TSG welcomes back writer “Tuesday” with his game review from PPL Park.
Last night was definitely a bad night. And then after watching the paint dry, crack, flake off and dining on some bitter, lead-laced paint chips, I had to watch this game. Despite generally acquitting themselves well along the back line and in the middle of the park, the USA struggled to create chances against a Colombia defense that was happy to drop deep and let the U.S. play from midfield. However, despite having the look of a bore-draw snooze-fest, there were some important things to be learned from this game.
By now it’s become clear that Bradley simply doesn’t believe in the tactical experiments he attempts. They have the look of an attempt to silence the critics – “we tried something different but it just didn’t work” – before going cap-in-hand back to the 4-4-2 he knows and loves (even though sometimes it beats him). Bradley’s attempt at a 4-3-3 lasted a half and was half-hearted. 45 minutes of 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1 here or there is not enough to get players comfortable and functioning in a new system. Bradley just isn’t giving it a chance.
That’s not to say that 4-3-3 was a good idea last night. As Matt observed earlier, it morphed into something more resembling a 4-1-4-1 in practice. In the U.S. ostensible 4-3-3 system chances are created by getting the ball to the wingers early and stretching the back line. Shea and Holden simply played too deep, while Altidore was his usual mobile self, roving from wing to wing instead of providing a consistent focal point for the attack. The U.S. players could be found making a 4-3-3 shape on the pitch, but they weren’t playing the right style for this to be effective.
Part of the problem was that the front 6 players were too often trying to arrange themselves into the shape they saw on the tactical line-up. This works fine in 4-4-2, but 4-3-3 is more fluid defensively, choosing where to concede space as play develops so it’s least likely to hurt you. The three U.S. central midfielders tried to cover the same ground as four players would cover in a 4-4-2, leaving too much space in front of the back four. If one CM is pulled out wide, the remaining two CMs should play like the CMs in a 4-4-2 instead of worrying about space on the opposite flank.
Put another way: when the ball is on the flank, the three CMs are playing in three of the four positions in a standard 4-4-2. In the event of a switch, dynamic players like Bradley, Jones and Edu will have plenty of time to get across to occupy the other three positions. When that’s impossible, the fullback needs to be aware enough of that danger and step up to cut out a cross-field ball, or the winger needs to track dangerous runs by the opposing fullback. When the ball is central, the three CMs should be quite narrow, protecting the back four and making play through the center difficult – forcing Colombia to send crosses in from the flanks for our two 6’4” center backs to clear.
As the first half progressed, the attacking movement in the 4-3-3 was very fluid. This seems like it should be a good thing. However, in a system which relies on its spacing in attack rather than movement to stretch the defense and create scoring opportunities, this good movement had the opposite effect: increasing the difficulty of finding penetrative possession. The U.S. never seemed to be able to find the key ball out to the wingers in wide areas because they weren’t playing with real wingers.
Because both Jones and Bradley were getting forward in tandem, the U.S. found it difficult to quickly switch flanks through midfield – the final key to a successful 4-3-3 – and instead played across the back four. Given their tendencies as players, this was more encouragement than both Holden and Shea needed to come inside to find the ball. In fact, Altidore was most frequently found providing width with his runs in wide areas. Colombia were allowed to stay narrow and clog the central areas in their own final third where the U.S. was trying to play through.
A small adjustment – like asking a second CM to play deeper and join the attack later – could’ve been the change needed for this system to click. Instead of making adjustments after 45 minutes, Bradley simply reverted to 4-4-2. His choice of system was designed to fail.
Still Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be
After the match Bradley said that in the “second half we played more in the way that we are accustomed, and I think the movement and flow was much better.” While Bradley is right that the U.S. attacking threat increased after he reverted to 4-4-2 at halftime, it seems he could only bear to watch the first 15 minutes when the U.S. showed most attacking intent.
Holden had been providing a semblance of natural width on the right, but when Feilhaber came on for him at 59 minutes things began to fall apart again. The U.S. went from dominating possession and looking likely to threaten the Colombian backline to losing possession cheaply when Bradley and Jones were unable to find players in space. Dempsey played very centrally while Feilhaber roamed free in midfield. Lichaj’s (more on him later) dynamism from right back made it seem less than the problem it was. On the left, Pearce’s attacking forays were just not able to provide the width needed. He struggled for understanding with Dempsey and his crosses were moon-shots, easily handled by Colombian keeper Faryd Mondragon.
The build-up to Altidore’s 86th minute header perfectly encapsulated a night where the midfield never consistently found fluency. It also showed what was wrong with Bradley’s tactics for the last 30 minutes of the second half. Bradley, Jones, Dempsey and Feilhaber were all in tight space within ten yards of one another on the pitch. It was only through happy coincidence that Lichaj was found in space on the right to put in a dangerous cross.
Playing to Stereotypes
Everyone knows the U.S. is an “athletic” side. It’s also getting bigger. Last night, the average height of the U.S. starting line-up was over 6’1”. At the 2002 World Cup, the German players made the USA side look small by comparison as they came out of the tunnel and lined up for the anthems. I’m tempted to say that the addition of Jermaine Jones (6’1”) has made the entire side feel more German. He and Bradley (6’2”) form a substantial central midfield partnership.
We all know Onyewu is a physical presence on the pitch and Goodson is just as tall, even though he’s listed as 40 pounds lighter. Altidore (6’1”) is more man than man-child and Brek Shea, at 6’3” + hair, seems to have a bit more bulk to him than in his U-20 days. Of the starters, only Heath Pearce and “big”-playing Stu Holden are under 6 feet. The U.S. went small in the second half bringing on Parkhurst and Lichaj, both at a notch under 6’, and the diminutive 5’ 9” Feilhaber.
Size isn’t all that matters, but the U.S. side is on it’s way to having an intimidating presence that won’t be suggesting a physical mismatch the next time they line up in the tunnel to play Germany.
New Faces, or, We Told You So
Does anyone continue to doubt whether a fit Jermaine Jones could have made this team more competitive in South Africa? Anyone? He positions himself well and covers ground in a hurry to break up attacks. He has an ability to find the long pass behind the defense which isn’t one of young Bradley’s strengths. In this match he had few chances to deploy that ball and he tried to do too much as the game wore on to its conclusion. Still, his USA debut must be deemed a success. One wonders what might’ve been against Ghana had he been fit to play over Clark. He just makes this team better. Just wait until he has a chance to find an early ball when Donovan ghosts into space.
TSG has long touted Eric Lichaj as a player to watch for the 2014 cycle. Coming through the ranks to get first team action at Aston Villa – a club that is well respected for its player development – is no small accomplishment. Lichaj definitely has the physical presence to play CB, but his energy in getting up and down the right flank was key to the U.S. attacking resurgence to start the second frame. His presence would have helped during the first half attempt at 4-3-3 when Spector showed us he’s still wallowing in his listless 2010 self.
Friendlies Clam Strips
Friendlies are a chance to experiment with new players, new tactics and formations. At TSG, we were cheered to see Brek Shea and Eric Lichaj get their first caps with positive contributions. The long weekend also saw our first chance to get a taste of the long-awaited German-American microbrew, Jermaine Jones. These things are positives, and these players look ready to contribute to the cycle.
With a few over 8,800 in the PPL Park crowd and a Tuesday night TV audience, this was no grand marketing occasion for U.S. Soccer. They’re preaching to the converted. Results don’t matter in these friendlies. We want to see the hard work put in as we look forward to opening night in Brazil four years from now. We’ll suffer through a drab 0-0 draw and come back for more. Not conceding is important, but some attacking intent wouldn’t go amiss when there’s nothing on the line. And what’s the risk in sticking with the experiment just a little longer to make adjustments?
Too often Bradley seems content to watch his experiments fail and revert to the mean. We know we can play 4-4-2 (that’s Plan A through BB). What else works? Bradley started with four players accustomed to playing central midfield roles for their clubs. Do we not have openings for wide players if we’re experimenting with playing 4-3-3? Is that Bedoya there on the bench? Isn’t he comfortable playing (and staying) wide?
Last night, Bradley gave us a taste of what we’ve been clamoring for, but he used the wrong ingredients. We didn’t get the full-bellied clam, just tasteless, rubbery clam strips. I’d rather go back to eating paint chips.