(This is Part II of IV of our USA vs. Slovenia Preview) (Part I)
Part II looks at how Slovenia will play…which is just about how the States plays.
This is a guest post by Mr. Tuesday.
Jurgen Klinsmann recently said the US don’t have a style. That is not entirely true. Our playing identity over the last decade has been defined in opposition to our continental rival and can be summarized as “Beat Mexico”.
This style has been largely successful against its intended victim and teams of a similar Latin possession-oriented style. It’s reached the point where the tables have turned and Aguirre’s has heralded a tactical revolution designed to revitalize Mexico against 4-4-2 systems like our own. The question for US Soccer has become what happens when we don’t have a Mexico to beat?
Beat “Mexico” has brought us through 20 years of US Soccer development but this isn’t enough to get to the next level. Even in the moments of the greatest World Cup successes of these past 2 decades, the pattern was clear: The US defeated Portugal and Mexico in the 2002 World Cup, but drew with Hiddink’s Korea, fell to Poland and were knocked out by Germany. In meetings with World Cup caliber teams with a similar styles, we haven’t found ways to come out on top often enough. To take the next step, that must change.
We also seen this pattern occur within games: if the US doesn’t jump out to a lead and instead concedes the first goal, well-organized defensive teams can simply shut up shop. Too often it’s clear: we’re not coming back. There are no “counterattacks heard round the world” against a team with 8 or 9 well-organized players behind the ball. It isn’t easy – just ask Spain. Just one game into the 2010 World Cup, the US has already gone some way to disproving this criticism, fighting back for a 1-1 draw with England after going down a goal in the first 5 minutes.
They have shown in the past year that with Dempsey and Donovan, they’re an attacking side to be respected, that can take down the very best sides on their day. The US may have rode their luck on Saturday, as Dempsey’s 30-yard two-bouncer may have been saved by a keeper that wasn’t so “Green” at this level or with a different match-ball. England were also fortuitous to benefit from our defensive error, rather than conjuring some magic that unlocked our defense.
The USA looked a side that has become accustomed to playing in the biggest games, showing some new qualities in that they didn’t panic, settled into the match, took the game to England and never looked like not scoring. In the second half they absorbed more pressure but showed danger on the counter and had more quality chances over 90 minutes. The match was finely balanced and a draw seemed a fair result. 1 point, banked.
Potential Line-up (Potential Changes in Italics)
The result against England really changes the dynamic of the group since the team that wins the group will need maximum points from their remaining two matches. But nothing has changed in that our progress to the knockout round still hinges on the second match against Slovenia. At minimum, a win will keep qualification to the second round completely in our own hands. If we manage a winning margin greater than that of England against Algeria, we are through with a match to spare.
However, Slovenia’s trip to South Africa was paid for by one of the stingiest defense in UEFA qualifying. Our opponent finishing second in their group to Slovakia by conceding only 4 goals in 10 matches, before conceding 2 more in the play-off against Russia. Slovenia is just the type of well-organized team ready made to ruin our World Cup dreams.
Slovenia stay very narrow and compact through the back four and midfield. At time when Russia had the ball in the central areas during the 2nd leg of their playoff, their back 4 only covered a width of 20 yards. However, they are quick to adjust when the ball was played out to the flank – the fullback comes out wide to contain, while the remaining three defenders quickly drop deep, the wide midfielder is sacrificed for cover behind the fullback to provide defensive support, and the central midfielders patrol just a few yards in front of the defenders. The amount of defensive work done by all their players means Slovenia can be deliberate getting out of the back when they win possession, but they do show danger on the counterattack with good hold-up play by their forwards coming short before making runs behind the defensive line.
In their opening match, Slovenia showed little interest in getting forward into the attack, keeping their fullbacks largely tethered even after a red card for Algeria’s Ghezzal left them playing against 10 men. They are happy to run down the clock keeping possession in their own half with little apparent attacking intent. Slovenia’s performance had some observers suggesting they were little better than the substandard Greece side. Still, Slovenia come into the match topping Group C after Algeria’s goalkeeper tried to out-Green Green, allowing Robert Koren’s tame-effort to decide the points.
Having fought a team picked by many as semi-finalists to a draw without looking outclassed, can the US fling the bigger monkey off their back and defeat a lesser European team at the World Cup for only the second time since 1950? Can we shed our history of playing up to better opposition and getting good results as underdogs only to fall short when taking on the mantle of favorites? If our side can live with the expectations and make quick work of a Slovenia side that is simply not as good as their playoff win over Russia might suggest, you’re looking at a US side knocking on the door of the top 10 teams in World Football.
Slovenia were happy to play in possession in front of the Algerian defense in their opening group game. Algeria pack the midfield and after starting in something resembling a 4-man back-line quickly reverted to their accustomed 3-man defense. Despite a chance to create odd-man situations on the flank against 3-5-2, both Slovenia fullbacks tended to mostly stay at home while the side kept tight through the middle with DM Radosavljevic shielding CBs Suller and Cesar.
Koren has the more advanced central midfield role, but generally stays fairly close to the CBs until the ball is in the final third. Slovenia most frequently plays the ball out from the back straight up the center of the pitch on the diagonals Suler(RCB) to Radosavljevic(LCM) and Cesar(LCB) to Koren(RCM) combining to complete at least 20 passes between each pair against Algeria. The wide midfielders and forwards make most of the attacking play. On the right, Birsa would stay more narrow while Kirn on the left hugs the touchline. Novakovic plays as a target forward with a smaller, more mobile player doing a lot of the running.
Despite giving up more chances with an Algerian shots-in-the-box advantage of 7 to 1, Slovenia made the one goal tell. Defensively they really compress the lines of midfield and defense to stay tight in the center and concede space in the outside channels instead. Against Algeria, the majority of the opponents attacking came down their right flank where fullback Brecko gets forward a little bit more than left back Jokic.
They try to prevent players from getting behind their defense by dropping quite deep and sacrificing a midfielder as cover for their fullbacks. This approach means our fullbacks should be free to contribute in support of the attack. However, deep crosses must be inch perfect to overcome the sheer numbers Slovenia have covering in the box and the counter remains a constant threat. Slovenia basically set a trap – they try to stay organized and frustrate their opponents until they over-commit to attack and are made to pay on the counter.
Despite their threat on the counter, Slovenia are not a fast team. Novakovic showed a top speed of 25.87 km/hr against Algeria. Compare this to Findley, who topped out at 30.13 km/hr against England. Even Bocanegra hit 26.39 km/hr trying to chase down Lennon. It’s a game of numbers. Bradley needs to be patient.
Up Next: How To Beat The Slovenian’s At Our Game