Tactical Imagery: USA v. Czech Republic

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

Hall of Fame signature...

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)

1st half defensive aligment

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:

On attack...

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:

Holden about to create the 1st goal...

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

Berlin!

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

Ants marching...

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.

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21 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by matthewsf on 2010/05/27 at 9:16 PM

    One point I have to disagree with here Tuesday is the full-pressing. In fact, in the first 30 minutes, I don’t remember the Yanks pressing more in a game in awhile.

    The US, as I mentioned in my previous review, get thrusting the ball up the right side (presumably to see Buddle move and handle in traffic, but that is only a guess).

    But as soon as the Czech were trapped in their deep left corner, Edu was nearly on the wing.

    Small point, but, you know, my tv put me a little closer to the action.

    As the team tired, Edu and Holden specifically, the ball started finding it’s way over to the Jonathan Bornstein and Gooch quite a bit more…and bam…first Czech goal.

    Reply

    • I did watch the match again and moderated a couple points but tried to keep my impressions from seeing the match in person as much as possible. I can’t tell you how often I was wishing the camera man would zoom out – I think the view from non-American cameramen is generally a lot wider when the ball is on the far flank. Funny but you really can’t see how the team is playing together on TV.

      I’ll be pedantic and make the distinction between full pressing and half-pressing. Full pressing is literally like a full-court press – you press all the way up the pitch and pressure the back four. If you think back to the Gerrard goal in the England friendly, then we were full-pressing and got sliced open when they beat our pressure.

      Half pressing is more cautious – it’s pressing just to the points outside your own half – basically, you leave the CBs but immediately pressure the fullbacks. You saw Beasley and Holden doing that repeatedly – getting right up on the fullback as soon as they received the ball around the halfway line.

      Our half-pressing did form the basis for occasional full-pressing high up the pitch (happened a couple times – but is also a way of slowing down any counterattacks so its not necessarily a planned “tactic” ). And also for false-pressing in the second half – Gomez or Ching on their own trying to put Cech or the CBs under pressure.

      The tactic we used was half-pressing and that’s the most effective pressing tactic to use vs England.

      Reply

  2. Posted by matthewsf on 2010/05/27 at 9:20 PM

    I do agree with most of the rest of the review…sorry, need to pay the compliment.

    Torres was extremely effective as the distribution hub…it’s amazing it took that long to BB play him there putting him on the ring nearly exclusively for his first 4 or 5 caps.

    Beasley was completely stymied by Eddie Johnson’s barber cutting to close to his brain. EJ offered extremely poor movement going forward. When he wasn’t offside he just didn’t read the play — nothing new there.

    If you wanted to see why EJ has topped off at the MLS or Greek league level, look not further than his movement Tuesday.

    My get right now is that you are going to Herculez Gomez ahead of Landon and Jozy as the target guy..(but I’m not ready to get that thread going just yet.)

    Reply

    • Posted by Tom M on 2010/05/27 at 10:19 PM

      I am not one to make excuses for EJ but his injury probably didn’t help his cause.

      Reply

      • Posted by cosmosredux on 2010/05/27 at 10:21 PM

        Unfortunately Tom….even if he was fit, he’s been making these mistakes for a very long time.

        Reply

      • EJs problems are not physical – it’s just that his soccer brain hasn’t developed to allow him to make full use of his physical gifts. He’s the type of player who could do well after settling into a team and having some time to understand where his teammates expect him to be. He’s not the type of player that pops into an international side and is making great runs after a week of training. Buddle was far more mobile and his running was far better. He was involved in almost all the good things that happened up top on both sides of the pitch.

        Reply

    • Torres really, really impressed me. Were our midfield less crowded I’d start him in a heartbeat, and even as is I’m not sure that he shouldn’t be in the first XI.

      Great article overall, I definitely learned some things :)

      Reply

      • However, Torres did drift out of the game a bit after the goal as the Czech’s had their good spell. I think it was partly because Bornstein had a really terrible 10 minutes or so and things got pretty ugly out on the left. This also contributed to my poor initial assessment of Beasley – he actually started very brightly. If you look at where Torres is in the “Possession” picture, consider that Kljestan would often be were the referee was standing when the ball was in the same place.

        Could that maybe be the reason why after he made one good pass to Rogers to start the second half, it was 15 minutes before he touched the ball again? Holden managed to successfully play a similar ball at least 3 times. I think Kljestan needs a Xabi Alonso or Sergio Busquets type player to get the best out of him and how many of those are around? He should stop going on about the “haters” and realize he simply needs to improve to be a better all around player – it’s not enough to do one thing fairly well at the international level like it is in MLS.

        Look at Donovan who’s been the anointed one since age 16 but still seems to be driven to improve. Same with Dempsey, Holden, Davies, Torres and any top player. You don’t see quite the same with some players – like Beasley who was one of the bubble players despite being hugely successful. Sacha’s attitude seems to be “I’m good enough but they just don’t see it.” I’m tempted to diagnose big-fish, small-pond syndrome. I wish him the best and I hope this makes him realize that “take me as I am” isn’t good enough.

        Reply

    • Beasley’s problem was similar to the one Donovan had here in DC against Costa Rica and also against the Netherlands – with no one threatening to get behind the fullback, the defender is free to press right up on him and deny him the space he needs to be influential.

      Against the Ticos it was because of Mr. Clean’s lack of mobility. Against the Dutch, it was Findley’s lack of final ball which meant the CB was more than happy to deal with him without being concerned that he was going to be able to play a ball into the space he’d vacated. Donovan isn’t great in tight spaces he’s great going forward with time to pick a pass. That is why he’s so much better out on the wing than in central midfield.

      I find it encouraging that Bob recognized the importance of this kind of running in his roster selections – to me it’s the primary reason he chose Findley over Ching. It’s definitely a sign of “he gets it” in my book and a change from his preferences during qualifying. Bit of a dark horse he is.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Hercules3076 on 2010/05/27 at 10:03 PM

    Great analysis in my opinion. It definitely sheds some light on the formation mystery.

    And a quick comment, that again hopefully doesn’t start the thread, I think that with 4 forwards, the midfielders in question (Dempsey and Donovan) are staying as midfielders. I might be proven very wrong on that account, but we’ll see.

    Those first 20 minutes looked great from my perspective in front on my TV as well, disregarding the void of a second striker. I can just imagine what that first 20 minutes would look like with a second striker up there, even if it would be Findley.

    Recap: I can’t wait until Saturday to see where everything is headed. How long has it been since that potential lineup has played together? (Even disregarding the 2nd Forward position) Costa Rica? Heck, when was the last time that Dempsey and Donovan were on the field together?

    Reply

  4. Good contribution… I had never really understood the differences between various formations and the tactics behind them. Very interesting, and being a goalkeeper, I can take that onto the field when I’m surveying our team. Kudos.

    Reply

  5. Posted by John on 2010/05/28 at 7:57 AM

    The tactical side has really become an interest to me, especially as I switched clubs myself this year and we aren’t playing a flat four back anymore. It changed my responsibilities at RB, always an interesting thing.

    EJ just seems to not quite have the knack for “right place right time” that quality forwards or attacking players have. While Findley uses his speed to try to get to the “right place right time” but can’t do anything when he gets there. (or at least what he has shown so far)

    Reply

  6. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/05/28 at 8:40 AM

    This is very good Tuesday.

    Just to add: “I’d like to see the US defend from the front with one striker over (1-1) the other instead of 2 across (2).” which would mean the US would be using a 4-band formation instead of a 3-band formation, and I thoroughly agree with this comment, Tuesday.

    Reply

    • I think what you’d like your strikers to do is prevent is the quick switch of flanks through the base of your opponents midfield – 1 over 1 makes this more difficult than two across. If one striker is constantly disrupting the partnership at the base of midfield it makes your opponent have to work much harder in possession.

      Your opponent playing it across the back four, or a long high-ball from fullback to fullback gives your defense time to get across to the opposite flank. If the forwards manage to do this, you can shrink the width of the pitch and apply more pressure to one side. This is exactly what the Czechs did quite effectively – happy to let us play around them while compressing the width of the pitch confident that they can get across to the opposite flank in the time it took to get the ball across.

      Reply

      • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/05/28 at 9:08 AM

        I think this point can also be illustrated by Sneijder’s vs Iniesta’s defensive play in the CL. Sneijder was brilliant in dropping back into midfield helping Inter to overman that zone.

        I agree with you 100%.

        Reply

  7. Posted by ETJ on 2010/05/28 at 10:45 AM

    I’ve played soccer since I was four, but this article explained tactics I’ve never fully (or even partially) understood! I learned a lot, thanks

    Reply

  8. Tuesday thanks for the excellant breakdown.

    This all begs a some questions:

    1) Just how “static” will BB’s thinking continue to be now that we are past the “experimental” phase. BB knows tactics but is a little stubborn to switch from his favorites. As you eluded to above his problem was never bringing in the wrong players, it usually was in deploying those players effectively, or most importantly un-deploying them. I think he made a good selection with Ching, but to be truely considered a “dark horse” I want to see him make good use of the 23. He has tried different looks in the past but usually not with the starting XI.
    Maybe BB is secretly hiding his top secret “never going to show you or test in a game” formations ala. the anti-thesis to Carlos Bilardo’s experimentation in 1986 with the eventual 3-5-2. I highly doubt it. I sure hope after the Turkey match we have a clearer picture of our line-ups.

    2) Who is the better CAM option in different situations? Holden or Feilhaber or Torres? In which situations are each preferred? When would Feilhaber be preferrable to Holden, etc. I get Torres would be best in the 4-5-1 scenario, what about the other formations?

    3) Most importantly will BB show effective adaptability going forward and sub out MB when it is advantageous?
    I would much rather have an Edu/Holden match up for instance than a Bradley/Holden.

    The conversation on the formations/personal utiliized in the Turkey match can wait. Gomez vs. Findley, Spector vs. Dolo, and Goodson-Demerit pairing, etc. I don’t want to rain on Matt’s parade. I assume he has a post coming soon about the upcoming Turkey match/ starting XI etc.

    So if this CAM discussion is coming, Matt you can stop me right now.

    Reply

  9. I meant to write excellent with an “e”.
    Just thought I would correct that ahead of time in case anyone (cough** George) brought up any dicussions on the Queen’s English and the Americanization of the language.

    Reply

  10. No comments other than to offer my thanks to cosmosredux for a really good post.

    The followup comments are axe-ellent too, which is why I like this blog. (Sorry Eric, couldn’t resist. :))

    I used to buy seats high up on an endline as well so I could watch formations and rotation. You get a much more intuitive understanding of where a team’s defense is breaking down when you see it from that angle.

    Reply

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