The US–here four years ago–has a chance to advance to its further point in the World Cup in more than a decade. Belgium? A very beatable opponent. Can Klinsmann get it right?
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.
ALL THE MARBLES.
If you missed our preview … here.
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.
The fulcrum match. Win and you get play cat-and-mouse with Germany. Lose and hold on to your seats.
Starting line-ups shortly.
May St. John O’Brien be with us.
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.
That’s right, CONCACAF. Again, just in case you are unclear (and I can understand why you would be), the often insulted and downplayed region of CONCACAF is currently 4-1-1 with +2 goal differential.
The nasty Group D containing the football powerhouses of England, Italy, Uruguay and the minnows that are Costa Rica, that group is currently led by Costa Rica, who has won both of their games. Think about that for a minute. Essentially it looks like this:
Yes, just like that. Except Costa Rica hasn’t been on a motor bike the last two games, they’ve been driving a freight train, running over both Uruguay and Italy. England is next. Mexico just drew with Brazil, who happens to be the host nation and a sliiiiigghhhtttt favorite according to basically everyone who has money lines. If you were to look for a good price in the betting, you would probably have put your money on Brazil. Like Nate Silver and the FiveThirtyEight crew did. Or like every bookie in Vegas did. You probably wouldn’t have put your money on CONCACAF. Which means if you picked Italy or Uruguay, this happened to you.
Certainly you wouldn’t be alone. The thing is that when everyone talks about how easy it is to qualify out of CONCACAF, they ignore some pretty critical facts. CONCACAF qualifying is against a minimum of 3 other teams that qualified for the World Cup. Compare that to European qualifying where you might have one other team in your group that actually qualifies. It’s long, and travel is grueling, especially from Europe. The conditions are often extremely hot and humid. Do you know what this prepares you for quite well? A World Cup in a spread out country that often has some rough weather conditions, where you have to play good teams the entire time. Weird. Who knew?!
Sure, everyone loves bagging on CONCACAF, but compared to the Asian Football Confederation who is 0-3-3 so far at the World Cup, and the Confederation of African Football, who is 1-5-1 currently, it might be a good time to find a new whipping boy. Unless you really think trying to harass this guy is a good idea (spoiler alert: IT’S NOT!)