Frankly, I’m in a little bit more of a comfort zone right now; the US had one point in 2010, nil in 2006 after their respective Game 1′s. Shock me, Klinsy. Surprise me against Portugal. You’re playing with house money right now. Roll the dice.
After Monday, we can handle it and expect nothing less.
The US clashes with Portugal in the steam bath of Manaus on Sunday, looking to punch their own ticket to the knockout stage with a victory over the Portugals of Ronaldo.
Midfield stalwart Michael Bradley has belabored a point that the media is gobbling up like a dose of Klinsmann rhetoric.
His objective for the team, in his words:
“We want to be the team that can suffer the most.”
And suffer the US did in nothing short of one of their guttiest World Cup performances of all-time. The match saw multiple players encumbered by muscle cramps, injured hamstrings to Matt Besler and Jozy Altidore and a broken nose to Clinton Drew Dempsey.
The US has never lacked toughness and guile, but for a contingent that was shaded toward the inexperienced side, Monday’s result thumbed a nose at any moxie concerns.
Portugal, however, did not as “suffer as well as” the States.
An embellishment job by German forward Thomas Müller goaded Pepe into a red card and injuries to defender Fábio Coentrão and forward/longshoreman Hugo Almeida will keep the duo from starting in game two.
And Portugal suffered some more… taken out back to the woodshed by Germany, leaving them with little dignity and even less margin for error through their next 180 World Cup minutes if they want to see their way through the group stage.
It’s a match-up that has long been set up well for the States tactically, much more so than the slain Ghana.
Even before the US corralled three points Monday, Klinsmann and staff were probably considering a strategy of sitting deep and playing on a very conservative counter. It makes sense.
Portugal have a very difficult time breaking teams down. Forced with the choice of whether to provide patches of space for Ronaldo or whether to merely erect a wall of legs and elbows on his in-cuts, it’s a no-brainer. The latter only takes an MBA to figure out (MBAs are frowned upon at TSG).
And the US proved in game one that it can take a punch or two (or three, or four, or five, etc.) deflect them and land a jab here or there. The comfort of having weathered and survived an attacking barrage can only instill further confidence.
Portugal, on the other hand–torn apart by waves of German midfielders and victims of a masterclass in dissection by Jogi Low–capitulated in their bunker. They attempted to counter and were continually stymied by the four German center-backs.
Moreover, that bunker seemed to be made out of cardboard as Özil, Götze and company surgically passed along the floor time and time again. It was deep, emergency defending from Portugal; not the best kind. When Pepe reduced his side to ten, it only compounded the challenge presented by the German attack — and the weather.
For Portugal–now backed up against the Group G fence–it’s “check the minerals” time. Can they get their vicious counter going? Can they press for long stretches and force the US to boom the ball up to a non-existent target forward?
For the US, it’s “dictate the tempo” …. the outstanding question begged from game one once Jozy Altidore hit the trainer’s table.
And then there is the heat. “Who’s willing to suffer more?” A question all the more apropos.
Without further Freddy Adu, let’s get to our not-so-customary preview.
> About The Opponent: Portugal
> TSG: What We’re Looking For
> The Altidore Proxy
> 11 At The Whistle
> The States’ Keys To the Match
About The Opponent: Portugal
Portugal limps into Saturday’s Manaus showdown off a brutal loss to Germany and a clinical dissection by German headman Jogi Löw after months of expert planning.
Low’s decision to play a 4-3-3 with a false 9 was incredibly insightful. While Pepe is fast, Alves is not, and Götze’s constant movement towards the midfield pulled Alves into a position that he could not recover from.
You saw that time and again, causing huge corridors for the Germans to run through. The constant positional interchanging up-front also made it practically impossible for both Portuguese center-backs to get their marks right. That confusion provided enormous holes for the Germans to take advantage of.
Portugal’s effort and decomposition was not wholly unexpected. It was more of the same from their qualifying days.
The opponent’s manual on Portugal is a rather simple one… and wholly based around the man who drafts the team and preaches “tranquility” — manager Paulo Bento.
Bento, in true corporatespeak, is the definition of The Turnaround Guy — and Brazil 2014 will prove to many if he’s overstayed his welcome (Note: Bento was re-upped for two more years in April; his contract now runs through 2016).
The former Sporting Lisbon coach ascended to Ronaldo’s caretaker in September of 2010 when then-Portugal manager (and current Iran coach) Carlos Quieroz was floundering in qualifying and the team was in danger of not even making the cut for Euro 2012.
Like any turnaround guy attempting to cut losses to improve fortunes, Bento brought stability, a reputation for pushing the right people buttons and, specifically, not alienating his star players–basically the inverse of André Villas-Boas.
Bento re-integrated the 4-3-3, claiming the system allowed the technical ability of the nation to flourish.
Now, he finds himself needing to conjure up some magic in Brazil — the country of another turnaround guy, Dunga, whose tenure with host nation parallels Bento’s.
Both Bento and Dunga were pragmatic, no frills defensive midfielders in their day. Both assumed the role of national team shepherd in times of unrest and initially guided their teams back to peak form in international competition–Dunga with a win at the 2009 Confederations Cup and Bento at the helm of a squad that was a few penalty kicks away from the Euro 2012 Final.
However, after escaping their group and suffering a quarterfinal loss to runner-up Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup, Dunga was relieved of his duties, deemed too rigid for the job — too rote to dynamically push his team to the next level.
Bento’s reign and tactical résumé may necessitate the same move from the Portuguese FA if the clash with the States does not go to plan.
The comparisons to Dunga’s Brazil don’t end merely with the management from the touchline.
The primary attacking action of both teams is similar. In 2010, Brazil sported Robinho between the lines in some sort of pseudo winger-withdrawn forward-#10 role — the same one that Ronaldo occupies for Bento’s squad.
And, similarly, both dynamic frontmen had thundering fullbacks bombing up the flanks behind them. For Brazil, this was Michel Bastos, a midfielder by trade who was nevertheless deployed at the overlapping fullback role and created great stress on opponents. Fábio Coentrão was to have occupied that same role for Portugal.
The loss of Coentrão, who was diagnosed Tuesday with a tournament-ending groin injury, will be unduly felt in attack by the Portuguese as they push to extend their Cup stay.
He is not their only loss, though.
Hugo Almeida, the tall, and now sturdy, hold-up forward is out as well. While he is not as big of a loss for the US match as Coentrão, Almeida was undoubtedly a crucial part of Portugal’s gameplan against the Germans, deployed as an outlet designed to relieve pressure.
This is, however, Portugal’s long-standing tactical issue. They have no dominant forward. If they have to knock it over the midfield to make a play or relieve pressure, their target man–Postiga, Almeida, whoever–is going to lose that battle nine times out of 10. This is a massive weakness.
It’s further compounded by Ronaldo wanting to cut in centrally to put the ball on his right foot. This is Ronaldo’s ideal space–and a striker dropping into it would only make it cluttered. So, the striker has to be extremely adept at reading Ronaldo and his movements.
While many will push for Almeida’s replacement to be Éder–the Portuguese Jô, as his comp.–a better option given the US’s backline would be the veteran Hélder Postiga–long maligned for not finishing chances, but favored here as an underrated member of the Portuguese attack. Postiga’s ability to pull apart a center-back combo with only a few reps to their name will be a key for Portugal.
On the other side of Portugal’s striker, playing opposite Ronaldo on the forward line, will be the mercurial Nani. Nani, like Christian Atsu last match, can be counted on to challenge DaMarcus Beasley or whomever the US trots out on Sunday.
William [Carvalho] is a new guy into the squad. He is very young. We saw his quality in the last few games he has been with the national team and also with his club. Veloso has a good left foot, a good ability to play long balls and passing. João Moutinho is a controlling midfielder, runs all the time and is always active. Raul Meireles is a very important piece of the Portugal midfield because he goes into a challenge and wins the ball and he’s the guy who has to do the dirty job. We have four different style players in the midfield and who can play very easily together.
Goncalves lists four players: William Carvalho, João Moutinho, Raul Meireles, and Miguel Veloso. Moutinho and Meireles are automatic selections and perform the shuttler roles in the 4-3-3 in very different ways.
Moutinho is Portugal’s main conduit and prober with the ball when the other team sits deep. He has worked with Bento since childhood, coming up through the Lisbon academy and, as such, has his manager’s full faith. Moutinho has been plugged in all throughout the midfield and he’s one of only two players to have played every second of Portugal’s qualifying campaign.
The diminutive Moutinho is almost a covert component of Portugal’s midfield, recognizing the shape–and flaws–of Bento’s system and moving to maintain what’s best for the team. Rattle him. Put some pressure on him and the Portuguese midfield engine could need some costly changes to its transmission.
Meireles, on the other hand, sits in the right channel. The former Chelsea player often looks like he is laboring to create anything in attack, but he’s a diligent defender who knows when to sit as the game proceeds ahead of him. He also has a haircut that suggests he may need glasses. Hey, it’s an opportunity.
The key selection for Bento will be in the holding role. He went with the veteran Miguel Veloso against Germany and it was an abject mistake. Veloso is not a positionally-sound midfielder and Germany was well-schooled in completely exploiting the area to the left of him. With Ronaldo high and the Germans using the equivalent of six interchanging midfielders, Veloso simply had too much ground to cover and Portugal was made to pay for it.
This one could go either way. Bento may introduce William Carvalho to provide some muscle in the middle and stave off what will surely be numerous US counterattacks if Portugal truly pushes the tempo. That’s a sound strategy until Michael Bradley strips the ball and plays a striker in.
Or, Bento could stick with Veloso and rely on his distributional prowess and veteran experience to attempt to manage the game. The bet–although probably the incorrect play–is that Bento stays with Veloso. Tried and true to the players that got him here.
In the back is where Portugal is hoping experience–and back-ups–trump age and ability. With Veloso, Meireles and Moutinho ahead, Portugal is no better than average at protecting the back four — and with two key starters now on the sidelines, any US pressure may just break the dam and see the Iberian side wave the white flag.
Entering for Coentrão at RB will be 6’2” André Almeida, a 23-year-old converted midfielder. Almeida will be reluctant to go forward (to the detriment of the attack) and will be challenged positionally.
Entering for Pepe will likely be Richard Costa, who replaced Veloso late in the Germany game. He’ll pair with Bruno Alves to create a dangerously old center-back combo. The Pepe red is a clear blessing for a US side that will be missing its key striker.
Both Costa and Alves can and should be bested with speed and movement.
On the right is Joao Pereira, who sits on a yellow, but is a bigger key in this game than Almeida on the right. Portugal will desperately need Pereira’s slingshotting runs out of the back to create width as Ronaldo is sure to be keyed on. The challenge with Pereira is his often complete disregard on positioning. (Footnote A)
In goal is Rui Patricio, the other player who played every game of qualifying for Bento. Patricio will need to be extremely active both off his line and in communication as Portugal pushes for goals.
Portugal’s attack is simple and predicated on gumming up the midfield, winning second balls and outletting on the floor on the counter. The prioritization is: (1) Get the ball out wide to Ronaldo on the flank with space–if not him, (2) then Nani on the other wing. If that is bottled, (3) find the feet of Moutinho and let him dictate ball movement.
What they love to do it stack up on 3 v 2 overloads. If a defender steps up to take the ball handler and Ronaldo, Nani, Verienha will immediately slip into the middle while Postiga heads for the the channels creating a dicey situation.
TSG What We’re Looking For:
No way around it. Manaus is like what happens when the jungle goes on vacation in hell. It’s four-letter-curse-word hot. And humid. Like, you can ring a fresh towel out of the air and fill a bucket.
Both the US and Portugal took knocks in game one. The US, in particular, had no less than five players with injuries by the end of the match.
Is this game played in spurts? How does the US manage the spurts? What’s the sub selection and when? This could not be a more critical factor in a match … unless you were playing in Qatar.
♦ The Veloso-Alves Chasm
(Editor’s note: TSG has been publishing for five years and in true, audacious “out of your comfort zone” fashion, we’ll do something we’ve done infrequently–twice–in a preview in that time: Suggest a tactic…. which is pretty dumb because we’re not coaches.)
The biggest spot to attack Portugal is undoubtedly their left rear channel. This is the area of the field that is typically defended by Bruno Alves, Fabio Coentrão … and Miguel Veloso.
It’s the flaw of Bento’s system because Ronaldo tends to stay high and Moutinho tend to get pulled out to cover that space. This reverberates down the defense.
Germany incessantly attacked this area on Monday. (Has it been mentioned what a masterclass Jogi Low put on?). Thomas Muller’s haul-down came from there. The second goal (above) came from there and there was another quality chance knocked over the bar just by Götze.
First, this strategy is rendered moot if Carvalho–who should play–deputizes for Veloso or if Bento switches up the strategy. The odds are he won’t; he hasn’t previously done so and it’s not in his nature. While audacious and proper, it’s not likely.
The States can have similar success to Germany and here’s how: Partner Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley as a fulcrum of the attack. It has rarely been written, but it rings true nonetheless, that Dempsey is a player that can both hold the ball and make plays on the run up high. He did the former at Fulham when then-manager Mark Hughes went through a spell of deploying Dempsey up top with Bobby Zamora as a false nine behind him. Dempsey would play some back to the basket or create some side-to-side movement.
By playing Clint here, he can work Alves — something that would leave space for a wide midfielder (either Fabian Johnson or Graham Zusi) to overlap into on the right. Either is a plausible selection as they can both issue right-footed crosses; however, Fabian may, in fact, be the ideal selection in that he tends to have more one-v-one success than Zusi (would that put Chandler at RB? In that case he would be Honduras…sorry that one’s been sitting there for months).
As far as Dempsey’s strike partner goes, the selection here is to play Aron Jóhannsson in Altidore’s vacated spot, send him up against Costa, and bring Bradley in as the trailer.
Jóhannsson–if fit–will be a real threat to Costa, especially coming under Dempsey or even providing hold-up relief while a trailing Bradley’s deep boombasas are waiting behind.
If the US is greeted with the Veloso-Alves Chasm, they must look to exploit it–and this attacking set-up would give them a great shot at so doing.
♦ The Ronaldo Button.
Let’s bring in former Manchester United star and England national teamer Gary Neville, who can do a far better job on previewing Ronaldo than this publication….or maybe he just has really cool laser pointers. Either way…cool.
It’s beyond clichéd to cite Ronaldo as the key factor for Portugal. There should just be a “Ronaldo” button on the keyboard for anyone who covers Portugal frequently. “Ronado in-cut,” “Ronaldo header” (a highly underrated quality of his), “Ronaldo slash,” “Ronaldo off-ball” (Nobody … NOBODY … in the global game works harder off the ball than Ronaldo. Nobody.)
Portugal amazingly uses him like a below average FIFA XBOX player does. Get the ball to Ronaldo. B-button. B-button. B-button turbo. Darn.
To illustrate this, there was a moment in the 35th minute of the Germany game that showcases the degree to which Portugal pushes the Ronaldo button. Coentrão found himself free, five yards out, with a clear chance on goal. Instead of calmly slotting the ball home as any professional can easily do from that location, he elected to play a pass across goal to an offside Ronaldo. Coentrão could’ve made it 2-1 and kept his team in the game. Instead, Pepe confirmed they were DOA moments later.
The loss of Coentrão deeply inhibits Portugal’s ability to attack through the Ballon d’Or winner and hinders his ability to get wide.
The US will likely look to employ the same strategy that Manchester United did here with Phil Jones two years ago in the Champions League–only the US will use Kyle Beckerman here (amazingly). Look for Beckerman to sit in the right side channel–which means that Bradley will have to manage his own positioning well–and aid Fabian Johnson and Geoff Cameron on Ronaldo’s in-cuts.
Ronaldo is the world’s best one-v-one player. The Kobe Bryant to Lionel Messi’s Kevin Durant. The Lakers won when Kobe would take over games, opening up opportunities for his supporting cast to help him.
The oppressive heat, numbers and ball denial are your weapons against this superstar. Use them frequently. Use them well.
The Altidore Proxy:
Much has been made about the US’s shape, formation and player selection with the loss of Jozy Altidore — an injury that has further illuminated some of the poor decisions inherent in Klinsmann’s squad selection.
Whether it’s late in the game and your team is pressing for an equalizer, or an opponent is bottling up the midfield, or you need another big body to defend set pieces in your own area, some flavor of a target man is a necessary component of a team that does not easily possess the ball each match.
The prioritization for the US’s objectives in this one should be simple:
1) Don’t give up anything on the floor centrally, of course, but….
2) Defend the flanks, forcing Ronaldo and Nani to remain wide
3) Present options on the counter to get in behind Portugal.
Bullet points one or two are obviously somewhat in conflict with one another. So, how do you solve that?
Reduce the width you have to defend–and that’s precisely what the US should be set up to do.
By keeping Jermaine Jones tucked in narrowly and playing Aron Jóhannsson above him, the US can solve all of their objectives.
With Jones narrow, the US will make it more difficult for Portugal to get through and advance the ball–like Ghana did with Atsu–from the right. This will keep the ball off Ronaldo’s foot.
It will also likely see João Pereira work the overlap. This is dangerous, but, again, a better strategy than getting Ronaldo on the ball.
With Portugal advancing on that side against a relatively narrow defense, the US runs the risk of getting pinned in — and that’s where Aron Jóhannsson comes in. Either by checking back and holding up the balll by pulling wide from a central location to the touchline, or front hitting the channel hard and getting in on goal (Remember Footnote A above.). Jóhannsson is capable offering an option that is missing without a conventional left midfielder in the side.
If the US manages to do these things, they will keep the ball away from Ronaldo, challenge Pereira and Costa in positioning and force support from Bruno Alves … thus setting the exploitable Velosa-Alves Chasmaclysmic Dynamic in motion.
11 At The Whistle
GK: Tim Howard
The skinny: Outlets, outlets, outlets. Some faulted Howard for his distribution late in the match against Ghana. That wasn’t the verdict here. Many players had miscues on the ball late and Howard was continually under siege from the Black Stars. It’s kind of exciting in this one to think about Howard outletting throws with Portugal smushed up the field after a failed counter. The first step in a counter starts with the first pass.
DEF: Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, DaMarcus Beasley (?)
The skinny: Talked to Geoff Cameron Tuesday. Told him it’s the best 90′ center-back performance I had seen in a US shirt since Eddie Pope. Wasn’t lying.
That said, the key play that I want to talk about here was from John Brooks.
And no. It’s not that play. And yes. It came from his own boneheaded error.
On an attempted clearance early in the second half, Brooks slammed the ball right off of Geoff Cameron’s back and saw it carom forward where Gyan was already in pursuit.
Brooks pursued the loose ball as well. He squared up to Gyan (no easy task as he was trailing the striker).
Brooks got up in Gyan’s hips. He kept his hands down. And he promptly extinguished the potential trash-can fire he started.
It was a show of sheer athleticism combined with pristine fundamentals — after that miscue of course.
You’ve got Cameron. You’ve got Besler–who closed on the space in the right channel like Troy Polamalu on the quarterback.
And you’ve got Brooks. There is hope. There is hope.
CDM: Kyle Beckerman
The skinny: Kyle Beckerman started the first game of Klinsmann’s tenure–against Mexico in Philadelphia in 2011.
He started on Monday. In the middle of all this, he got cursed out by a serious amount of fans and dismissed by some now-pretty-stupid-looking pundits.
He’ll never be the guy to play pursuit-and-snuff. But he doesn’t need to be.
He just needs to walk the dog.
LM, RM: Junior Jones, Graham Zusi.
Jones will hopefully play a little bit more conservative on Saturday–though his aggressiveness and proactivity were needed Monday. Graham Zusi enters and will be tasked with helping Fabian Johnson. Zusi will also be a key addition in place of Bedoya with the absence of Coentrão.
Remember Zusi against Germany and Jamaica about a year ago this time, basically driving straight at the endline and serving up a crosses and cutbacks on a rope? That’ll work. And expect that. Another player continually maligned for no reason by the US fanbase.
CM: Michael Bradley
The skinny: No question that Bradley needs to improve his game on Sunday. That said, he had a positionally sound match–something we’ve come to expect from him.
Bigger question that no one is addressing…any of this from Bradley a result of “meaningless foot procedure” a few weeks ago. Has to be asked.
CF: Aron Jóhannsson
The skinny: US fans has seen the potential. How appropriate is Thomas Muller Lite gets a start against Portugal after Thomas Muller Proper danced all over their crest Monday.
STR: Clint Dempsey
The skinny: The best way to keep your star player fresh is to have no back-up striker. It’s also, you know, the best way to get him fresh and loose for opportunities…make sure he has to hold-up the ball by himself. No soup for you, Klinsy. Undefendable. Is that a word? Indefensible? I think we can find something stronger to illicit the emotion.
> Timmy Chandler starts at RB; Fabian Johnson to leftback. DaMarcus Beasley gets a breather.
Breakdown: This makes some sense since you don’t want Fabian Johnson getting forward on Ronaldo, but you do want him forward. Do you trust Tim Chandler?
> Aron Johannsson to the bench; Mix Diskerud sitting behind Clint.
Breakdown: Difficult to see. Little support for Clint up top to help hold-up if he’s getting worked.
> Aron Johannsson to the bench; Wondolowski to his spot.
Breakdown: Maybe if Johannsson is not fit. If not, Wondo is an ideal sub in the 2nd half and likely as well.
Keys To The Game for the US
⇒ Listen to your friend Gary Neville. Track Ronaldo.
⇒ Be conservative with your vertical passing on the floor, coming from the top of the defense third. Portugal feasts and punishes interceptions that spawn counters to Ronaldo before the defense is reset.
⇒ Mark Bruno Alves on set pieces.
⇒ Mark, foul, and generally hassle João Moutinho. He is the only linking player who can hurt you with a through ball.
⇒ Attack the Veloso-Alves Chasm. If it’s Carvalho, use Bradley to pressure him in possession. He gives up the rock.
⇒ Challenge the center-backs with speed.
Enjoy the match. One down. Two to go.
(Note: Many of you asked questions…I will be adding direct answers to them to the preview later this evening.)