Good evening TSG readers, its Tuesday here again. Usually I’m going on endlessly about shapes and formations down in the comments section but today I’m bringing you the content. A lot of you are probably thinking “what’s really the difference between 4-4-2 and 4-2-2-2?” I wanted to give everyone a different view of the match from what you normally see on TV, so I bought some tickets up as high as I could behind the goal at Rentschler Field and brought my camera to snap a few photos.
Tim Howard with His Biggest Fan Pre-game
Unfortunately we didn’t play our first 11 which generally means we get the basic 4-4-2 shape. I suspect the modifications we see with our first 11 aren’t necessarily coached, it’s just the interesting stuff that happens when the natural tendencies of talented players like Donovan and Dempsey are added to the mix. But here’s my crack at Bob’s tactics on the night anyway, with the focus on the first half when I had a better view and my camera hadn’t yet run out of chips.
US basic 4-4-2 shape when out of possession:
(all images can be enlarged with a click)
During the first half we were defending the near goal, giving a good view of our defensive shape. Here you can see the clear 4-4-2 shape and good spacing between the US players in this picture to cover the entire field of play. Just to get you a sense of the players we see Bornstein, Onyewu, Goodson, Dolo from left to right in the back four, Beasley, Edu, Torres, Holden in midfield and E. Johnson and Buddle up top.
The CBs are a little slow getting over to the left in expectation of a diagonal long ball inside of Cherundolo. This leaves a gap in the inside channel between Onyewu (LCB) and Bornstein (LB), but there’s no danger of a player running into that space at this moment. Edu has ended up on the left side of the central midfield partnership, pressuring towards the ball – the “strong-side” to borrow a familiar term from the other brand of football.
Torres drops slightly deeper and offers positional support, loosely tracking the player in the hole in front of the CBs to prevent the ball straight into this player’s feet. You wouldn’t want Rooney receiving the ball in this area on June 12, so I’m guessing Bob’s going to try to deny him service unless he drops deep to get the ball. That would be a good tactic. Torres and Edu were particularly good for the first 20 minutes of the match. Edu is a monster.
Outside, Beasley is cutting off the passing lane between the Czech’s RB and RM who is making a run into a wide position along the midfield line. The RB has one of three choices – the short pass straight up the pitch to the CM who would turn into pressure from Edu and Beasley, to maintain possession by playing the ball across the back 4 or to play a long diagonal ball up to the striker supported by his midfielder just inside Dolo on our right.
Up top you can see Eddie Johnson on the left, trying to get back into the passing lane between the RB and the other CM. Buddle on the right is just drifting back behind the Czech’s central midfielder. These two players could easily put a lot more pressure on the defensive line in possession by taking up better positions. I’d like to see the US defend from the front with one striker over (1-1) the other instead of 2 across (2). This happened at times, but I think more frequently.
If the more advanced striker cuts off the easy pass to the center back (say if EJ stayed 5-10 more advanced) while the deeper play cuts off the pass to the weak-sided CM (Buddle positioned 5 yards to the left). That means the RB has to play is short to a player who can turn into pressure, a long diagonal 50:50 ball up to top or risk a long pass out to the LB that Holden could cheat a bit further up to pitch to potentially cut out, putting the Czech’s under instant pressure. There’s no easy option to maintain possession, with minimal additional effort
We didn’t see any full-pressing against the Czechs with Bob instead preferring to defend with a well-organized shape and ask Beasley and Holden to press as the Czech’s tried to cross half field – half-pressing.
In possession 4-4-2 shape, playing the ball out of the back:
The shape is largely the same except for Torres dropping deep to form a triangle with the Onyewu and Bornstein to bring the ball out of the back. He did this very effectively in the first half, setting tempo and organizing the build-up. Further forward, Holden has also tucked inside quite narrowly, leaving Cherundolo as the player in space on the opposite flank. Seeing this picture, it’s not any wonder that a lot of our attacking play funneled from left to the right. In contrast to our defending almost the entire width of the pitch, the Czech’s 4-4-2 shape is more narrow than ours, focusing on on flank, though the ball is in a similar position. The Czech strikers have gotten into better defensive positions, with one preventing the ball to Edu and the other defending space on the halfway line just in front of the central midfield pair. This means the gaps between their defenders are narrower and players time on the ball is more limited as they play up the pitch.
If Holden is going to play so narrowly going forward, I’d like to see him come deeper when the ball is in this position. He did do this once during the first half and it made good things happen. It allowed Edu the confidence to provide Torres with a more penetrative passing option knowing that Holden can cover for him. The Czechs are happy enough to allow us to play the ball around them, but you create danger by playing through a well-organized side. The further up the pitch we can get on the left and centrally with Cherundolo in space on the right, the more dangerous a ball out to him on the right flank becomes.
In person, during the first half, I thought that Beasley was excellent defensively, but he didn’t do quite enough going forward. I think you see why here. Beasley stays relatively high up the pitch when he needs to come deep to form another triangle with Torres and Bornstein in order to play the ball up the left flank. In this position, the ball available to Beasley puts him under immediate pressure from the RB behind him and the CM can quickly close him down and cut off the return pass.
Still, I didn’t think that was entirely Beasley’s own fault. He looked better on television and his drop off in performance was more due to Bornstein’s mini-implosion which began with a ball to no one around 28 minutes. Eddie Johnson simply didn’t offer enough movement out to the left flank. No coincidence that Buddle’s movements over to the left coincided with Beasley’s best play.
If it’s Charlie Davies playing as the left sided striker, you can bet he’s making a run out to the touchline above Beasley, forcing the CB to either track him out wide or the RB that’s currently pressuring Beasley to drop off him and deal with the runner. This would leave Beasley in space and giving the US an outnumbered situation on the left.
On both flanks, Buddle consistently made that run, leaving the US in a 3 v 2 situation out wide. This is important because it presents the opposition with a choice between conceding possession on their flank, or pulls a CM out for additional defensive support, leaving a gap in a more dangerous area for the attack to find a player in space. Good things to happened, including winning the free kick that led to the first goal.
Beasley always plays more like a winger than a wide midfielder – higher up the pitch in possession and close to the touchline – which means helping to keep possesion in this way isn’t the strongest part of his game. He’s always been a bit too static in his running on the wing when in possession, even in his PSV days. In contrast, I would think of Holden as a wide midfielder – even with the ball deep on the left, he’s moving into a central area hoping to receive it. This picture shows why that distinction matters when it comes to how the team plays.
Our players are clearly well-drilled, but the movement in possession up top and in midfield is a bit too static and allowed the Czechs a foothold for about 15 minutes after our good opening 20 minutes. Running needs to be more fluid in order to pull defenders out of shape needs and break down opposition that’s also well-organized so the two systems don’t cancel each other out (more on this below). This meant it was little surprise that our first half goals came on a set piece.
Holden about to take the free kick from which Edu scored:
This is in the moments before Holden is about to take the free kick which resulted in Edu’s goal. The Czech’s are marking zonally here and the paid the price with a goal conceded when Holden delivered into an area where they lack cover. The goalkeeper came for it and Goodson beat him to the ball and Edu looked lively to benefit from being at the right place at the right time.
Defending a Czech Free Kick
In contrast, I thought we defended set pieces well and my crystal ball definitely hadn’t predicted a Czech goal to come on one. Unfortunately this pic isn’t as fortuitous as the previous one. This is their free kick in a central area. In contrast to the zonal marking scheme of the Czechs, the US goes straight man to man against the players getting into the box with Holden (22) patrolling the space just inside the wall and Buddle (29) covering the zone just around the D. With all 10 outfield Czech players in frame, there’s no one to the left of the wall so I’m not sure about the position that Beasley has taken up – presumably he’s covering for a touch wide to shoot around the wall.
Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of the goal we conceded on, but as much as anything it was simply poor zonal marking. Onyewu was pulled towards the ball, leaving his far post zone and unable to recover and clear the ball in time. Frankly, it looked like we’d decided it was halftime already and just switched off. Any such lapses in concentration will be punished in South Africa.
In Conclusion: 4-4-2 vs 4-4-2
This photo is just as Guzan was about to take a goal kick and shows a good example of what happens in 4-4-2 vs 4-4-2. That system often cancels itself out without that little bit of individual brilliance. All the front 6 players are marked leaving only our fullbacks with space to exploit. Also it shows why small modifications can make a big difference in the battle to find and exploit space.
Here are some alternative shapes derived from 4-4-2:
4-2-3-1: Replace Eddie Johnson with an attacking midfield player who plays between Beasley and Holden to make the system 4-2-3-1, suddenly we have 3 v 2 in the center of midfield and while they have a centerback without anyone marking. Does he get pulled into midfield to make up the numbers exposing gaps in the backline? Pushing a good technical midfield player like Torres into his spot and replacing EJ with Bradley could make us more defensively stout while allowing us to play through the center of midfield in a way that is less difficult.
4-4-1-1: Replace Eddie Johnson with Hercules Gomez and ask him to play just behind Buddle to feed off his ball winning and work. The difference between this system and the 4-2-3-1 is the distance between your strikers is minimal. The defensive phase of a 4-2-3-1 tends to look a lot like 4-4-1-1.
4-2-2-2: I’ve described our Confederations cup system as an “asymetric” 4-2-2-2. Wide players tend to push very high up the pitch, as they are here. The difference between this and that system, Beasley (Davies) would push forward to stay on the offside line in the outside channel (outside the fullback). Eddie Johnson (Dempsey) would be would play deeper and come forward from a wide position on a diagonal line getting more central as he advanced to get into the box and exploiting space Beasley (Davies) opened in the inside channel (between fullback and center-back). With Buddle (Altidore) leading the line as a central striker, Holden (Donovan) would play out on the right flank, much closer to the touchline. The back 6 positions remained the same.
All of these modifications only affect the four most attacking players, while the shape of the back 6 stays roughly the same with only the fullbacks called on to join the attack a bit more or less to provide additional width.