporting goal he scored against Nordsjaelland. Former Arsenal striker Eduardo is expected to replace him. Tomas Hubschman is a doubt with a hamstring injury and will likely be replaced by Taras Stepanenko.

Paul Pogba is expected to fill in for the suspended Claudio Marchisio for Juventus and Conte will have to select two of Mirko Vucinic, Fabio Quagliarelli or Sebastian Giovinco to fill the two forward positions.

Shakhtar Fullbacks Unmarked
Needing only a draw in a difficult away environment Conte will likely ask his wing backs Kwadwo Asamoah and Stephan Lichtensteiner to be conservative with their positioning, staying fairly close to the back three in more of a 5-3-2 than a 3-5-2. The two will drop in to pick up Willian and Teixeira on the flanks, leaving Chiellini, Bonucci and Barzagli compact centrally to defend runs into the box. This means Shakhtar's outside backs Srna and Rat should be unmarked when they advance forward. Juventus will allow them to receive the ball on the flanks and focus their attention on crowding the box and winning balls played into the penalty area. Rat and Srna are both decent going forward but it will be interesting to see how adventurous they are with their positioning going forward- when they advance high up the field it will open space for Quagliarelli or Giovinco to float into and spring counters.

3 v.1 Advantage for Juventus at the Back
Juventus will have three center backs to deal with Shakhtar's loan center forward Eduardo. They had the same numerical advantage at the back against Chelsea, who like Shaktar play a 4-2-3-1, and it worked to their advantage. With three center backs Fernando Torres didn't have space to move laterally and collect the ball in the channels. Instead he had to check back into the midfield, taking him away from goal. Three central defenders will also make it difficult for Shakhtar to press. Shakhtar's three forwards can press the three center backs but they run the risk of leaving Asamoah and Lichtensteiner in space on the wings. To effectively press Shakhtar will need to stay quite compact and hold a very high line, leaving them vulnerable to balls played over the top from the back.

If instead Willian and Teixeira drop back and defend Lichtensteiner and Asamoah, as Chelsea did, this leaves Eduardo to defend the three center backs. In this case Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini will be able to comfortably play out from the back.

No Spare Center Back for Shakhtar
Juventus's use of two forwards means Shakhtar will not have a spare center back to provide cover. Against Chelsea, Juventus tried to draw one center back out of position by having Vucinic make runs into midfield. Giovinco (and later in the game Quaglierelli) would then make a diagonal run into space left open by the center back stepping out. Quaglierelli ultimately got the equalizer in this manner. The lack of a spare center back also means that Shakhtar's midfielders Fernandinho and Stepanenko will have to diligently track the forward runs of Pogba and Vital. If they allow Pogba or Vidal to get on the ball in behind them, one of their center backs will be forced to leave a forward unmarked and step to ball.

Conclusion
Expect Juventus to defend deep in a more of a 5-3-2 and try to escape with the point they need. They'll concede the wings to Shakhtar's fullbacks and look to crowd the penalty area to prevent any good chances in the box. Offensively, they'll look to spring counters through Quagliarelli or Giovinco floating to the flanks into space left open by the advancing Shakhtar fullbacks.

Dempsey not suited for center attacking midfield role in Spurs' 4-2-3-1

In the lead up to tomorrow's crucial North London derby, Andre Villas-Boas will certainly be concerned about his side's recent inability to effectively transition the ball forward through the middle of the pitch since the injury to Moussa Dembele.

In their last two league games Spurs were blanked at home to Wigan, a team with the fourth worst defensive record in the league, and only managed to score on a set piece header in the 2-1 loss to Manchester City, a game in which they had only two shots on target. Dembele operates as one of the two holding midfielder's in Spurs' 4-2-3-1 and has the ability to advance the ball from defense to attack with his powerful vertical dribbling.

Dembele's bursts are so important for Tottenham because, unlike their rivals for Champions League spots, they don't have an attacking midfielder/withdrawn forward gifted at playing just off the striker and linking play between deep lying midfielders and forwards down the middle. In Spurs' current 4-2-3-1, both Tom Huddlestone and Sandro stay relatively deep in their holding roles. Therefore it's crucial the central player in the attacking midfield three finds space to get on the ball in attacking positions and has the technical ability and creativity to find forward passes that dissect the defense.

Spurs have played Gylfi Sigurdsson and Clint Dempsey in this central playmaker role but neither have performed it particularly well. Sigurdsson has struggled to have the impact he did at Swansea last season while Dempsey isn't suited for this role. He's a fine athlete and a good finisher with a knack for popping up in the right position to score goals. He is not however an especially technical player nor does he have the passing ability and vision to pick apart a defense with one clever ball.

The lack of an effective center attacking midfielder means Spurs best method of advancing the ball forward has been down the wings with Aaron Lennon and Garreth Bale. They'd of course frequently utilize the incredible pace of Lennon and Bale even if they had a strong central attacking midfielder but the problem is that these two are most effective on the counter when they have space to run at defenders. When the opposition gets their midfield behind the ball it's more difficult for them to use their pace to run by defenders. This is when it becomes important to have an attacking midfielder that can find seams between opposition center backs and holding midfielders in middle of the pitch to get on the ball and create.

Villas-Boas has used Dempsey as the center attacking midfielder in the defeats to Wigan and Manchester City. Last weekend at the Etihad he completed only 8 passes in the attacking third. He completed just 4 passes in the final third the weekend before against Wigan- an astonishingly low number for an attacking midfielder.



Without a player adequately linking midfield to attack Spurs have been forced to skip over the midfield and play hopeful longballs out of the back to advance the ball into the attacking third. They completed just 47 of 99 attempted passes into the final third against Manchester City, a truly abysmal conversion rate. A large portion of those failed passes were hopeful longballs launched towards the box. The attempted longballs can be explained in part by the fact the taller Adebayor had been given the start at striker over Jermaine Defoe but Dempsey's failure to find space to get in possession was also largely to blame.




Spurs' inability to get the ball to their striker in dangerous goalscoring positions is evidenced by the locations on the field Adebayor received the ball last weekend. Of the 31 times he received the ball, only one of those was inside the box and several were near midfield or in Tottenham's defensive half. Defoe was given the start the previous weekend against Wigan. He only received the ball 7 times in the 58 minutes he was on before being subbed, none of which were in the box. In order to score goals your striker needs to receive the ball near the penalty area. Much of that responsibility falls on the central attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 and at the moment Sigurdsson and particularly Dempsey are not getting the job done.



Obviously there will be other key factors in tomorrow's North London derby, particularly the poor recent defensive record of both teams. After keeping clean sheets in each of their first 3 games, Arsenal have managed just one in their last 14. They've conceded more goals in the last 4 games than they had the first 13. Spurs meanwhile have just one clean sheet in the league this season. However, all of the leagues top sides have had their defensive struggles this season including both Manchester clubs and Chelsea. One of the major factors that currently separates these sides from Tottenham is that they all have very gifted players to play off of the forward and create goalscoring chances-Cazorla at Arsenal; Fellaini at Everton; Kagawa and Rooney at Manchester United; Harzard, Mata and Oscar at Chelsea, Silva and Aguero at Manchester City. Over the course of the season Spurs lack of a central attacking midfielder may well prevent them from securing Champions League qualification.


West Brom overload Southampton's left back, win comfortably

Peter Odemwingie kept Southampton firmly rooted to the bottom of the Premier League table with goals either side of halftime in West Brom's 2-0 win.

 Although Steve Clarke's West Brom side has consistently lined up in a 4-2-3-1 this season, he has rotated the four attacking players frequently. Today Shane Long was given the start ahead of Romelu Lukaku at forward, Odemwingie was on the right, Zoltan Gera behind Long in the middle and Graham Dorrans on the left.

Nigel Adkin's Southampton played what could be called either 4-2-3-1 or or 4-2-2-2 with Jay Rodriguez playing as a slightly withdrawn forward to the right of Rickie Lambert. Both Adam Lallana and Gaston Ramirez played fairly high up the pitch in their wide positions and both tended to float towards the middle to get on the ball.

West Brom right versus Southampton left
In the first half Adam Lallana stayed very high up the pitch when West Brom were in possession and did a poor job of tracking West Brom's Billy Jones when got forward to join the attack from his right back position. This left Danny Fox constantly overloaded at left back where he was forced to try to defend both Jones and Odemwingie. With one of the two always unmarked, Odemwingie and Jones were able to get the ball in dangerous attacking areas down the right. It was therefore unsurprising when Odemwingie's opener came from a move on the right. This time it was Youssuf Mulumbu who advanced to the right wing from his holding midfield position to overload Fox. Odemwingie drifted inside and received Mulumbu's pass with the time and space to get the ball out of his feet and shoot. His effort took a fortunate deflection on its way to beating Paulo Gazzaniga in the Southampton goal but the Saints could only blame themselves for giving Fox so little help.

Southampton's outside backs push forward
With both Lallana and Ramirez tucking inside from their wide midfield position, Fox and Nathaniel Clyne were encouraged to get forward to provide width from their outside back positions. The pair played especially high in the second half with Southampton chasing the game. This left plenty of space in behind them on the flanks for West Brom to counter into. The hosts were happy to sit deeper and invite the Southampton outside backs forward and then counter with long balls to the flanks for Shane Long when they won possession. Odemwingie's second goal came when Southampton gave the ball away cheaply in the attacking third after Clyne had once again advanced high up the field to help the attack. Long made a run to the space left vacated by Clyne and received a pass on the left wing. Jose Fonte was forced wide from his center back position to pick up Long, leaving Maya Yoshida as the only defender in the penalty area. Odemwingie and Gera both made fine bursting runs into the box and Long picked out Odemwingie with an inch perfect cross.

Southampton struggle for vertical threat
Throughout the second half West Brom were happy to sit deep and allow Southampton to have possession around the halfway line. Southampton circulated the ball well enough in this area but rarely were able to find a penetrating ball into the final third. The Saints out passed West Brom 414 to 300 yet they completed 14 fewer passes in the final third. Nigel Adkin's side simply didn't have the creativity and quality to create meaningful goal scoring opportunities against a crowded defense. Possession and sideways passing are fine but eventually the ball needs to get in the box, particularly when Rickie Lambert is your forward. Lambert is a classic big and strong British no. 9 and needs to get the ball in the penalty area where he can poach to be effective. He isn't nearly as effective when forced to drop into the midfield or drift wide to get on the ball (like more technically gifted forwards like Suarez and Van Persie). Yet he was rarely able to receive passes anywhere near the goal this evening. The graphic below shows where he received passes. Far too often he was forced to collect the ball deep or wide in the left channel.



Conclusion
West Brom once again did an excellent job of advancing the ball quickly on the break with meaningful forward passes. They have been outpossessed in 9 of their 10 Premier League games this season yet their organization and ability to play on the counter has made them a very difficult team to beat.

Things are looking increasingly bleak for Adkins and Southampton. They simply don't have the firepower going forward to get into shootouts with Premier League opposition. If they don't improve their dreadful defensive organization the slim hope they have of survival will be killed off by the new year. They're averaging 2.8 goals against per game and are on pace to concede an incredible 106 goals this campaign. Since the 2002-2003 season, the league's worst defensive team has avoided relegation only once- Bolton in 2006-2007. The ease with which West Brom overloaded their outside back made the seem naive and suggests Adkins and Southampton are out of their league.





Defensive discipline on Arsenal's left will be key against United

In the opening stages of Manchester United's 3-2 league win over Chelsea, Alex Ferguson's side was able to get the ball in dangerous areas down the right side of the pitch. Both of their early goals came from moves down the right: the first a swift counterattacking move after Chelsea had conceded possession in midfield, the second when Rafael and Antonio Valencia combined down the flank, creating space for a Valencia cross into Robin Van Persie.

I wrote on Tuesday of how United's success in the games early stages owed much to Ferguson's decision to play a 4-4-1-1 with Valencia operating wide as a classic right winger. Chelsea's outside backs like to get forward and join in the attack. When they lose possession Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic are often high up the pitch, leaving them vulnerable to counters down the flanks. It was Rooney rather than Valencia who had drifted to the right to spring the counter on United's first goal but it resulted because Cole had gone forward to join in the Chelsea attack.

Chelsea are also vulnerable when the opposition outside backs get involved in the attack. Neither of Chelsea's wider attacking players in Juan Mata or Eden Hazard are quick to help in the defensive end. When the opposition outside backs advance past them, it often leaves Chelsea's own outside backs left to defend two men, particularly when the opposition is playing with a winger. On United's second goal, Hazard was guilty of allowing United right back Rafael to advance past him and receive the ball, leaving Cole to try to defend both Rafael and Valencia. Cole was forced to step to ball, allowing Rafeal to play an easy pass down the line for Valencia who had the time to pick out a perfect low cross for Van Persie.

Like Chelsea, Arsenal line up in a 4-2-3-1 and have in recent weeks been susceptible to opposition attacks from wide areas, particularly down Arsenal's left side. Since the injury to left back Kieran Gibbs, his replacement Andre Santos has been poor both positionally and when asked to defend in 1 v. 1 situations. Ferguson will have certainly taken notice of how Schalke ripped apart the left side of Arsenal's defense in their 2-0 Champions league win over the Gunners last Wednesday and may well choose to once again play with a traditional right winger to exploit this weakness. Opting for Valencia once again seems like a good choice. The Columbian is an excellent option on the wing against teams that play with very attacking full backs. He is defensively disciplined and has a tremendous work rate. He will diligently track the opposition full back on defense but his work rate also allows him to break past the full back into space when United win possession back and look to counter. Alternatively, given Santos' poor 1-on-1 defending, Ferguson could go with the out-of-favor Nani. Nani is less disciplined defensively but brings to the side an ability to beat the opposition off the dribble.

Regardless of which option Ferguson goes with, it will be crucial Arsenal show more defensive discipline on the left than they did against Schalke. Time and again the German side was able to get the ball to right midfielder Jefferson Farfan and right back Atsuto Uchida in far too much space on the wing. While Santos' positioning was poor, he was given little help by left midfielder Lukas Podolski in front of him who frequently allowed Uchida to make unmarked runs down the sideline, forcing Santos to leave Farfan and step to ball. The video below from the first half shows a clear example of this at 4:06. In this passage of play Podolski had drifted to the middle and was lazily half-pressing the Schalke center backs. Cazorla had slid left to fill Podolski's position. Santos had followed Farfan as he drifted towards the middle, opening up space down the right sideline. Cazorla completely switches off on Uchida, allowing the right back to make the run into space unmarked. Huntelaar's finishing was poor on this occasion but the video highlights what was a recurring problem for the Gunners. Understanding and communication between Santos and whoever is defending ahead of him on the left (most often Podolski) will be massively important for Arsenal against United. United's outside backs will get forward and they proved against Chelsea they can punish the opposition when given the chance to stretch its outside backs.



 

Ferguson may also look to frequently switch the point of attack from left to right with long diagonal balls to the right wing (perhaps we could see Paul Scholes in the side for his long passing ability). Switching the point of attack will force Santos into situations where he's left to defend the right winger 1-on-1, a battle Valencia (or Nani) are always likely to win. Santos will need to be more up for the task than he was against Schalke.

Both limiting the number of chances United have to counter and effectively dealing with the counter when United do get the chance to break will be the final key factor for Arsenal. To prevent the counter they obviously need to be diligent in possession, avoiding silly giveaways in the middle third of the field (Schalke's second goal came from a poor giveaway from Serge Gnabry in midfield). But United will inevitably get the chance to break and when they do its crucial Arsenal get their defensive transition right. Like Chelsea's outside backs, both Carl Jenkinson and Santos are called upon to join the attack and provide width high up the field. This of course leaves them exposed to counter attacks down the wings when they lose possession. However, unlike John Obi Mikel and Ramires at Chelsea, Arsenal won't have especially combative, ball winning holding midfielders in front of the back four to break up counterattacks (unless Wenger makes a surprising decision and starts Coquelin alongside Arteta). The center backs and holding midfielders will therefore have to be particularly aware of their defensive shape even when Arsenal are in possession.

With the Gunners in the midst of a rather unconvincing four game spell, they'll need to improve drastically on recent performances to have any shot of coming away from Old Trafford with a result. Shoring up the left side of the defense and preventing United's wide men from getting crosses into Van Persie will be crucial in ensuring the Gunners don't experience a repeat of last season's humiliating 8-2 defeat.

Ferguson's reactive tactics exploit defensive weaknesses of Chelsea's 4-2-3-1; could do the same to Arsenal

After Manchester United's relatively successful experimentation with a narrow diamond midfield this season (see Michael Cox analysis of their 3-0 win over Newcastle), Sir Alex Ferguson opted for his more traditional 4-4-1-1 shape against Chelsea with two true wide players in Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia.

His decision to go with width against Chelsea wasn't a particularly difficult one. Ferguson knew full well that his counterpart Roberto Di Matteo would go with the 4-2-3-1 system- with Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard forming the attacking midfield three- that Chelsea had enjoyed success using in the league this season. Since Chelsea used the formation for the first time in a 2-2 Champions League draw against Juventus, they have employed the same attacking midfield three behind Torres in every Premier League game. Ferguson had plenty of chances to scout the formation and would have had little difficulty recognizing its weaknesses.

Chelsea's 4-2-3-1 formation has two main weakness. The first weakness is its vulnerability to counter attacks (particularly down the flanks). When Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic push forward to help the attack, space opens up in wide areas for the opposition to quickly move into on the break. The second weakness is its tendency to leave Cole and Ivanovic without cover in wide defensive areas. Neither Mata nor Hazard are especially keen defenders. Hazard is particularly guilty of failing to offer defensive cover to his outside backs. Against teams that play with narrower midfields this isn't always a huge problem because John Obi Mikel and Ramires provide cover for the back four in the center of the pitch in their deep lying midfield positions. However, against teams with wingers the problem becomes more apparent. With Mata and Hazard staying high up the pitch, space often opens up for opposition outside backs to advance past them unchecked. When the opposition outside back receives the ball, it leaves Chelsea's own outside back overloaded and forces him to try to defend two players. He's forced to step to ball, leaving the winger unmarked with the time and space to receive the ball and play dangerous crosses into the box.

That United's two early goals came from exploiting these two Chelsea weaknesses suggests Ferguson got his tactics about right. The first goal came when United were able to nick possession in midfield and counter quickly down the right. The second came when United right back Rafael was able to receive the ball behind Hazard, creating a 2 v. 1 advantage with Valencia down the right wing for United. Cole was forced to leave Valencia unmarked and step to Rafael. The Brazilian played a simple ball wide to Valencia who had the time to pick out Van Persie's run in the box (I unfortunately can't embed the video but you can watch the goal on YouTube here). Had Hazard been more diligent in his defensive responsibilities, Rafael would have never received the ball as high up the pitch as he did.

It should be interesting to see how United line up against Arsenal this weekend. Like Chelsea, the Gunners have almost exclusively played a 4-2-3-1 this season and therefore face some of the same defensive problems as Chelsea (although Lucas Podolski and Aaron Ramsey seem to do a slightly better job of protecting their outside backs than Mata and Hazard). Will Ferguson once again opt for a 4-4-1-1 and try to exploit space on the wings? Since Arsenal have been forced to play Andre Santos at left back for the injured Kieran Gibbs, they have looked very vulnerable to attacks down the opponent's right side. It would be surprising if Ferguson didn't again opt for a right winger to exploit the shaky Santos.

Chelsea's and Arsenal's continued use of a 4-2-3-1 indicates the players are comfortable in that system and with each game they play in that system they'll continue to develop a better understanding of one another and become more fluid. However, it also makes them predictable for clever, adaptable managers like Ferguson who are happy to play reactive football. The Scotsman is comfortable playing any number of different formations and styles based on the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent. More often than not, when he knows how the opposition is going to set out to play, he can implement a strategy that gives United a very good chance of winning games. I'm not suggesting Arsenal and Chelsea should alter their formations from time to time in the same manner as Ferguson. Playing Ferguson's more reactive style has its own draw backs, mainly that by adapting your formation to your opponent you aren't able to develop a fluid, consistent system of your own and sometimes even managers with the pedigree of SAF simply get the tactics wrong. United's 1-0 defeat to City at the end of last season that effectively handed the league title over to City is a good example. Ferguson set out with Park Ji Sung as the most advanced midfielder behind Rooney in a 4-5-1 in a set up designed to attack on the counter. Park was forced to track Yaya Toure's runs forward, leaving Rooney isolated up top. United rarely threatened after going a goal behind. However, more reactive managers do have the distinct advantage of arranging their teams to mitigate the most dangerous elements of an opponents system and exploit the weakest ones.

It should also be mentioned that Ferguson's tactics against Chelsea were hardly flawless. After going up 2-0, Chelsea were much the better side until being reduced to 10 (then 9) men. During this stretch of the game Chelsea out passed United 220 to 156 and United were continually troubled by Chelsea's numerical superiority in the center of midfield. Perhaps Ferguson would have been wise to replace Young with someone like Anderson who would have allowed United to better compete in the center of midfield after going up by two goals.

Fluid Chelsea attack has inevitably left them vulnerable to counterattacks

Shakhtar Donetsk threatened Chelsea with swift counterattacks all evening as the Ukranian side dominated play in a 2-1 Champions League win. The win puts the Ukrainian side 3 points clear of Chelsea at the top of group E and puts a great deal of pressure on the Blues to win the return home fixture in a fortnight if they're to qualify for the knockout stages.

Both teams lined up in 4-2-3-1 formations. Frank Lampard was given the start alongside John Obi Mikel as a deep lying midfielder. Ramires shuffled to the right attacking midfield position, presumably to provide defensive help to Branislav Ivanovic on the excellent Willain, while Eden Hazard started the game on the bench. There were no surprises in Mircea Lucescu's starting 11.

Lampard picked up an injury 18 minutes in and was replaced by Hazard. Ramires dropped back to Lampard's position in the center of midfield and Hazard played on the right, the lineup Chelsea have used most of this season.

For the second consecutive game Chelsea were vulnerable on the counter. While Chelsea were fortunate that Moussa Dembele and Gareth Bale were out of Spurs' lineup in their 4-2 win at the weekend, they still at times appeared susceptible to quick counters when they lost possession in what was a rather open game. The problem was even more pronounced last night as Willian, Alex Teixeira and Henrik Mkhitaryan were able to get in space behind Mikel, Ramires and outside backs Ivanovic and Cole on the break and run at the center backs.

The space that opens up between Chelsea's two holding midfielders and center backs has been an issue all season. When Mikel is forced to push into a more advanced position to offer a passing option for the front four, the center backs have stayed rather deep creating a big pocket of empty space. When Chelsea lose possession, the opposition has been able to play quick outlet passes to teammates moving into that space, setting off dangerous counters. As they showed last season under Villas-Boas, Chelsea are not comfortable squeezing the space the opposition has to play in when possession is lost by pushing the defensive line forward and pressing (like Barcelona). Instead, their defense tends to drop deeper when they lose the ball.

This is understandable. John Terry's lack of pace makes him vulnerable to balls in behind him when he presses forward and Chelsea's experimentation with a high line last season was disastrous (the 5-3 Arsenal loss the clearest example). But because Mata, Hazard and Oscar are typically not quick to make defensive recovery runs, loads of space opens up in the middle third of the pitch for their opponents to move into- this explains why Chelsea's last two games have been so open. The issue is, effectively, that the back six and front four have been rather disjointed defensively. While this shape has given Chelsea's three advanced midfielders the freedom to focus more on creating scoring opportunities than worrying about defensive responsibilities, it has made them a less compact side defensively.

The new, more fluid attacking system has produced some breathtaking displays thus far and few Chelsea supporters will be calling for a return to the defensive tactics that won them the Champions League last season. However, they'll likely continue to look vulnerable on the break as they adjust to the new system.

Klinsmann's 3-man central midfield has given USMNT defense needed strengthening

The jury still seems to be out on whether the USA are showing enough signs of progress under Jurgen Klinsmann to suggest the 48-year-old German is the man to lead the team to a successful 2014 World Cup run. Historic away wins under Klinsmann over Mexico and Italy hint at a team on the rise, yet a puzzling loss to Jamaica in a World Cup qualifier in July, controversial roster selections and an underwhelming goal-scoring record have raised doubts among some American supporters about his ability to effectively manage the national team.

A number of the concerns surrounding Klinsmann's first year and a half on the job are reasonable. Four losses from his opening six games wasn't the impression he would have expected to make. The US have not packed enough of a punch in front of goal. In Klinsmann's 18 games in charge, they have scored more than one goal only three times and have averaged just 1.17 goals per game. He got his tactics wrong in the 2-1 loss to Jamaica, putting the US in a precarious position in World Cup qualification. We voiced our frustration on this blog about his decision in that game to leave Clint Dempsey high up the field just behind forwards Jozy Altidore and Herculez Gomez, leaving the three man midfield of Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones, and Maurice Edu stretched to cover the width of the pitch against a Jamaica side playing with two wingers. His most recent decision to leave Altidore off the roster for the upcoming qualifiers and his hesitation to select Michael Bradley to the squad early in his reign raised questions about his team selection.

However, despite what many see as a disappointing first 15 months on the job, it's important to consider the type of soccer the national team was playing prior to Klinsmann's arrival and how it has changed since. Under Bob Bradley the US were an undisciplined side tactically, particularly defensively. From January 2010 until he was sacked in July 2011, Bradley's team played nine teams ranked in the top 30 of the FIFA World Rankings. They drew three of those and lost the other six. In those nine games, they conceded an average of 2.2 goals per game. Klinsmann has faced seven sides ranked in the top 30 and won 2, drawn 1 and lost 3. During those games, the US have conceded 1.2 goals per game, a full goal improvement over Bradley. The US are nowhere close to being able to match the technique of Europe and South America's best sides. In order for the US to compete with them they need to be organized and have great defensive shape.  Klinsmann's biggest contribution the national team thus far has been to improve that defensive shape by introducing more modern formations, specifically formations that use a three-man central midfield and provide more adequate cover for the back four.

Bradley's default formation was either a traditional 4-4-2 (I use traditional to mean a 4-4-2 with two center midfielders and two wide midfielders) or a 4-4-1-1 with a withdrawn forward behind a #9 striker. Both of these systems use only two center midfielders, and typically Bradley would play one of either Maurice Edu, Ricardo Clark, or Jose Torres alongside his son Michael. Played well, 4-4-1-1s and 4-4-2s can be fine formations, and there were games throughout Bradley's tenure where the US looked strong playing them. However, he showed an inability to change these formations and move to ones with three-man center midfields when the tactics of the opposition dictated that he should have.

One of the biggest problems that can arise defensively for a team using a 4-4-2 is the gap of space that often opens up between the two center midfielders and the back four. In a 4-4-2 the center midfielders are responsible for getting tight on the opposition center midfielders. If they're forced to push high up the field to do this, it can create dangerous pockets of space in front of the back four for opposition attackers to move in to. Opponents who receive the ball in these areas have time to turn and dribble at the back four. This forces the center backs to make a decision to either contain the dribbler and continue to back up or to step out and try to win a tackle. If they continue to contain they run the risk of allowing the man in possession to get into a dangerous shooting position. But if one center back steps it allows the opposition to play dangerous through balls into the space left vacated by the stepping center back. I've labeled this gap "problem area" in the diagram below. One way to minimize these gaps between center mids and center backs is to push the back four high up the field towards the center midfielders. However, holding a high defensive line comes with its own risks. High lines are susceptible to balls over the top or slipped in behind the back four, particularly when your center backs lack pace to keep up with opposition forwards. They also require an intelligent back four that knows when to collectively step forward to put the opposition offsides. With high defensive lines, the problem area therefore tends to become the space between the back four and goalkeeper.


The USA's performance at the 2010 World Cup offered a perfect illustration of a 4-4-2's defensive shortcomings in the center of the pitch. The US played a 4-4-2 in every game with Jozy Altidore paired with either Herculez Gomez or Robbie Findley at forward, Bradley in the center of midfield alongside either Edu, Torres, or Clark and Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey occupying the wide areas. All three goals the US conceded in group play resulted from an opposition player making a dangerous run into the gap between the back four and midfield, leaving the US defense out of position. In the opening game against England, Wayne Rooney dropped back from his forward position into this gap (video below). Not wanting to allow the dangerous Rooney to get the ball in this space and turn, center back Oguchi Onyewu felt the need to step out of his position in the back four and track Rooney. This opened up a huge amount of space between the US's other center back, Jay DeMerit, and left back Carlos Bocanegra for an England player to burst into, something Steven Gerrard was all too happy to do. Rooney never touched the ball but his incisive movement had done the damage. Lampard's pass found its way to Emile Heskey who laid it through for Gerrard to comfortably tuck home. Clark, Bradley's partner in central midfield that day, often gets blamed for the goal and indeed he failed to track the run of Gerrard. However, the defensive system was more to blame than Clark. As a center midfielder you're used to passing off forward runs to your center backs. He did a poor job of reading the situation, but the gap in defense should have never opened up. Even if he'd tracked Gerrard from the outset, the England midfielder still may have beat him in a foot race into the space.


England were also lined up in a 4-4-2 that day. Had Bradley gone with three central midfielders, the US would have had a spare man in the center of the park to sit just in front of the back four. That would have allowed Onyewu to pass Rooney off to the spare midfielder rather than getting himself out of position by tracking him. The gap would have never opened up for Rooney to run into, and that goal would likely have never happened.

In the US's second game against Slovenia, Clark was replaced with Torres but the US kept it's 4-4-2 shape. Again, they were made to pay for allowing the opposition to get into pockets of space between DeMerit and Onyewu at center back and Bradley and Torres in the middle of the pitch. In the video below (at 1:09), Valter Birsa drifts unmarked into a 20-yard gap in front of the back four. He receives the ball, turns and shoots before DeMerit or Onyewu are able to step. His finish was incredible, but the amount of space he was given to drift into was criminal and a product of the US's flat, four-man midfield.


Slovenia's second goal again came from an opposition player drifting into the problem gap. Forward Milivoje Novakovic drifts away from the US center backs to receive the ball in the gap where he can turn and slip it through for his forward partner Ljubijankic. The bulk of the blame for this goal, however, falls on Onyewu for his woeful positioning. The other three defenders had done their job pushing forward to close the gap and make the defense more compact. Onyewu was likely positioned so deep because he was worried about his lack of pace being exposed with a ball played in behind him. He wanted to keep Ljubikankic in front of him rather than on his shoulder.

Less than a year on from the World Cup, Bradley hadn't learned his lesson. In a friendly with Spain, he fielded a 4-4-2 against a Spanish side lined up in a 4-3-3 with a world class central midfield trio of Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, and Santi Cazorla. Outmanned in the midfield, the US were subsequently picked apart 4-0. That two of the four goals were scored by Cazorla, an attacking midfielder who makes a living finding pockets of space between defense and midfield, is no surprise.

The obvious key defensive feature of three-man central midfields is that they provide an extra layer of defensive depth in midfield. The extra midfielder can fill the most dangerous areas of space in front of the back four. Incredibly, even after the World Cup and the battering from Spain, Bradley refused to accept his side was often being overrun in midfield. In the end it would cost him his job as he again fielded a 4-4-2 against Mexico in the Gold Cup final. El Tri's first and third goals came from players receiving the ball unmarked in gaps in the middle of the field. (You can see the goals here at 2:30 and 4:28.)

Klinsmann would have certainly recognized the reasons behind the US's rather porous defense under Bradley. He has experimented with a number of different formations, 4-4-2 included, and has said he picks his formations based on the strengths of the players he has available and the style of play of the opposition. In other words, he is flexible and likes his teams to be able to play a number of different styles. But one feature that has been fairly consistent in Klinsmann's lineups is a three-man central midfield. Whether a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or diamond 4-4-2, he has shown that he likes to have one center midfielder available to sit in gaps just in front of the back four to prevent the opposition from receiving the ball in these dangerous areas. It has worked to shore up the defense. The US have conceded more than one goal in only three games under Klinsmann. Of the four goals conceded in this World Cup qualifying round, three have come from free kicks. The difficulty the US have had creating genuine goal-scoring opportunities against weaker CONCACAF opposition has been frustrating, but that phase of the game will come as players like Landon Donovan recover from injury.

Jurgen Klinsmann has made the US a more sophisticated side to match up against, and that will have its benefits in the long run.