Bald is better. (illustration by Ben Saufley)
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′.
(Above) The heat maps for Germany’s midfield three and their full-backs. (Below) Initiated tackles by that same player grouping against the US.
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.
Jones countrymen did him no favors on Thursday as the US barely escaped.
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
Can he be talismanic in the knockouts? Hazard for Belgium.
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.
A possible Belgium deployment on Tuesday.
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.