Part II of II: USA vs. Poland Preview here.
Part of the reason we started this publication a little over a year ago is to have a record of our thoughts and be able to “go back to the stacks” for reference, self-applause or failed assumptions.
TSG reader Tim wrote in to us this week: “What do you guys think of the U.S. moving to a 4-3-2-1 (the popular “Christmas Tree” formation) for these friendlies?”
Others followed up with emails or tweets asking us about various personnel and formations. It’s the type of column we used to do a lot of, but somehow strayed from, but we’ll start it off with a little novella here.
Thanks for re-focusing us TSG readers. Appreciate it.
…and Tim, that’s a loaded question.
Second, let’s take a look at some TSG “foundations” and some USMNT situations and misconceptions.
Formations are merely guidelines used for players to identify field location on offense and defense. Each opponent, and the tactics employed against them, dictates the type of formation and wrinkle in that formation.
I actually loathe–sometimes–talking about formations. The reality is the game and recognition of the players to where they should be is much more fluid in my mind and much more specific to the game plan and opponent at hand.
For example, do you recognize the formations below? If so, where did Bob Bradley play them and, per this column, what would you “call” them?
Or this one?
The former was the States 1st half offensive formation against Turkey in the Send-Off Series match in Philadelphia.
With a plan that would foreshadow the Yanks offense against Slovenia, the U.S. basically kept stuffing the ball up and into the opponents left or weak side kitchen.
Bob Bradley used Landon Donovan as a center-aligned off-wing forward and Clint Dempsey as a trailing forward against Turkey. Backing them, Jonathan Spector pushed up from defense and Benny Feilhaber tucked in from the left making the U.S. offensive set look something like this.
The latter? United States concluding formation at World Cup 2010 against Ghana in the 2nd round. A quick note: here Benny Feilhaber could often be found cutting in from the left and possessing the ball.
More on these in a bit.
Soccer formations, at their naked heart, are really about “bands of players” horizontally on the pitch and, as a player, having a place that is responsibility versus the other ten players on the pitch with you.
The more horizontal bands of players, typically the more “depth” to a formation and, continually and obviously, usually the more narrow the formation plays.
When thinking about formations, to reiterate, the personnel matters, the opponents matters and then finally acknowledging and adjusting to what’s transpiring on the field matters.
U.S. striker challenges and a man named Jozy
Some basic truths that are known to even casual fans.
» The U.S. has long had a dearth of players capable of finishing. The true striker position has never really had a dynamic player in place since perhaps–damn I have to use this name–Eric Wynalda?
» Jozy Altidore represents a boatload of potential, but the young striker’s inconsistency consistently dogs him and impacts the entire offense behind him.
If you watched the 2nd half of the U.S. vs. Slovenia World Cup match, you saw the mighty potential of Jozy Altidore on display.
In that 2nd half, Altidore combined ferocious power with speed to dominate the Slovenian defense and create multiple chances for himself and his teammates.
The interesting thing about that game is it is the first one where Altidore was comfortable and dominant in the single striker set-up. (It’s a role he has stated before that he doesn’t quite relish.)
The challenge for Altidore is that his game is much “hole-y-er than thou” right now. He lacks consistent effort, tires in back-to-back games, has a first touch that often betrays him, gets rushed around the net, and for a man his size, is surprisingly powerless in the air.
With few options currently at striker and the U.S.’s currently most capped true striker being highly inconsistent, it’s hard to fault Bob Bradley for juggling the point of his attack or the parts behind it to kickstart the engine.
Bradley’s history dictates that he will likely go back and forth between a single and dual striker system up top depending on how the components are playing and the defense of the opponent.
It’s by and large been the lack of striker options and the inconsistency of Altidore supporting the attack himself that has forced Bob Bradley to rely more on the 4-2-2-2.
The United States played the last two years primarily in a 4-2-2-2 formation, not a 4-4-2.
Courtesy to our friends at Zonal Marking for the usage of this pic above from the England – USA World Cup group stage match.
Before we get started on investigating other formations, it is necessary to understand that both offensively and defensively the United States predominantly set-up in a 4-2-2-2 formation.
The two central defensive midfielders form defensive stoppers above the central defenders. Ahead of the central midfielders, two left and right midfielders pinch in from the wings (these were typically Donovan and Dempsey) and then ahead of them two strikers moving off them.
Why is this important to note? Two reasons.
One, it’s worth noting that the Yanks predominantly create their attacking width with an advancing fullback.
Typically, due to shortcomings at leftback, that directive has only been given to the rightback in the form of Steve Cherundolo. Until Jonathan Bornstein reached confidence in the Ghana game, the U.S. left fullback (from qualifying through the group stages) often stayed at home, vastly limiting the offense we might add.
Second, because Dempsey and Donovan often were advanced, the 4-2-2 puts immense pressure and responsibility on the central more defensive midfielders. Michael Bradley proved up to that challenge at World Cup 2010; Ricardo Clark did not.
The 4-2-3-1 or the 4-3-2-1 is hardly used by the States.
Not so, the Yanks deployed their “A” squad with the principles of a one-striker system nearly 30% of the time thus far in 2010!
To paraphase Vince Vaugn in Wedding Crashers: “Erroneous! Erroneous on all counts!”
Going back to the Ghana game most recently, the 2nd half saw the Yanks go with a 3-man midfield of Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and, with Robbie Findley sacrificed, Benny Feilhaber.
Michael Bradley played an advanced “pressure role” behind the triumvirate, frequently joining the attack, while Edu was nearly vertical behind him doing the work of a true central defensive midfielder.
In the Turkey lead-up game above, the U.S. tucked in Feilhaber to start the game with Bradley and Clark covering the middle. Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan were more advanced in an assymetrical set-up that looked very much like a 4-3-2-1.
In fact, taking a look starting with the March friendly, the United States played in “what was defined as a 4-4-2 or 4-2-2-2 if you prefer” about 70% of the time: 60 minutes against Netherlands, 90 minutes against the Czech Republic, 45 minutes (2nd half) against Turkey, 86 mins against Australia, 90 minutes against England, 45 minutes against Slovenia, 45 minutes against Slovenia, 45 minutes against Ghana.
(Note, I have left out the Brazil game as TSG was hospital bound for that one and recollection is fuzzy…yes, looking for the pity :>)
Now, about those formations
Without getting too deep here as there are better resources for this, we’ll tackle some of the formations U.S. fans would like Bob Bradley to begin experimenting with.
For the sake of brevity–which we’ve already lost–we won’t discuss the 4-4-2 which is usually deployed as a 4-2-2-2.
The 4-3-2-1 is a formation that is primarily used for a team that controls the ball. It great reduces attacking width–which should be obvious–and allows (and demands) that the “3” in the equation are familiar and comfortable playing with one another as their roles are very fluid.
Contrast to 4-2-2:
» More midfielders to possess the ball, heavier reliance on a single striker.
Strengths for the Yanks:
» Positioning of the Yanks’ offensive experts.
Both Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey (and behind them as forwards Sacha Kljestan, Alejandro Bedoya, Brek Shea) are much better players when they can find their own space up the pitch and are not tied to the touchlines.
Dempsey likes to cut in after a play develops and Donovan likes to set-up much more centrally and play off the movement ahead of him.
» Forward license for the outside fullbacks.
Secondly, the U.S. really liked to bomb rightback Steve Cherundolo forward in attack this past summer. The tucking in of the wide midfielder in the 4-3-2-1 begs for this to happen at will.
I’ll cite this as a positive for the Yanks in that Cherundolo, Lichaj, and Franklin are also aggressive going forward and adept enough in attack.
However, the States would still need to find the right overlapping leftback. As we mentioned in our 2014 kickoff article that we linked to above, changes in the global game and now formations like this make Jonathan Spector’s lack of speed more for the Yanks.
Challenges for the Yanks:
There are two as we see them.
» Defending over the centerbacks.
The big difference defensively in the 4-3-2-1 is that you only have one central midfielder defending over a pair of central defenders instead of two.
As we mentioned in a column earlier this week, all of the States’ goals at World Cup 2010 were up the middle.
That’s just a big risk until the middle two in the back are sorted.
Deployed against Turkey (as we mentioned), the States’ 4-3-2-1 continually got picked apart by a Turkish team employing a false dropping back to create man advantages when Ricardo Clark was pulled out of position.
» Deploying the personnel in the “3” part of the equation.
The central midfield for the Yanks–as we pointed out early last week–is a critical area for Bob Bradley to “get right.”
That the Yanks now have perhaps there most options in midfield plays to this formation.
Here are the primary players he needs to juggle there: Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Stu Holden, Jermaine Jones, Jose Torres.
In a 4-3-3, your central midfielder, who drops deep (think Rafa Marquez’s role recently against the Galaxy) should be a disciplined ball hawker, who’s never caught out of position and links from the defense.
The right and left midfielders are more fluid, but both must possess a high degree of technical on-the-ball skill, from possession through linking.
The big challenges here for the States in this formation:
How to deploy USMNT minutes leader Michael Bradley and…
How defensive versus offensive to be with the personnel?
Bradley is a lynchpin of the team, however he often is undisciplined in his defensive assignments and is also prone to forcing the ball or spraying it all over the pitch.
If Bradley is the central player, then he needs to be more disciplined.
If he’s an edge player in the “3,” then he needs to better possess and pass the ball.
Big if’s especially when you have Stu Holden, Benny Feilhaber and Jermaine Jones all vying for time.
For a little more color, Argentina, just a smidge over Mexico, probably employed the best 4-3-2-1 at World Cup 2010. With Higuain, Messi and Tevez providing the triangle up top they were backed by:
Central defender Javier Mascherano: a slight man with an abundance of energy to cover over the defense, also excellent at linking the ball.
Maxi Rodriguez as the RCM: Maxi played more of defensive support and linking role rather than getting ahead in the attack. It was a role he was ideally suited for as Maxi is excellent in maintaining and moving in possession while able to pick the right pass up the pitch.
Angel Di Maria as the LCF: Another extremely technical player. Di Maria was given more license to jump into attack and often would fill the left flank and create a good deal of width offensively for Argentina.
As you can see, technical chops on offense are a key to making the formation more than a gimmick. It would be wise to note here that as Argentina–and their highly able midfield–faced intense pressure from Germany and struggled to maintain shape it got anihillated by the Germans.
Our bet, in some foreboding of Part II of this series tomorrow: look for Jermaine Jones to battle Marcus Edu for the holding role behind Michael Bradley. Look for Stu Holden to battle Benny Feilhaber for the tucked-in flank and linking midfielder aka the Maxi Rodriguez role.
The 4-2-3-1 is a formation that is squarely focused on protecting the center of the pitch, shuttling the ball to the flanks to reduce threats defensively and concurrently carrying the ball wide offensively in the attack.
Whereas offensive ball movement in the 4-3-2-1 relies on interplay and linking through the center of the pitch, the 4-2-3-1 seeks to use the “2” defense holders to ping the ball wide to wingers who carry or link the ball themselves.
Contrast to 4-2-2:
» More wing play obviously, a heavy reliance on the middle of the “3” as the playmaker.
Strengths for the Yanks:
» Defending over those centerbacks.
A weakness of the 4-3-2-1, the 4-2-3-1 keeps two central midfielders covering over the centerbacks.
» Increased width in the midfield, allows for corner-rounding runs and, more importantly, only needs the striker to a be a holding player.
To the best of my recollection, the U.S. only deployed in this formation once. And that was against the Netherlands for a short stint in the 2nd half. In that game, Landon moved centrally behind Jozy Altidore when Robbie Findley was sacrificed for Alejandro Bedoya.
Donovan was center, while DaMarcus Beasley manned the left flank and Bedoya the right. Michael Bradley quickly pushed into midfield as a very strong trailing midfielder with some ball carriage responsibilities.
Bob Bradley is obviously thinking of this formation and least a little as both Sacha Kljestan was tried on the wing and Brek Shea was called into camp.
Further, DaMarcus Beasley, Alejandro Bedoya, Brek Shea, and Landon Donovan…these are all players who can round the corner and create a threat.
Finally, in this role the Yanks merely need Altidore (or Buddle or Braun) to be the back-to-the-basket, target striker and primarily lay the ball off to the trio of attackers coming to support.
Challenges for the Yanks:
» Who is the Kaka in the “3” of the 4-2-3-1?
In the 4-2-3-1, the attacking midfielder in the center of the “3” is a critical player to igniting offense. That player must possess vertical movement.
The challenge for the Yanks is who pushes the ball as the “Kaka” of the formation.
Where I once would have suggested Benny Feilhaber in this role or even Stu Holden, both are much more adept at linking from the rear rather than pushing the tempo in attack.
As for the stars, Clint Dempsey did yoeman’s work in the role in the 2nd half of the Ghana game, but can he continue to go full speed and…
perhaps a bigger question, is Bob Bradley ready to accept Clint Dempsey as the focal point of the attack instead of Landon?
I also imagine this is why Bradley has held on so long to Kljestan who would be ideal in the role if he could put his game together. A surprising choice, Michael Bradley perhaps has the tools to play this way, but he is much better coming from the rear.
As it stands now that “centerpiece” of three is certainly a weak spot should the Yanks deploy that way. I’d have to suggest a current depth chart there as of this moment would be: (1) Clint Dempsey, (2) Michael Bradley, (3) Sacha Kljestan, (4) (and a stretch here) Mix Diskerud.
» With quick fullbacks now at the Yanks disposal, can Bob Bradley afford to push the fullbacks in the attack?
As we mentioned above, there are a plethora of options coming Coach Sweats way in the “speedy outside fullback who overlaps in the attack” category (Lichaj, Dolo, Franklin, Alson, Bornstein, etc.).
In the 4-2-3-1, if Bradley wants to push the fullbacks forward, will his centerbacks and center mids be able to withstand the pressure from a counterattack? Currently, a big question.
So, TSG, what does and should Coach Bradley deploy on Saturday?
Our in-depth thoughts on this…Wednesday.