In a late twist of fate and ecstasy, the United States gallantly and finally slipped one through the posts on Wednesday and emphatically punched their ticket to World Cup 2010, 2nd round.
Up next for the Yanks? The Ghana Black Stars, Africa’s last team remaining in the tournament and the United States slayer in the final group game in World Cup 2006.
Ghana, who most expected would wilt in a tough Group D without their midfield quarterback Michael Essien, did the exact opposite.
With a steely win over trendy final four pick Serbia in the opening round and a draw against an undermanned Australia side, Ghana strode into the final game against UEFA powerhouse Germany with the group lead and with group scenarios in their favor.
A 1-0 loss coupled with Australia’s narrow win over Serbia sent Ghana through to face the Group C-winning States.
Ghana employs a disciplined 4-1-4-1 formation that drops the fierce, but slight Anthony Annan–a more athletic Wilson Palacios or, better, a reincarnation of former England great Paul Ince–in the holding role traditionally held by Essien above an extremely seasoned defense.
How seasoned is the backline? From left to right it reads: John Paintsil, (a starter at Fulham in the EPL) John Mensah (formerly of Lyon and now shepherd of Sunderland’s defense), Jonathan Mensah (an extremely powerful and strong central defender who has stepped in for injured Isaac Vorheh) and finally Hans Sarpei (a shifty and sound player out of the Bundesliga).
Only Jonathan Mensah, no relation to John, is inexperienced, but he’s also candidate to start next year at Serie A side Udinese. He’s athletic and certainly no slouch–watch the Germany game.
The back four is smart, tough, athletic and by my review only cracks when having to face spurts of tough pressure against the run-of-play. Against Serbia, especially, the fundamentals and cover of the defense was…..exceptional.
The Black Stars like to control things ahead with Annan in their midfield. They’ll play the ball around looking for chances to serve up to striker Asamoah Gyan (we’ll talk about his impact shortly), who’s making a run against the grain of the opponent’s defense.
The midfield should have been a strength for Ghana, but Chelsea star (and my favorite soccer player) Michael Essien went down with a knee injury and volatile Inter Milan tracker Sulley Muntari has had a love-hate relationship with the team and coaching staff.
Muntari cursed the coaching staff after the Australia match, but was not Anelka’d back to the homeland. He’s, to date, been coming off the bench.
Of the remaining midfielders, the States face yet another Portsmouth player in Kevin Prince Boateng who made news recently for relegating Michael Ballack to crutches for the World Cup.
It’s up top where the Yanks will have to contend with the biggest goal threat in Asamoah Gyan, but they’ll have the inside track on him. Gyan also fronts Ligue 1 Rennes, Carlos Bocanegra’s club. Gyan is widely considered the next superstar from the Black Stars and with good reason. He’s strong on the ball, extremely smart with technical runs and goes hard to headers.
That said, Ghana hasn’t been able to score this World Cup from the run-of-play. Both goals that Ghana have are penalty kicks. Beyond Gyan, Ghana lacks offensive creativity in the midfield and is also almost too disciplined going forward to take a risk and create an opportunity.
The Black Stars will try to move the ball using the flanks, but in a wholly different manner from the State’s last opponent, Algeria.
Ghana will ping the ball from Annan in the holding role out to one of their wide midfielders. That wide midfielder depending upon what the defense offers has multiple plays including carrying the ball. The ball carrier will typically look for: A run from Gyan traipsing diagonally across the defense, a lead pass to an interior midfielder down the line or an overlap from the defender depending the situation and tempo of the game.
Beyond this Ghana typically lack offensive industry and will work the ball out of the corners, predominantly with service into the box or, less frequently, to a trailing midfielder for a shot right outside the box.
Now, let’s continue with our customary TSG preview.
As usual, we go.
TSG What We’re Looking For.
11 At The Whistle
TSG What We’re Looking For:
• Can the Yanks get loose down the flanks?
With Pantsill and Sarpei pushing up high and making runs for the Black Stars, the best way to counter this is the Yanks’ celebrated counter flanker counter. I expect Robbie Findley to start again with Landon and Cherundolo on the right right and attack Ghana’s left flank where they originated most of their attacks against both Germany and Serbia.
The States, who will deploy in their 4-2-2-2 this game, will use Bradley, Donovan and Dempsey for carriage against the pressing Ghana defenders and hope to unlock their own diaganol runs from Altidore or Findley. That’s how to beat the Ghana defense.
The Yanks are going to need Findley to be better with his final ball in this one for sure.
• Where Gyan goes, you follow
A slight variation on the popular supporter’s group chant, huh?
There is no question that Asamoah Gyan is the space creator and catalyst for the entire Ghana offense. Gyan is a strong, swift and aggressive lone striker who will float in the center of the pitch and then lay off a pass for a midfield shot, make a diagonal run down the flank to open space or take a fly pattern between a central defender and a winger.
The Yanks must know where Gyan is at all times and, more importantly, always have a man responsible for him. Always.
• The US defense must be ready to go aerial
Whether it’s a service piece in the box to strong and tall central defenders Mensah(s) coming forward or to Gyan in the run-of-play, the Yanks will be tested in the air in the box more in this game than any other. DeMerit needs to have a mistake-free day and Oguchi Onyewu, with a little rest, should be ready for the advancing defenders for Ghana in the box.
• Convert your chances and seize the momentum
Ghana is weakest when they are defending an up-tempo game and unable to keep defensive shape. Both Germany and Australia preyed on this by taking their chances in bunches. The Yanks will need to seize these few momentum-based opportunities and bury their shot(s).
• Calmness in the corners
Where the Yanks can get exposed is in their defensive third on a turnover–and needing to possess and move the ball beyond the halfline. Throwing a long ball up over top to Jozy Altidore won’t be as successful this game because Ghana are very strong defensively as well in the air.
For diehard Yanks’ fans, I unfortunately, take you back to the United States scattered approach to linking in their 3-1 loss to Denmark in a friendly in November. The Yanks were lacking calmness on the ball and not checking back to support the ball carrier. Of course, Frankie Hedjuk was the most victimized defender and he’s not in the 23.
That said–and you read it here–the Yanks will need to support their outside fullbacks and midfielders on the turnover or they might leave their defense hung out to dry on a counter.
11 At The Whistle
G: Tim Howard
The skinny: Howard and friends will be challenged in the air in this one. Will Howard’s recovery from the blow to the ribs make him reluctant to come out. Watch for Howard’s positioning–and marshalling of the defense–on vital set pieces into the box. This will be a key.
DEF: Steve Cherundolo, Jay DeMerit, Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra
The skinny: Ghana is a limited offensive team that is swift, more than speedy. Many reports I’ve read label Ghana as fast and quick. The reality is that they move the ball methodically and will only play a break if it’s there.
Of bigger concern to the Yanks is staying disciplined and combatting aerial confrontations. That’s why I see Onyewu back in there–*if fit which no one really knows–and Boca sliding back out left.
MID: Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, Clint Dempsey
The skinny: No changes here. Bob Bradley has not deployed Dempsey up top to start in a World Cup qualifier or World Cup preferring to use what appears to be a pre-meditated pattern of moving Dempsey up as necessary after the break.
This is definitely a game for Stu Holden and/or Benny Feilhaber, but I’m not sure I see either starting.
STR; Robbie Findley, Jozy Altidore
The skinny: I only see Altidore as a possible non-starter here if it’s deemed his tank is a little empty. But expect these starters.
• The Yanks stick with their “Battle of Algiers” defense
Will Bornstein remain on the left side? A lot of this will depend on how often Bradley wants to get his outside backs forward and the health of Oguchi Onyewu–two things were not privy to at TSG.
• An early appearance for Benny or Stu?
I don’t expect either of these players to start, but I’m willing to bet that one or both will be introduced on the flank in this one–see “Calmness in the corners” bullet point from above
Pivotal player: Robbie Findley