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.

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.

Conclusion
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.

Klinsmann must convey clear tactical plan to inexperienced US side

After Brian Strauss reported Monday in Sporting News that certain anonymous members of the US Men's National Team had called into question Jurgen Klinsmann's leadership and coaching methods, the buildup to this evening's World Cup qualifier has commenced with a rather ominous sense of doubt among the American soccer community.

Since then, recently named captain Clint Dempsey and national team veteran Michael Bradley have both spoken out against players speaking to the media anonymously about internal team issues. Both have described the situation as "embarrassing" but are looking to move past it and have been adamant the reports shouldn't have a negative impact on the team's performance.

Bradley told ESPN's Roger Bennett, "To win big games we simply need as many guys to have big games as possible. Injuries, articles, who's here, who's not... at 8 o'clock tomorrow none of that counts."

It's an attitude I'm sure every player that steps on the field for the US tonight will share. Commitment and pride in the shirt are never things you feel you have to worry about with a US side.

What's concerning to me though is the alleged frustration of the players who spoke with Strauss at the lack of tactical preparedness of the side going into games. Strauss reported that one player told him, "(Klinsmann) just threw guys out there and played." Another player (or possibly the same player- again, we have no names) said, "(Klinsmann) didn't really say how we were going to play."

It's important to note that we don't know if these statements are representative of how a majority of the team feels or are just the frustrations of a lone player or two. But based on how disjointed the team looked in San Pedro Sula, it's not out of the question to believe we really are going into qualifiers without a clear understanding of how we will play.

It was maddeningly frustrating watching our front three of Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Eddie Johnson sort of half press the Honduras back four while the midfield three sat deeper, allowing acres of space between the two lines of three for Honduras to comfortably play the ball in to. It all suggested a team not on the same wavelength.

With the number of inexperienced players expected to feature this evening, particularly in the back four, it's absolutely imperative the US has a well thought out tactical plan and that every player knows his individual role. With the US's six listed defenders totaling only 12 qualifying caps between them, organization and team shape will be vital if we're to emerge with three points.

Notes:
Despite the discontent felt by factions of US supporters over the current form of the national team, we have an amazingly supportive fan base and need not fear our own supporters turning on the team at any point in tonight's game. The atmosphere will be terrific and should give our young side a major psychological boost. 

Prediction
I'm generally a horribly pessimistic fan but I just have a feeling the team is going to use all the negativity surrounding it at the moment as an opportunity to come together and make a big, positive statement tonight. The new guys will make the most of their chance, the veterans will provide the needed leadership. 3-1 US!

Klinsmann gets second half adjustments wrong

The United States' World Cup qualifying campaign got off to a troubling start in San Pedro Sula as Honduras overcame an early Clint Dempsey goal to emerge 2-1 winners. Despite fielding an offensive 4-3-3 formation, Jurgen Klinsmann's side were cautious in the first half and created few quality goalscoring chances throughout the 90 minutes.

4-3-3
Klinsmann surprisingly left veteran and team captain Carlos Bocanegra out of the back four, opting instead for a center back pairing of Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez. With Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson taking up the fullback positions, the back four was comprised of four players taking part in their first qualifying campaign. It was a brave decision on the part of Klinsmann to go with youth over experience- and Bocanegra's replacement Omar Gonzalez was one of the US's better players- but we're left to wonder whether Bocanegra would have provided the organization at the back to prevent Jerry Bengston's second half winner.

Danny Williams sat in midfield just in front of the back four. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones played as shuttling midfielders higher up the pitch.

Jozy Altidore was given the start at center forward. Clint Dempsey occupied a narrow position on the right and Eddie Johnson played a bit wider on the left.

The US started the game cautiously, with the midfield dropping fairly deep and allowing Honduras to to circulate the ball around the back. When Honduras had the ball deep in their own half, Dempsey and Johnson would push up alongside Altidore so that the US defended with a forward bank of 3 in front of a midfield bank of 3 in front of the back four. Strangely, the front 3 didn't press Honduras's back four and instead only offered token pressure. With plenty of time on the ball, the Honduran back four were easily able to advance the ball past the forward three. At this point, Dempsey and Eddie Johnson would drop in alongside Jones and Bradley to form a midfield bank of four. Williams dropped in to fill the gap between the defensive and midfield banks of four- making the US defensive shape more or less a deep 4-1-4-1. That the US didn't press wasn't a surprise. In an away qualifier Klinsmann was always going to be cautious and the 90 degree temperature would have made pressing unsustainable. However, it was a bit strange Dempsey and Johnson didn't immediately drop off into the midfield when the US lost possession.

The deep 4-1-4-1 shape meant Altidore was often left isolated up front. Honduras pressed when the US won the ball back, A combination of Honduras's pressing and some untidy passing from the US made it difficult to possess the ball out of the back and advance up the pitch with short passes. As a result, the US were frequently forced play long into Altidore and hope he could retain possession long enough for reinforcements to join in the attack. When the US were able to keep the ball, Dempsey drifted centrally from the right just in behind Altidore while Johnson stayed wider on the left. They looked most dangerous when Altidore checked back to collect the ball in between the lines of Honduras's 4-4-2. This forced one of the Honduran center backs to step out with him, leaving a hole in the center of the Honduras defense for the US to play balls in behind for Dempsey and Johnson making runs from the outside.

Honduras's opener came from a spectacular overhead kick from Juan Garcia but the corner kick that ultimately led to the goal was a result of Honduras's pressing and a lapse of concentration from Chandler who had a difficult afternoon. Chandler failed to clear his lines inside his own box, allowing Carlos Costly to nick possession. Gonzalez made a fine last ditch tackle on Costly but Garcia scored on the resulting corner.

Diamond 4-4-2
The US set out in the second half in a what would typically be described as a diamond 4-4-2 but what in reality was more 4-2-2-2. Bradley dropped deep alongside Williams and looked to collect the ball from Cameron and Gonzalez and link passes forward to Dempsey and Jones who were playing narrow higher up the field. Eddie Johnson played alongside Altidore as a center forward pairing. Bradley was given the deeper role because he's a more creative passer than Williams- the US needed a more creative player in that role to link defense to the four more advanced attackers.

Presumably Klinsmann made the tactical switch to enable the US to control possession by playing with four midfielders in the center of the field. Honduras had 57% possession in the first half and Klinsmann likely wanted to take the game to them more in the second half. While the switch did result in the US keeping the ball better in midfield, the lack of any wide players allowed plenty of space for Honduras's midfielders to run into when they regained possession.

Flat 4-4-2
Maurice Edu replaced Williams in a like for like sub on 58 minutes. Sacha Kljestan was brought on for Eddie Johnson a minute later, prompting another tactical change from Klinsmann. Kljestan played wide on the left, Jones went to right midfield and Dempsey moved up front alongside Altidore in a 4-4-2. Graham Zusi, a player used to being employed on the right wing for the US, replaced Jones in the 68th minute. The US defended in two banks of four- Edu and Bradley were side by side- while Altidore and Dempsey stayed high up the field. The switch meant the US no longer had the extra center midfielder to fill in the space between the two banks of four- the position Danny Williams had played in the first half.

Two things were almost immediately noticeable when Klinsmann made the switch. Without the extra center midfielder, Honduras began to find space to collect the ball in the gap between Bradley-Edu and Gonzalez-Cameron, leaving the US back four dangerously exposed. The absence of a third center midfielder also meant there was a huge gap in the middle of the field between Bradley and Edu and Dempsey and Altidore when the US were on the ball. With Edu and Bradley deep and Dempsey and Altidore high up the field, they had no one to fill the space in between and provide a link from midfield to attack. After falling behind 2-1, the US couldn't regain possession and when they did they struggled to keep it long enough to create anything meaningful. The olé chants that came from the home crowd as their side easily passed the ball around the US midfield in the closing moments of regulation time were a frustrating reminder of Klinsmann's frequently inability to get his tactics and personnel decisions right in important games.

Thoughts, tactical analysis: USA 2-2 Russia

I've been left scratching my head after the US's 2-2 draw with Russia as to how my assessment of the USMNT performance could differ so much from American soccer journalists and pundits. The overwhelming sentiment on Twitter and from game commentator Taylor Twellman has been that the US back four was poor and that the draw hides what were serious deficiencies in this evening's performance, particularly at the back.

I'm hardly an eternal USMNT optimist and am willing to accept we stole a draw we hardly deserved. But I can't get on board with the idea this was an overwhelmingly bad performance from the US and one that hints at an ominous World Cup qualifying campaign ahead. Consider the context in which this game was played. Russia's entire starting lineup consisted of domestic-based players meaning they obviously faced far less travel time. This is a big deal in a midweek game in which players are forced to play for their club teams at the weekend and then immediately hop on a plane to join their national teams. The travel is exhausting, particularly on the back of a weekend game. The bulk of the US team today consisted of players based in Western Europe but also included MLS and Mexican league players- the travel was extensive for all involved.

Travel time aside let's also consider the opponent. Russia currently sit 9th in the FIFA World Rankings and in Fabio Capello they are led by a manager who has won multiple domestic titles in Spain and Italy and hoisted the Champions League trophy as manager of AC Milan. He's unbeaten in his first six games with Russia. They've gotten off to a perfect 4-0 start in their UEFA World Cup qualifying group including a win over Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal. This was no feeble opponent the US were up against. Away from home it was always going to be an extremely difficult fixture to get a result from.

Defense
The US back four has come under the harshest criticism from American soccer journalists after the draw. US Soccer Daily (@USsoccerDaily) tweeted after the game, "Big questions in the back." SI's Grant Wahl echoed that sentiment stating "questions about the U.S. back line will remain." Twellman continued to reiterate throughout the broadcast that Tim Howard was the only thing preventing the score from being 4-1 or 5-1 to Russia.

That the US had a few problems defensively was clear. Howard indeed had to make key stops and Russia certainly created more dangerous goal scoring opportunities. However, the bulk of the defensive issues occurred high up the field with the US midfield and forwards and I'd argue the back four was more impressive today than they had been against Antigua and Barbuda or Guatemala.

The US played a 4-3-3 with Danny Williams in midfield just in front of the back four and Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones in front of him playing as more box to box midfielders. Jozy Altidore played center forward and was flanked by Joshua Gatt and Herculez Gomez on the outsides. The US's five most advanced players (Altidore, Gatt, Gomez, Jones and Bradley) rarely seemed to be on the same page as to whether they were going to press the ball high up the field or collectively drop deep. Often half seemed to be pressingg while the other half were dropping so that the US defense was stretched vertically when they needed to be compact to make the field small for Russia. This opened up big pockets of space in the middle of midfield for Russia to collect the ball in and run towards the back four.

Another big problem for the US defensively, particularly in the middle of the second half, occurred when the US gave the ball away after the center midfield triangle of Williams, Jones and Bradley all advanced forward to support the three forwards. This created a big pocket of space between Williams and center backs Clarence Goodsen and Geoff Cameron for Russia to play an outlet ball into and counter, leaving the back four exposed. Too often it was lackluster defensive shape or cheap giveaways from the midfield and forwards that left the back four scrambling to stop Russian players whose movement off the ball had eluded the US midfield. Given the difficult situations the back four were frequently put under, I thought they did a decent job slowing down the Russian attack. Yes Tim Howard had to make some good stops but that's nearly always going to be the case against strong sides like Russia away from home. It's telling that the only Russian goals came from a silly giveaway by Danny Williams and another mental error when Maurice Edu and Goodsen switched off on a quick Russia restart. In the run of play the back four looked up for the challenge and it was the defensive shape of the midfielders and forwards that was the biggest defensive concern.

Attack
One of the concerns with a 4-3-3 is that, unlike a 4-2-3-1, there is no attacking central midfield player that plays just off the striker to connect midfield and attack. In the first half, Russia's willingness to get numbers behind the ball forced Jones and Bradley to check back deep to receive the ball. With Gomez and Gatt both operating in wider areas there was a large gap between the midfield center midfield three and Altidore. Therefore the only way to advance the ball forward was either through long balls into Altidore or hopeful balls over the top into the corner for Gomez or, more often, Gatt. The problem with the long passes hit into Altidore was that when he was able to control them and the hold the ball, he was isolated and there was no one for him to lay the ball off to.

In the second half the US did a better job of linking midfield and attack by getting players into the space between the Russian center backs and center midfielders. Gatt and Gomez at times both tucked inside into these pockets of space but most often it was Jones linking defense to offense with his powerful bursts forward from midfield. Jones' decision-making and game awareness can be frustrating but his work rate and ability to advance past opposition center midfields both off the ball and with the dribble make him a handful to deal with. Although he's not in the same class as Yaya Toure or Abou Diaby, he possesses the same trait that makes these two so difficult for the opposition to deal with- the ability to singlehandedly link to defense to offense by bypassing the opposition central midfield with powerful vertical runs. Michael Bradley has received all the plaudits for his play in midfield but it was Jones ability to usher the ball into the attacking third that allowed the US to play higher up the pitch and enabled Bradley to get in positions where he could use his creativity and quality on the ball. Jones deserves more credit for what was one of his stronger games in recent memory for the US.

4-3-3 vs 4-2-3-1
4-3-3 formations like the one used by the US today use one deep lying holding midfielder with two other midfielders that do more shuttling up and down the field. 4-2-3-1 formations use two holding midfielders (one tends to advance higher up the field when in possession) and one attacking midfielder that sits off of the center forward. 4-3-3's can be especially vulnerable to counterattacks, particularly when a team likes to get its outside backs forward. When a team in a 4-3-3 loses possession it's often left with only its one holding midfielder and two center backs to slow down the counter. It's impossible for the holding midfielder to cover the entire width of the pitch so opposition players easily move into space either side of him to receive the ball where they can then turn and run at the center backs. The extra holding midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 makes it easier to defend the width of the pitch on the counter- with two players rather than one in front of the center backs it makes it more difficult for the opposition to slide into pockets of space in the midfield and turn.

With Danny Williams operating as the loan holder in a 4-3-3, Russia were able to frequently collect outlet passes on either side of him and counter when the US lost possession. Had this been a competitive fixture against a side as strong as Russia, Jurgen Klinsmann would have almost certainly opted for two holding midfielders (4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1) rather than just the one to mitigate the threat of counterattacks. However, he almost certainly opted for the 4-3-3 with preparation for next year's crucial World Cup qualifiers in mind. With the exception of Mexico, the US's opponents in the CONCACAF hexagonal will get numbers behind the ball and defend deep. It makes little sense for Klinsmann to use two holding midfielders in these games where it will be important the US to get bodies forward to trouble crowded opposition defenses. Today's game was therefore probably one example where Klinsmann played a lineup with future opponents in mind rather than creating a reactive lineup to the opponent at hand.

US continue to struggle to turn possession into goals

Daniel rightfully pointed out that my previous post gave far too much credit to Jurgen Klinsmann for making what any professional soccer coach would have realized was a necessary move away from Bob Bradley's 4-4-2 and introducing three-man central midfield formations. During Bradley's tenure, it became rather obvious his favored 4-4-2 was allowing the opposition too much space in the center of the park- Klinsmann can hardly be considered a brilliant tactician simply for recognizing that fact. While his tactical shifts have created a more solid spine down the center of the field, the US continues to struggle to translate midfield dominance into genuine goal scoring opportunities. A 92nd minute goal from Eddie Johnson against Antigua & Barbuda spared Klinsmann the blushes of what would have been one of the most humiliating defeats in the team's history but signaled the team has to improve quickly if they want to avoid a nervous final phase of qualification.

Some of the US's offensive difficulties can reasonably be blamed on the challenges that accompany playing CONCACAF opposition on the road- playing on dreadful pitches in front of hostile crowds is no easy task (although it would be quite a stretch to say the 8,000 fans that attended Sir Vivian Richards Stadium Friday created an intimidating atmosphere), particularly in torrential weather when the opposition defends with all 10 men in their own defensive third. However, it's still deeply concerning that the US has had such a difficult time converting dominant possession figures into genuine goal scoring opportunities against vastly inferior opposition. Despite holding 72% possession Friday against Antigua & Barbuda, the US could only muster four shots on target. The frightening truth is that the US has not looked good on the road once in this phase of qualifying. In fact, you could reasonably argue the first half of the 1-0 home win over Jamaica was the only decent half we've played thus far.

One good half out of ten played does not bode well for the team in the final hexagonal phase of qualification, assuming the US get a result over Guatemala tonight and qualify. Based on current standings, the hexagonal would consist of Guatemala, USA, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Canada. With the possible exception of Canada, those are all very difficult places to play. Given current form, it doesn't seem inconceivable that the US could struggle to finish in the top three and secure automatic qualification.

How responsible Klinsmann is for the recent run of unconvincing performances is difficult to say. While he can take credit for the fact his controversial roster inclusions of Alan Gordon and Eddie Johnson proved to be a difference maker against A&B, legitimate questions should be raised about how the US put themselves in a position where they needed a last minute winner in the first place. This phase of qualifying was expected to be a cakewalk for the Americans and it probably should have been. That they've left themselves with work still to do in the final game against Guatemala to ensure passage to the next stage suggests the US may not be adjusting to Klinsmann as quickly as had been hoped. We knew from the outset Klinsmann wanted to introduce a patient, possession-based system and has done so. But while his style has certainly allowed the US to dominate possession, too much of that possession occurs in the middle third of the field. As we move the ball into the attacking third we often lack the technical ability and inventiveness required to unlock compact defenses. Throughout the field, the ball moves from player to player too slowly, allowing defenses to easily shift and retain their proper shape. There's a sneaking suspicion that Klinsmann's ambition for how he wants the team to play does not much the technical ability of the players at his disposal. While I applaud his ambition of bringing a more modern brand of football to the USMNT, his job is, first and foremost, to qualify for the World Cup. Qualifiers are not the time to be dogmatic about your ideals, sometimes pragmatism is necessary.

This isn't to say Klinsmann is doomed to fail. The world of international football has its examples of teams that have struggled in the buildup to major tournaments but gone on to achieve great things. Carlos Bilardo won only three of his first 15 games in charge of Argentina and only one of seven in the buildup to the 1986 World Cup. Argentina would go on to win that tournament. The US is obviously less talented than Argentina and no one is expecting them to win the World Cup in Brazil but the point is that Klinsmann will ultimately be judged on how he performs at the World Cup if the US qualify, not on how convincing they were in qualification. Poor performances in qualifiers and friendlies would be quickly forgotten if Klinsmann can get the team into the knockout stages in Brazil. The challenges of playing in a World Cup are very different than those of a CONCACAF qualifying campaign and may actually better suit Klinsmann's style of play. Pitches will certainly be wider than 70 yards so there will be better opportunities to stretch defenses laterally and play with more width. Few if any teams will be frightened enough of the US to defend with nine men in the defensive third so there should be more opportunities to get in dangerous pockets of space in and around the 18 and more opportunities to counter. Opponents will be more talented but will also open themselves up. This should allow the US to rely less on technique and clever passing-which they've been forced to do against compact CONCACAF defenses and isn't the strongest aspect of the American's game- and more on athleticism.

Getting ahead of myself though. Let's get a result tonight first.

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.

Thoughts on USA 1-0 Jamaica

The US looked impressive in the first half of their crucial 1-0 win over Jamaica last night in World Cup qualifying and kept a good enough defensive shape in a nervy final half hour to hold on for the three points. Despite failing to score in the opening 45 minutes, the US dominated possession with 79 percent and created a number of fine scoring opportunities. They struck the woodwork three times and forced decent saves from Jamaican goalkeeper Dwayne Miller. The breakthrough came via a Herculez Gomez freekick in the 55th minute. In truth Miller should have made the save, but the US had been good value for their lead.

Jurgen Klinsmann made five changes to the side that started in Kingston Friday evening. Right back Steve Cherundolo returned from a calf strain to replace Michael Parkhurst, Carlos Bocanegra replaced Clarence Goodson at center back, and Danny Williams, Graham Zusi and Jose Torres were brought into the midfield while Kyle Beckerman and Maurice Edu sat. Dempsey was moved forward to a withdrawn forward position behind Herculez Gomez, demoting Jozy Altidore to the bench.

The US played something like a 4-1-3-1 with Williams playing as a holding midfielder behind Zusi, Jones, and Torres and Dempsey operating just behind Gomez. Zusi brought width and a direct vertical threat down the right, while Torres brought composed passing on the left. He also frequently drifted inside to offer an additional passing option for Williams and Jones. Both outside backs in Cherundolo and Fabian Johnson did a fine job overlapping into space when Torres and Zusi came inside. The US looked particularly threatening down the right side with combinations between Zusi and Cherundolo, though the Hanover 96 captain struggled with his final ball.

Jamaica's defense sat particularly deep, often keeping all four defenders within 12 yards of the goal when the US were in the final third. Their deep line created a great deal of space for the US just outside the 18 and the Americans looked dangerous when they made delayed runs into this area (recall Danny Williams' strike that struck the post and Zusi's volley blasted over the bar came from this area). Their movement was fluid and they were able to penetrate gaps in the Jamaican defense with relative ease. That they failed to score despite such an overwhelmingly dominant first half came down to a combination of good goalkeeping, bad luck, and poor finishing.

Perhaps fittingly, the US's revenge came in the form of a freekick, the area of the game the Jamaicans had executed so well to shock the Americans in Kingston. After going down a goal, Jamaica committed more men forward and pressed the US higher up the field. In response, the US began playing much more direct. Faced with the threat of the pacey Jamaicans aggressively closing in on the ball, Klinsmann could be seen on the sideline frantically urging his back four and midfielders to knock the ball long into the corners.

This wasn't a time-wasting strategy the US was employing to kill the clock off; they were doing it with 25 minutes still remaining. Given Klinsmann expressed desire to Latinize American soccer and the success the US had in possession in the first half (they finished the half with 79 percent possession), it seemed a little surprising that Klinsmann would resort to hitting long balls for the forward to chase while keeping a tidy defensive shape with the other players.

However, the strategy made perfect sense. At no point in the course of three halves of soccer had Jamaica shown they could break down a compact US defense in the run of play. They simply don't have the technically ability to break down a team defending with two banks of four. By playing long balls into Jamaica's defensive third, Klinsmann was minimizing the ability of the Jamaicans to force turnovers in midfield and counter at the US defense with numbers. Even if Herculez Gomez (and then Jozy Altidore) was unable to get on the end of these long balls, the US was still forcing Jamaica to patiently build from the back against a crowded defense. In effect, they were forcing Jamaica to rely on their technical ability rather than their athleticism to get an equalizer. Despite a nervous-looking finish, the Jamaicans only really troubled Howard once.

The decision of Klinsmann to move to a more direct and defensive setup after getting the go-ahead goal also signals that he's not entirely confident in his team's ability to kill off games by knocking the ball around and preventing the opponent from getting possession (the way a team like Spain would see out an important game). He was clearly concerned about giving the ball away cheaply in midfield and giving the Jamaicans opportunities to counter. That's a concern I shared and given the US's precarious position in the group going into the game, minimizing risk seemed a wise move.

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.