Can’t knock the hustle…
The US is entertaining. Give ‘em that. Hollywood 101N.
Whether it’s a full-scalped Landon Donovan’s shifting crossover against Germany in a 2002 clash that built Oliver Kahn’s lore or going down to nine against eventual 2006 World Cup champs Italy and boxing out a draw. Whether it’s the US’s 2008 Olympic meltdown versus the Dutch, or Landon’s heart-stopping Algeria roller to win the group …. or a last-minute Sean Johnson Olympic berth-preserving
It’s the theatrical.
The US gives their fans something to watch for — and Sunday, even through a deflating ending, was no different as some dude not named Ronaldo ghosted in from the left and left Tim Howard pondering the meaning of life.
The USMNT goes toe-to-toe with Die Mannschaft of Germany early Thursday in a poker game concerned with managing scores and keeping defensive integrity intact. With the US’s stoppage-time capitulation against Portugal and Germany up big on goal tally and differential, this may be a game of red rover where no one gets sent over.
Will the US bunker? Will Germany bunker? Who risks going forward?
It’s no secret that the US under Jürgen Klinsmann has practiced a more pragmatic and conservative approach to “attacking games.”
At Brazil 2014, the US has steadfastly refused to break their shape to create chances up the field.
This is, of course, not out of character for a Klinsmann team that used possession as a defensive mechanism and employed the same three central midfielders in multiple permutations throughout qualifying.
Against Portugal, despite calls to the contrary–including here in our preview–Klinsmann refused to challenge and stretch the heart of the Portuguese defense, electing to employ a 4-5-1 and work 3-vs-2’s on the flanks instead of attacking more vertically.
It was a defensive strategy designed to mitigate risk centrally and beat back Portugal’s full-backs with their lack of cover in their 4-3-3.
It was very Sun Tzu of Klinsmann…
“By persistently hanging on the enemy’s flank, we shall succeed in the long run in killing the commander-in-chief….almost”
I added in that last part there. But in other words, you’re not coming down the middle on us.
It’s taken full tanks of exertion from Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones–who must be in contention for World Cup Best XI at this point.
But perhaps the key to all of this for Klinsmann has been the introduction of Real Salt Lake captain Kyle Beckerman in the central midfield role. With Michael Bradley’s attacking capabilities and forward positional defense a must in a States’ attack that’s found it difficult to get chances in the run of play and Jermaine Jones proving to be too much of a destroyer for the deep midfield, Beckerman was re-inserted into the line-up against Nigeria in the final Send-Off game.
The US immediately–and finally–looked balanced.
It’s a role not wholly unlike — though not identical to — the famous libero or sweeper role that Franz Beckenbauer is credited with birthing for West Germany in the late ’70s, in matches that Klinsmann must’ve tuned into in his youth.
It’s a role that progressed forward through German all-time appearances leader Lothar Matthäus who moved aft from the midfield for the 1994 World Cup to pronounced effect. Matthäus was famously was quoted ahead of his team’s knockout round effort against Bulgaria as saying: “I am not here to be a great star but to achieve a team goal.”
That could be the embodiment of Beckerman, who few knew before this most recent US qualifying effort outside of MLS fanatics and the state of Utah.
Let’s bring in Columbus Crew center-back and one of the best technical defenders the US has ever produced, Michael Parkhurst on the necessity of Beckerman’s role and the US’s shape:
“I like the 4-1-4-1 the US played against Portugal.
Beckerman plays a pivotal role in the midfield as the holding ‘6’. He allows the outside backs to get forward and also gives Bradley and Jones the ability get up and help the lone striker.
His job will be even more important against a German team who interchanges positions with their front 6 so well and often plays with a withdrawn striker. Its also important in this formation that the other 2 central midfielders do push up and get into the attack like we saw Bradley do a bit more against Portugal.”
Game on for the RSL captain and US.
You’re not coming down the middle.
Without further Freddy Adu, we get to our customary preview.
As usual, it goes:
About The Opponent: Germany
TSG: What Are We Looking For
11 At The Whistle
US Keys To The Match
About The Opponent: Germany
Under Joachim Löw, Germany executed a subtle identity change that had Die Mannschaft bolting through Euro 2012 until they banged up against Italy’s Azzurri–the same Azzurri that bowed out yesterday for the second straight time in the group stage. Pouring out a limoncello for you, Pirlo.
It was that match–a 2-1 defeat at the feet of Mario Balotelli–that toggled the light switch for Löw.
In the 2010 World Cup, and for the majority of that Euro 2012 tournament, Germany sat deep against teams and ignited vicious counterattacks. In the semi versus Italy, the lack of forward pressure meant Italian maestro Pirlo could ping passes forward at his leisure; the sitting deep failed to put the correct pressure on Antonio Cassano, who made himself available between the lines.
Löw, who had largely been aggressive–some thought borderline arrogant–in his player selection and tactics was faced with the realization that he wasn’t squeezing all that was possible out of his team by merely playing defend and counter.
Before the next competitive match in September of 2012, here was Löw’s sentiments on the UEFA web site:
“We will have to completely change our tactics – which used to be, ‘if we have the ball we are active, if not we drop back.
“Our aim in the next months will be to play a high pressing game, even against attacking sides. We have to be more active when defending without the ball.”
Löw is almost executing on those tactics here at Brazil 2014.
Germany steamrolled Portugal in Game One in an absolute masterclass by Löw. With more than six months to prepare for a Portugal 4-3-3 that is anything but dynamic, Löw was surgical in how he attacked Portugal. The Veloso-Alves Chasm, getting in behind Pereira, floating Mesut Ozil out to the space vacated by Ronaldo remaining high in the attack were all targeted to great effect by Löw.
However, with limited time to prepare for a less-telegraphed and physical side, Germany struggled. Falling behind 2-1 against Ghana, it took an old strategy–the cross in the box–and an old World Cup friend–the regal Miraslav Klose getting up off his rocking chair on the sideline and finishing at the far post–to dig out a draw against the physical Black Stars.
Germany rolls out in a 4-3-3 with what appears to be two distinctly tasked bands of “3.”
The first line is comprised of Thomas Müller, Mario Götze and Mesut Özil. The whole key to their attack is range of position and overloading the opposition. Though Özil will usually play a bit deeper and wider than the other two, all three are licensed to find space and create mismatches.
Since the US defense will obviously be zonal in their low block, the ability to effectively pass attackers on as they seep through the zones and/or check to the ball will be critical if the US is to avoid being victimized like Portugal at the hands of Germany.
The next band of “3” is Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira and Phillip Lahm. They work in unison to synchronously cover the backline while making incisive runs forward and looking to throw defenders off their marks. It is rare to see more than one get up into the attack without the other two staying back, but it happens at times.
Khedira in particular has been late to his rotations when Lahm has advanced. This present an opportunity for the US.
Much has been made of Löw’s perplexing use of four central defenders across his backline.
It appears to make little sense.
Inside is Arsenal’s Per Mertesacker and Dortmund’s Mats Hummels. Despite their club résumés and high popular opinion, neither defender–Hummels due to injury, Mertesacker due to Mertesacker–is dominant, especially when either are asked to pull outside of the center pocket. Both can be caught in the air (see goals from Ghana on Saturday and from Austria in qualifying) or simply caught out (witness Sweden’s repeated abuse of Mertesacker in their 5-3 loss last year).
“Crosses in the air from wide positions will be eaten up by their big, strong back 4. We have to get their CBs running facing their own goal while dealing with crosses, particularly on the ground.”
On the right, is Jérôme Boateng, a player worthy of his position, but who could certainly be used centrally to help narrow the space between the lines with his speed. On the left, is Benedikt Höwedes who Ghana targeted incessantly. It would not be surprising — with Fabian Johnson’s effect on the game — to see Löw go to the bench for Erik Durm, the 22-year-old Dortmund left-back with the explicit instruction to merely keep Johnson in front of him.
Manuel Neuer is Germany’s dynamic keeper. A terrific shot stopper, Neuer’s distribution is a weapon when he catches the opponent snoozing. However, he came into this Cup banged-up — a right shoulder injury had him so limited that he couldn’t even job in a sling the first few days of training. Interestingly enough, both Ghana goals came low and to his right — the shoulder he may not want to crash down on. It may be nothing — or it may be Tim Howard’s rib cage in 2010. The US has to test him.
When Germany are playing well, the front six appear to be interchanging as one and the back four is high, controlling any outlets. Prior to Pepe’s red card in Game One, the forwards and midfielders were applying enough pressure to force Portugal to play through the air to a thoroughly overmatched Almeida. This is is the ideal for Germany.
There are three key players for Germany by this eye: Özil, Lahm, and Müller in that order.
Özil is the key. His sharp off-ball movement to get open in dangerous places and his ability to make nearly any pass makes him a danger in possession the moment he collects the ball. Özil will be looking primarily for the feet of Müller, who probably works harder off the ball than anyone not named Ronaldo (non-World Cup 2014 Ronaldo that is).
The “x-factor” is Mario Götze, who put in a clumsy finish against Ghana, but played duck-duck-goose with the Portugal backline for the first 45′ of that one.
If you’re looking at a hierarchy of tasks for the US defensively in this one it should go: 1) Track and pass your runners. There cannot be any communication gaffes; 2) Deny the ball to Özil; 3) Be aware of where Muller is at all times; 4) Send help when Götze is on the approach from the corners.
Behind that front motion, Phillip Lahm will be pulling the strings.
Lahm, a dynamic attacking full-back on teams past, is now controlling the midfield and in traditional clichéd fashion “sees two passes ahead.” Given time on the ball, Lahm will pick you apart, but he’s also apt to make a forward run to clear space or create an overload. The US should man-mark him from the outset.
However, Lahm, in partnership with Khedira and Kroos, really left a lot to be desired against Ghana. He was untidy with the ball, shied away from challenges, and his partners didn’t pick up the slack. Kroos, whose defensive tenacity will be needed in the left-central zone, has had trouble playing his trademark deep balls and Khedira has just not looked right since his return from injury. Veteran and World Cup star of yesteryear Bastian Schweinsteiger may be brought into the side in Khedira’s place, which would be a smart move.
Regardless, all three (or four) of the German midfielders had lengthy club campaigns and looked a step slow–as most do, to be fair–against Ghana. Worse, however, they shied away from winning 50/50 balls. US coaches surely took notice of it and will call on Jones, Beckerman, and Bradley to summon the strength to impose their will for 90′ more against Die Mannschaft.
TSG What Are Looking For:
♦ Michael Bradley vs. Phillip Lahm
Arguably, the most pivotal match-up in this one.
This has not been Michael Bradley’s World Cup as the expectation was, perhaps, heading into it. Bradley — nearly infallible for the States’ during qualifying — has, since the Send-Off Series, been deployed higher up the pitch than any time previous in his US national team career.
Maligned in the first game against Ghana because he wasn’t “Michael Bradley,” the Toronto FC player still had a passable game helping cover the center of the pitch frequently and carrying the ball forward. Bradley’s next game against Portugal was better, but sputtered at the end. Noticeably fatigued, he attempted to get to an errant Jermaine Jones pass about a minute before the whistle.
It was Bradley’s attempt to control the ball late, and his subsequent coughing it up, that ignited Portugal’s attack.
It’s hard to figure out what’s troubling Bradley unless you’re inside the locker room. The decison-making appears sound, but it’s almost like Bradley’s body is not letting him do what his body is accustomed to doing. Balls up the flanks that Bradley would typically play in stride have been popped up or measured long. Bradley’s also been dispossessed more frequently than ever before in a US jersey.
Germany presents a grand opportunity for Bradley to impact the match.
In attack, he’ll be tasked with finding a spot between the defensive and midfield bands of Germany, something that the US’s opponents have offered in uncharacteristic abundance so far this campaign.
When the ball flips though, Bradley will likely be tasked with minding the man who Pep Guardiola recently called, “the most intelligent player I’ve ever trained.”
That player is, of course, Phillip Lahm, who had an uncharacteristically poor performance against the Black Stars. However, despite being less than radar-precise with his passing, Lahm still did some serious good work off the ball to get into dangerous spots and open room for others.
Bradley will need to recognize when to stay with Lahm and when to pass on him in defense, knowing that tracking one of the German captain’s handful of forward runs may be necessary, but also puts himself out of position on a turnover and demands that he exert even more effort.
He’ll also attempt to fluster the Germans in deep possession so Die Mannschaft’s attack can’t rev its engine at will.
(Note: It’s ironic that Bradley, whose pops was usurped by Klinsmann, will be tasked with shutting down the player that has been the most ardent critic of Klinsmann’s tenure as German national team manager.)
♦ The Gap & The Counter
Here’s Michael Parkhurst on how the US needs to attack Germany:
“The US can be successful on the counterattack against Germany. They are a good possession team who like to get forward and attack, but Ghana were able to exploit them with speed on the counter — and if we can do the same, we will have chances.
Their back, consisting of 4 CBs, is not the most mobile group. Isolated 1-vs-1 we can get the better of them and get in behind. In possession, it will be important to get our outside backs forward, similar to the Portugal game. Unlike Ronaldo, the German wingers will be more honest and get back defensively. The more we can keep them pinned back and keep their striker isolated, the easier it will be for the US defensively.”
Germany appears to be a team whose history forces it to wrestle with the system that Löw wants to establish. Löw’s rollout of the 4-2-3-1 since signing on as coach had established defensive solidity in the middle ahead of the center-backs and taken advantage of Germany’s wide players while continuing to rely on the apple pie of many a German team — the target striker.
With the manager’s move to a 4-3-3 in the Spring of 2013, it enabled more dynamic attacking options up top, but reduced the depth and the ability to play two-line passes. Germany’s wide forwards don’t play off a central false nine (in this case, Müller) so much as they all merely look to find space.
It’s antithetical to the history of German soccer and has worked wonders–as Germany asphyxiated Portugal by overloading the Veloso-Alves chasm–but it has also bogged down.
With Germany’s fullbacks reluctant to get into the attack with or without the ball, their attack can get very flat creating large gaps between the midfield and backline bands. If the US can link through this zone and find an advancing Johnson or Dempsey over the top, their could be pay dirt on chances.
11 At The Whistle:
Here’s Parkhurst on the US depth and options:
“It will be difficult to recover, no doubt. Mentally and physically, that game will take a big toll on the team. That said, the US has an entire staff there whose job is to get the players recovered as quick as possible.
On the whole I would expect most players to be available to go again Thursday. However, you have a team of 23 and must have trust in all the players to get the job done so I think the most important thing is to have fresh legs. Anyone is who not prepared to go 90, I would change out.
In these types of intense and physically demanding games, a fresh reserve is better than a starter whose tank is only 80-90% full. Don’t expect to see 10 new faces but I could foresee 2-3 changes to the lineup.”
GK: Tim Howard
The skinny: Tim Howard has made big saves in yet another match. Repeat, Tim Howard came up big again. Let’s put any doubts to rest. We also got to see a trademark Howard throw.
DEF: Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler, Tim Chandler
The skinny: For Cameron, there is concern over what seemed like a horrible performance against Portugal. However, the first goal concession–like Michael Bradley’s attempt to control the errant midfield ball at the death–was a mistake of execution, not of decision-making. The same is true of the final play in what ultimately ends up being a 3-v-1 centrally.
Where Cameron will need to pick it up is on his distribution. The US cannot afford a few shaky moments in the back and a few interceptions in the middle of the field, which can hurt you on a quick counter.
Ok… so, why the shock Chandler inclusion? Here’s why:
Özil often floated wide right outside and was picked up by the opposite full-back. In this case, that can be a fresh Chander on his stronger interior foot. It’d be a gambit and maybe a big head-game played by Klinsmann to add yet another German to a line-up against Germany, no?
CDM: Kyle Beckerman
The skinny: Head on a swivel.
CM/CAM: Junior Jones, Michael Bradley
The skinny: This is Jones and Bradley’s opportunity to physically impose their will. They have to make Lahm and company reluctant and conservative in possession.
LM/RM: Brad Davis, Graham Zusi
The skinny: Brad Davis’s entrance seems plausible if you… well … let’s consider the possible reasons:
1) Tim Chandler may deputize at left-back. Davis complements Chandler by offering the width that is foregone with the German-American in the back.
2) The US, while asymmetrical in formation, wants to offer balance. If the US pushes Fabian Johnson high and on the right, it will leave the opposite full-back behind. Davis would enable the width that would normally come from…
3) Germany is no bueno when getting bombed on in the box from the left
4) Tracking Jérôme Boateng if he joins the attack is much much different than tracking Daniel Opare or João Pereira. He’s still fast, but he’s not lighting.
Ok, totally talked myself into a Chandler-Davis pairing on the left. Godspeed, USA. Godspeed.
STR: Clint Dempsey
First two subs: Diskerud for Zusi, Wondo for Davis
Keys To the Match for the US
⇒ Chase Lahm and Özil off the ball; better yet, deny them.
⇒ Communicate and pass attackers appropriately. Watch for late runs from the German midfield band of three.
⇒ Attacking the left channel extended (to the flank) of Germany. Ghana found plenty of opportunities there.
⇒ Pump some crosses into the box. Germany have been uncharacterically suspect at times in the air. (Parkhurst disagrees…says go ground.)
⇒ Initiate a few take-ons of Mertesacker, who can be bested 1-v-1.