The US clicked on their World Cup hazards last Thursday and backed their way into the second round, courtesy of a choppy match against Germany.
Kyle Martino Thomas Müller provided the lone tally; a lash from right outside the 18-yard dance floor that spared Tim Howard what would’ve been a futile dive and parry attempt. 1-0 bad guys.
With Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo driving the stake into an infighting Ghana team, both Portugal and the US finished on four points. But not all four points are equal and the US moves on via the tiebreakers.
Against Germany, the US came up against two new challenges in the group stage that Belgium–or a later stage opponent, Thibaut Courtois-willing–should exploit.
First, Thomas Müller–man that guy is good–continually danced along the US back-line. It was cerebral play from Müller and fabulous recognition from Joachim Löw and Germany.
Muller would pick pockets–Inzaghi-like pockets–typically in the channels between a US center-back and full-back–and remain offside. As Germany pushed up the field, the back-line, led by Matt Besler controlling that line, would drop, rendering Muller onside just in time to present himself as an option. Germany created numerous overloads and problems by Müller’s sharp off-ball work.
Compounding this was Germany’s desire to attack the flanks like Portugal did in the second half of the game before. This was not an expected tactic as Germany’s fullbacks–center-backs by at their respective clubs–struggled to get forward against Ghana and before the man advantage against Portugal.
Müller’s movement and Germany pushing their fullbacks would immediately present problems for the US.
The US’s two bands of four were immediately disrupted. On the left which was targeted most frequently, Besler would play “sweeper” defense, looking to come to the aid of DaMarcus Beasley if he got beat and Germany would fill the channel.
Özil, Müller, Boateng, Kroos or Lahm would join the party and the US midfielders, specifically Brad Davis would get caught in no-man’s land, at odds with whether to collapse and help support the channel or stay wide and defend the fullback–as is customary.
The Germans would abuse that left channel so much so that I suggested the US go to a formation featuring two defensive central midfielders to help. The US was lucky to escape a concession in the first 20′.
Second, Germany attempted to defend and win the ball in a different place than the US’s other two opponents (see images above). Portugal sat a little deeper for the most part. Ghana pressed high and then dropped after the first pass.
Germany defended in the high middle third and made a concerted effort with their midfield to smartly shutdown the outgoing distribution of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones. With less time on the ball, Jones and Bradley were forced to play more square balls rather than passes over the top. They did not have, and could not take, the extra second to let the Fabian Johnson or DaMarcus Beasley overlaps develop. It became Clint Dempsey versus the German rearguard. The latter will win that battle nearly every time as fans saw.
The US, of course, capitulated to this strategy because they didn’t have the legs to get out and run often enough. It’s remains a blueprint for beating the US, who find themselves against tough, but imperfect, opposition in Belgium in the next round–a team whose attack is not all too different in form to Germany’s.
That said, the States’ disposition against the Germans suggested it was attempting to survive the game more than compete.
The US refused to break shape except to send one midfielder beelining up the pitch to the opposing end-line when in possession. It was a targeted and methodical way of looking to clear space and systemically save the legs of the front six. Both Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones saw a few opportunities come their way from this type of strategy.
For long stretches of the game, the US’s “Big Three” in midfield — Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman — looked to be laboring merely to maintain shape and defensive integrity. They had little left to get up the pitch and attack.
Klinsmann did attempt to get some fresh-leg relief by inserting Brad Davis on the left in a dumpster-fire of an attempt to get some diagonal balls going forward. Despite clocking in with the least pitch time in the Group, Davis struggled to acclimate to World Cup game speed. Klinsmann acknowledged the mistake of his gambit as Davis was the first player sacrificed by the US manager in the 60′ in a like-for-like substitution with Ale Bedoya. Germany repeatedly targeted the side Davis was on until then.
Omar Gonzalez was played in the back and did what he does well: emergency defending.
It was an aggressive substitution by Klinsmann and one likely borne out of watching Mario Götze–who only played as a sub here–and Thomas Muller split central defenders time and time again in qualifying. Through those sets of games, Mesut Özil and Philip Lahm continually found those two players with lofted service from the outside and they often converted.
The Davis insertion may not’ve worked, but Klinsmann gets credit with Gonzalez performing better than most–including here–thought he would.
Regardless of the components and the fatigue, the US moves on and will need to ready itself for its first attempt to get passed the second round in over a decade.
Belgium Red Devils hunting saison.
Without further Freddy Adu, we get to our customary preview. As usual, it goes….
About The Opponent: Belgium
TSG What Are We Looking For
11 At The Whistle
Keys To The Match
About the Opponent: Belgium
Belgium arrives in the second round after a soft 3-0 record, slipping their way past every opponent in Group H by a one-goal differential.
They snagged a 2-1 victory that could’ve gone either way versus a tough Algeria side, a 1-0 result against a fits-and-startsy Russian side. And finally another 1-0 win against a hard-working, but unimaginative South Korean team after the Red Devils had gone down to ten men.
The victories, however, extracted their tax.
Center midfielder Steve Defour pocketed himself a shiny new red card to gaze at on the bench Tuesday. Vincent Kompany is still in serious doubt over a groin issue. Thomas Vermaelen is not fully fit as well; he is not expected to play if Kompany cannot go. Leftback Jan Vertoghen–who was having enough difficulty when fit managing the left fullback spot-apparently may have knock as well, but that’s uncomfirmed.
Belgium, however, are in danger of becoming the Alt-J of the soccer world and Brazil 2014. Talented beyond question–only Brazil’s roster surpasses Belgium’s for total player value at the World Cup–but in danger of not managing that talent and extracting everything out of it. Alt-J’s rise to indie pop stardom hit its apex months ago despite talent to the contrary.
The cliched refrain you’ll hear on the Red Devils over the next few days is the “sum does not equal the parts.” Despite wonderful individual talent, Belgium still struggles with individuality in attack–a notion of drive-and-shoot/dish rather than motion offense. Many of the players are the same age and, though Vincent Kompany is their captain, there isn’t a natural hierarchy of core-support-squad players. It’s all just “squad.” This notion has been further excerabed by Belgium manager Marc Wilmots, codename: Warpig in his playing days, rotating the front six quite frequently. Though communicated as a big to keep players fresh; it’s hurt continuity.
Depending who you speak to, manager Wilmots’ squad either deploy in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3. Really, the only difference is in how high they get their wingers and whether they are pushing two or one midfielder into the attack.
Defensively, Belgium claim to be a pressing team but that’s a dangerous description for it. They’ll occasionally go through spells when they’ll press high when commanding the run of play; but, if not, they’ll usually just retreat behind the halfway line and attempt to loosely swarm the ball. <– i.e. not pressing defense. Sampaoli would be mortified.
At the top of the attack for Belgium is Romelu Lukaku, a curious talent in the same vein as Jozy Altidore. (Note: Odd seeing Altidore in street clothes and with the team. Is he rehabbing? Enquiring minds would like to know.)
Lukaku came alive this year at Everton under Roberto Martinez after waiting for his turn at Chelsea. By all regards, Lukaku has huge potential, but suffers from the same “big man” syndrome that Altidore does. Though blessed with a sturdy physique, he–like Altidore–is more comfortable sweeping wide and running the channel than playing as a target-man–think Thierry Henry more than Victor Anichebe. Wilmots also appears to be having a difficult time managing the confidence of Lukaku alternately condemning his efforts and then publicly commenting a few days ago that Lukaku puts too much pressure on himself. True to from, Wilmots has been tinkering with inserting Lille youngster, 19-year-old Divock Origi–only brought due to Christian Benteke’s absence–in Lukaku’s spot. Again, breaking continuity.
Origi though is a premium version of a young Juan Agudelo and will threaten the US if he gets in there.
The next band of a three is some permutation of Eden Hazard, Kevin DeBruyne, Dres Mertens, Adnan Januzaj and Kevin Mirallas. DeBruyne and Hazard are mainstays in the line-up with Hazard the key player who owns the LFW spot. Here’s Geoff Cameron when I asked him about Hazard–who he defended when Chelsea played Stoke–in the US training camp.
“Hazard? He’s a really shifty player. One second he’s there you blink and then he’s over there. You just work to keep him in front of you and contain him.”
The challenge for Wilmots here is that none of the lot likely to run the right toughline and going wide is the way to beat a DaMarcus Beasley–Januzaj, Mertens and Mirallas all like to come inside. Look for Wilmots to likely start Mertens on the right, but see him switch often with DeBruyne who has some of that wide right ability.
The two central midfield selections come from a grouping of Alex Witsel, Moussa Dembele and Manchester United giant Fellaini with Witsel owning the deep CDM role. More on this group below.
It’s in the back where Wilmots face a selection challenge. If Kompany can’t go, it’s a big loss for Belgium. While others can replace most of his quality in the back and his aerial prowess, no CB steps as high and strongly as Kompany to compress the space between the lines–a space that’s often exploited by opponents anyway.
The Red Devils backline will likely Toby Alderweireld, Daniel van Buyten, Nicolas Lombaerts–if both Kompany and Vermaelen can’t go–and Jan Vertonghen.
In the back is the marvelous Thibualt Courtois who merely helped Atletico Madrid to the Champion’s League final this year with some spectacular saves against the team he was on loan from–Chelsea.
Upon review, despite the embarrassing wealth of talent Belgium has, a few clear warts stand out:
⇒ The midfield engine: Witsel, Fellaini, Dembele and, at times, Chadl struggle to move the ball effectively up the field.
Belgium likes their wing play, but if the guy offering you the ball is passing it from deep or not drawing a defender by attempting to dribble, those wingers have to check back to the ball…far. This has been a key breakdown in the attack for Belgium–the ability of their midfield to get into the attack on the dribble or with an incisive pass. Additionally, only Dembele among those midfield options makes any sort of penetrating, looking-for-the-give-and-go run. That lack of movement further bogs down the attacking process.
Below are the passing charts from the Russia and Algeria games for Witsel, Fellaini and Dembele. Terrific pass completion, but all of them sideways.
In defense, all three players can be terrific man-markers when they apply themselves, but too often they are lackadaisical about their shape or just plain negligent.
Below is a sequence of passing from Croatia in a 1-1 draw in qualifying that leads to a goal. Dembele and Defour are drawn high and Witsel is left to track and support the winger. It’s a broken play, but nobody is covering the trailing runner. A nearly identical sort of breakdown with a late trailer happened for Germany’s second goal when they discarded the Red Devils from Euro 2012 qualifying, 3-1. This is normally Michael Bradley country, but can the US get out on the run.
⇒ Compromising the fullbacks: Like the Germans, the main concern for the Belgians coming into the World Cup was their fullback play. Seven out of the eight defenders on the roster inhabit the center-back spot at their clubs. Pairing their converted fullbacks–with their lack of pace and awareness–with some of the porous play of the midfield is the perfect set of ingredients for attacking Belgium’s flanks as all three Group H opponents did.
Here’s Belgium’s lone concession in group play below. Lack of awareness and urgency in the midfield is the catalyst to Algeria going left-to-right and earning a penalty which they would convert.
And the coach… Wilmots’ game-by-game tactical decisions throughout the group have been curious and bear discussion here.
Against Algeria, a team that packs numbers centrally, Wilmots elected to deploy Nacer Chadli and Kevin De Bruyne, with Moussa Dembele carrying possession from deep in an attempt to fight their way through the opposition. With Hazard cutting in and DeBruyne coming central as well, Belgium didn’t have any room to work. Algeria threw their full-backs up on a turnover and threatened (discussed above.). It wasn’t until Fellaini was brought on late that Belgium really started moving the ball, using the big Manchester United man almost as a false-nine to be a high pivot and manage distribution.
Against Russia, Wilmots attempted the same strategy that closed the Algeria game. However Russia effectively dealt with Lukaku and Fellaini centrally and it wasn’t until Wilmots brought on the speed merchant Origi and showed linking intitiative late that Belgium looked anything like a class team.
Against the States, a bit of pick your poison. It would not surprise me to see Fellaini high and occupying Kyle Beckerman and dishing to runners. This would force Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones deeper than they want to be and make it a challenge for the US to play on the floor vertically to Dempsey or quickly wide to their fullback options.
TSG What Are We Looking For:
* Possession Mongering & Plan B.
(Building on the point from the last paragraph….)
That’s the number of minutes the US had Jozy Altidore — and, in turn, their hopes of running players off of him after finding him on an outlet.
That’s the number of touches Clint Dempsey had on the ball in the attacking third in the two games following Jozy’s trip to the caprihini stand.
That’s not going to cut it. And further, that’s putting a lot of pressure on your defense if your guy up top is getting one touch every 7.5 minutes or so in an area where he can do something with it.
Against Portugal, the US had some success throwing Fabian Johnson forward on the right in support Dempsey for outlets. Against Germany, with the flanks being virtually shut down, Jones, Davis and Zusi took turns supporting Dempsey, while Bradley held back a little more.
The US needs to have a Plan B ready if they can’t support Dempsey up top.
With Bradley not having his best matches on the ball, Dempsey wearing down during games, and Eddie Johnson not being in Brazil, the US needs to get more productive off-ball movement from its wide players and or consider bringing in someone to support Dempsey up top — be it another striker or even a Mix Diskerud sitting underneath. Yes, we’re going eleven outfielders. Hardly ever been done as far my web searches tell me.
But in all seriousness. If the flanks aren’t working the US needs a plan before they take the pitch. Maybe it’s Zusi coming to the middle to support in more of a 4-2-3-1–doesn’t matter. Can’t do the same thing over and over again unless you produce results.
* Mowing the Garden of Eden
If Belgium tend to defer to anyone up top, it’s Chelsea hitman Eden Hazard.
Algeria kept their fullback Mehdi Mostefa matched up on Hazard all day, but also ran their key central midfielder Sofiane Feghouli out there for support. Belgium countered by basically giving up on routing through Hazard in the second half and instead found success through the reception, heading and distribution of Fellaini.
Against Russia, playing in a 3-5-2 for the most part, Hazard should’ve been dangerous, but Russia ran two and three men at him every time he had the ball.
Hazard, who loves in-cutting as many of his ilk do, didn’t have any overlapping support to drag away help in either of those matches — and likely won’t on Tuesday.
In a previous preview–USA vs. Ukraine–we discussed Geoff Cameron’s challenges with handling Hazard for club and country (below is club).
The question more for the US will be how to manage the threat of Hazard without compromising the attack. The US could go one of three ways and Belgium’s squad selection on the day will show you what they’re thinking.
The US could elect to cover over the top with a midfielder–like Ale Bedoya. They could slot Jermaine Jones or Kyle Beckerman at right-central defensive midfield and task either with basically stopping the in-cut and forcing Hazard wide.
Or they could be aggressive out of the gate and put a DeAndre Yedlin into the line-up and basically force Hazard to help out with the trouble on that flank presented by an advanced Yedlin and a forward-thinking Fabian Johnson trailing just behind.
Here’s the crib sheet for what to look for:
1) If the US goes with option A (Bedoya with over the top support) then the concern is Origi up top, who can dart through channels. Lukaku, of course, can as well but he’s not going to round a player like Cameron as frequently.
2) If the US goes with a CDM support, then watch for how much Fellaini, Chadli, or even Witsel advance into the attack. Witsel particularly has his long bomb game dialed. This tactic would force a lot of work out of a Pinocchio-nosed Jermaine Jones. It’s not favored here.
3) If the US goes with Yedlin then there is concern of this becoming an end-to-end, high tempo’d affair where Hazard could still squirt out on a change of possession after the US has advanced on their right flank. This would be an aggressive approach for Klinsmann, who has favored a more measured, pragmatic style of play.
Klinsmann has been pragmatic to a fault thus far here at the World Cup, but this is the knockout stage and each game demands its own strategy. It’d be hard to fault a strategy even if fails where the US doesn’t attack Belgium’s left flank immediately out of the gate and see what it’s failover centerback defense can do or not do.
* Unfriendly Skies
Only one team conceded less in run-up play to the World Cup per game than Belgium: Spain. That meant something totally different when I researched it about a month ago.
Belgium holds a decided advantage on service into either box. In defense, Courtois swallows anything skyward and if he can’t get to it, the likes of Kompany, Vertonghen, Vermaelen and Fellaini ably contend with aerial challenges.
Those who’ve read TSG for years know TSG’s love affair with Fellaini–the Everton days that is.
So have to trot out the old tribute video
In the attack all of the four–and specifically Fellaini–are UEFA class threats on set pieces.
If you’re attempting to stop a set piece by playing defense in the box, you’ve already lost. The key is ball pressure outside the area when players are in range of being able to float one in. And limiting the fouls.
The best opportunity to defend set pieces and service in the box versus Belgium is not letting them happen. And that’s not easy when service in the box comes from wingers like Hazard who you don’t want to crowd.
11 At The Whistle
GK: Tim Howard
The skinny: Sterling when he needed to be. Only the current Memo Ochoa with a two-second headstart makes a save on that Müller beauty.
DEF: Fab Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley
The skinny: Maybe the call was to give Geoff Cameron a physical or mental respite. Either way, the call worked. But unless it’s an injury, the decision between Cameron & Gonzalez will be a critical one…even for a kaiser whose on a roll.
You have to fearful–especially is Lukaku plays–about the US ability to defend set pieces. Gonzalez struggled through the year on doing his job–winning the skies–but he was solid against Germany.
But then you have the threat of Belgium’s mighty mites and could easily select Cameron for his speed.
The shout here if for Cameron. Because TSG favors Cameron but the money should be on Gonzalez.
CMF: Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley
The skinny: Hey, if that “Barka” training coach in Oregon is still out there, spoiler alert! I’m about to use an American football reference to parallel soccer again. Fair warning. Fair warning.
Here’s the way to think about how the US central midfielders are functioning right now. Michael Bradley is the central linebacker. Jermaine Jones, the strong safety. Kyle Beckerman, the free safety.
“Blow-up” tacklers in the NFL often like playing the strong safety role–the linebackers ahead of them eat up the blockers. Same here with Bradley. He’s still bringing down the running back often enough, but he’s got to take-on/navigate a blocking back or offensive lineman first.
Kyle Beckerman, by design, is there to help clean-up wherever’s necessary and support the cornerbacks (fullbacks).
Okay, now back to more serious analysis.
What are the odds for the next snoz to get crushed. Glad you asked:
Beckerman: Even money
Dempsey again: 2:1
Fab Johnson: 4:1
Jones again: 10:1
RM/LM: Graham Zusi, Ale Bedoya (DeAndre Yedlin)
The skinny: First, let’s address the former. Graham Zusi’s crosses have been perfect … if he’s aiming them well short of the near post. (Yes, of course, save the John Brooks noggin-knocker that basically was the group difference.) That’s got to improve. And Zusi hasn’t really had many . But he’s not looking off or away from the ball. He’s making himself available. Zusi can be a playmaker in between the lines in this one and still make it back to play cover defense over DaMarcus Beasley.
STR: Clint Dempsey
The skinny: Dempsey–like Bradley–is sacrificing for the team by playing an unaccustomed position for the US, taking a beating and filling the role. In short, he’s being a captain.
Keys To The Match for the US:
⇒ Mark Fellaini on set pieces. No sh*t.
⇒ Don’t get isolated 1-v-1 vs. DeBruyne, Hazard & Co. on the outside.
⇒ Hassle Witsel in possession; pull him out of the center if you can in the attack.
⇒ Put pressure on Belgium immediately. They are slow starters & strong finishers.
⇒ Attack the flanks incessantly. Force support–a win–and switch field accordingly.
Note: We’re going to take a break on previews if the US gets to the next round. We’ll be back, perhaps, in the semis. :>