When Counterattacking Is Not An Option

(This is Part II of IV of our USA vs. Slovenia Preview) (Part I)

Part II looks at how Slovenia will play…which is just about how the States plays.

This is a guest post by Mr. Tuesday.

The Problem

Klinsmann's Opine

Jurgen Klinsmann recently said the US don’t have a style. That is not entirely true. Our playing identity over the last decade has been defined in opposition to our continental rival and can be summarized as “Beat Mexico”.

This style has been largely successful against its intended victim and teams of a similar Latin possession-oriented style. It’s reached the point where the tables have turned and Aguirre’s has heralded a tactical revolution designed to revitalize Mexico against 4-4-2 systems like our own. The question for US Soccer has become what happens when we don’t have a Mexico to beat?

Beat “Mexico” has brought us through 20 years of US Soccer development but this isn’t enough to get to the next level. Even in the moments of the greatest World Cup successes of these past 2 decades, the pattern was clear: The US defeated Portugal and Mexico in the 2002 World Cup, but drew with Hiddink’s Korea, fell to Poland and were knocked out by Germany. In meetings with World Cup caliber teams with a similar styles, we haven’t found ways to come out on top often enough. To take the next step, that must change.

Catalyst of the "Counterattack Heard Round The World"

We also seen this pattern occur within games: if the US doesn’t jump out to a lead and instead concedes the first goal, well-organized defensive teams can simply shut up shop. Too often it’s clear: we’re not coming back. There are no “counterattacks heard round the world” against a team with 8 or 9 well-organized players behind the ball. It isn’t easy – just ask Spain. Just one game into the 2010 World Cup, the US has already gone some way to disproving this criticism, fighting back for a 1-1 draw with England after going down a goal in the first 5 minutes.

They have shown in the past year that with Dempsey and Donovan, they’re an attacking side to be respected, that can take down the very best sides on their day. The US may have rode their luck on Saturday, as Dempsey’s 30-yard two-bouncer may have been saved by a keeper that wasn’t so “Green” at this level or with a different match-ball. England were also fortuitous to benefit from our defensive error, rather than conjuring some magic that unlocked our defense.

The USA looked a side that has become accustomed to playing in the biggest games, showing some new qualities in that they didn’t panic, settled into the match, took the game to England and never looked like not scoring. In the second half they absorbed more pressure but showed danger on the counter and had more quality chances over 90 minutes. The match was finely balanced and a draw seemed a fair result. 1 point, banked.

Potential Line-up (Potential Changes in Italics)

The Hinge
The result against England really changes the dynamic of the group since the team that wins the group will need maximum points from their remaining two matches. But nothing has changed in that our progress to the knockout round still hinges on the second match against Slovenia. At minimum, a win will keep qualification to the second round completely in our own hands. If we manage a winning margin greater than that of England against Algeria, we are through with a match to spare.

Dedic, in a retracted forward role, is a key conduit up to striker Novakovic

However, Slovenia’s trip to South Africa was paid for by one of the stingiest defense in UEFA qualifying. Our opponent finishing second in their group to Slovakia by conceding only 4 goals in 10 matches, before conceding 2 more in the play-off against Russia. Slovenia is just the type of well-organized team ready made to ruin our World Cup dreams.

Slovenia stay very narrow and compact through the back four and midfield. At time when Russia had the ball in the central areas during the 2nd leg of their playoff, their back 4 only covered a width of 20 yards. However, they are quick to adjust when the ball was played out to the flank – the fullback comes out wide to contain, while the remaining three defenders quickly drop deep, the wide midfielder is sacrificed for cover behind the fullback to provide defensive support, and the central midfielders patrol just a few yards in front of the defenders. The amount of defensive work done by all their players means Slovenia can be deliberate getting out of the back when they win possession, but they do show danger on the counterattack with good hold-up play by their forwards coming short before making runs behind the defensive line.

In their opening match, Slovenia showed little interest in getting forward into the attack, keeping their fullbacks largely tethered even after a red card for Algeria’s Ghezzal left them playing against 10 men. They are happy to run down the clock keeping possession in their own half with little apparent attacking intent. Slovenia’s performance had some observers suggesting they were little better than the substandard Greece side. Still, Slovenia come into the match topping Group C after Algeria’s goalkeeper tried to out-Green Green, allowing Robert Koren’s tame-effort to decide the points.

Having fought a team picked by many as semi-finalists to a draw without looking outclassed, can the US fling the bigger monkey off their back and defeat a lesser European team at the World Cup for only the second time since 1950? Can we shed our history of playing up to better opposition and getting good results as underdogs only to fall short when taking on the mantle of favorites? If our side can live with the expectations and make quick work of a Slovenia side that is simply not as good as their playoff win over Russia might suggest, you’re looking at a US side knocking on the door of the top 10 teams in World Football.

Slovenian Breakdown
Slovenia were happy to play in possession in front of the Algerian defense in their opening group game. Algeria pack the midfield and after starting in something resembling a 4-man back-line quickly reverted to their accustomed 3-man defense. Despite a chance to create odd-man situations on the flank against 3-5-2, both Slovenia fullbacks tended to mostly stay at home while the side kept tight through the middle with DM Radosavljevic shielding CBs Suller and Cesar.

Robert Koren

Koren has the more advanced central midfield role, but generally stays fairly close to the CBs until the ball is in the final third. Slovenia most frequently plays the ball out from the back straight up the center of the pitch on the diagonals Suler(RCB) to Radosavljevic(LCM) and Cesar(LCB) to Koren(RCM) combining to complete at least 20 passes between each pair against Algeria. The wide midfielders and forwards make most of the attacking play. On the right, Birsa would stay more narrow while Kirn on the left hugs the touchline. Novakovic plays as a target forward with a smaller, more mobile player doing a lot of the running.

Despite giving up more chances with an Algerian shots-in-the-box advantage of 7 to 1, Slovenia made the one goal tell. Defensively they really compress the lines of midfield and defense to stay tight in the center and concede space in the outside channels instead. Against Algeria, the majority of the opponents attacking came down their right flank where fullback Brecko gets forward a little bit more than left back Jokic.

They try to prevent players from getting behind their defense by dropping quite deep and sacrificing a midfielder as cover for their fullbacks. This approach means our fullbacks should be free to contribute in support of the attack. However, deep crosses must be inch perfect to overcome the sheer numbers Slovenia have covering in the box and the counter remains a constant threat. Slovenia basically set a trap – they try to stay organized and frustrate their opponents until they over-commit to attack and are made to pay on the counter.

Despite their threat on the counter, Slovenia are not a fast team. Novakovic showed a top speed of 25.87 km/hr against Algeria. Compare this to Findley, who topped out at 30.13 km/hr against England. Even Bocanegra hit 26.39 km/hr trying to chase down Lennon. It’s a game of numbers. Bradley needs to be patient.

Up Next: How To Beat The Slovenian’s At Our Game

28 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Soccernst on 2010/06/14 at 11:50 PM

    Another thoughtful series from TSG! I re-watched the Algeria Slovenia game per your suggestion. And honestly, the best part of the game was Adrian Healey muttering the name of the Solovenian left back every few minutes. Why yes, I do enjoy juvenile humor.


  2. Posted by MJ on 2010/06/15 at 12:16 AM

    Any chance you can throw your two cents on why the italicized players (Altidore, Demerit, Clark) are potential changes in your opinion? I’m not complaining in Clark’s case but I’d still be interested to know, especially with regards to Demerit. Unless Im just going through withdrawal and thats going to be handled in the next piece.:)


    • Posted by cosmosredux on 2010/06/15 at 12:31 AM

      MJ – I’ll email Tuesday your question.

      For my two cents…and not to give away on my preview…I’ll say that Clark is swapped out and that DeMerit stays. Altidore — another post coming on that one.


      • Posted by MJ on 2010/06/15 at 1:22 AM

        Thanks. Speaking of playing styles, would it be possible to see a piece on the different ‘styles’ of play? Possession, counter-attack, etc with a brief description given of the team at the tourny that best exemplifies it? I’m probably betraying my ignorance on the subject, but with all the talk about possession vs counter attack it got me thinking to what/if any other major styles of play there are. For instance, we always hear allusions to the styles of play found in each domestic league such as the speed of the EPL or tough tackling of the Bundesliga and how certain countries, ie Brazil etc, have their own styles as well. I ask because, in exchange for watching the NBA Finals with my friends (my knowledge of basketball is akin to knowing the same rules I knew in grade school), they are watching the World Cup and am fielding lots of questions about styles of play.

        Not to ask too much of you guys. You’re already doing a top notch job and its greatly appreciated.


        • Posted by The Goche on 2010/06/15 at 9:20 AM

          Not to cut in on SG’s readership, because, by all means you should be reading this site, but you should also check out ZonalMarking.net. (I wouldn’t do this on your site SG, but it seems like you are cooperative with them and not directly competing.)

          ZM is a British site that goes into great detail about tactics. SG is by far the best place to get this info for the USMNT and their opponents, but ZM is good because it will give you a more broad view of how other teams play, plus you can get another perspective what makes our team different from others.

          But if SG did an article like this I’d certainly read it too!


          • Posted by cosmosredux on 2010/06/15 at 9:31 AM

            Nope – that’s ok – good site and they linked to our US tactical preview.

            I don’t agree with all their contentions though (i.e. US fullback use because they only watched a few games).


    • I’m just indicating the players I think are questionable. DeMerit picked up a yellow card and I think Bob will want Goodson to get a game so it could happen but we’ll likely see the same back line. DeMerit would be more likely sit out the Algeria game depending on results.

      I’m thinking it’s possible that we’ll see Clark dropped for Edu or Torres against Slovenia.

      Altidore had good moments against England but spurned a handful of chances. I just wonder if Bob might not give Buddle the start for his finishing ability in a game that could be decided by whether we take our chances.

      Great suggestion on a style of play piece… Thanks.


      • Posted by s44 on 2010/06/15 at 9:32 AM

        I think Buddle will start, but at Findley’s expense not Altidore’s. Bob has shown an inclination to use the big broadsword (Ching, Casey) in this sort of situation, including both Altidore and Ching against T&T for the famous hat trick game.


  3. Posted by s44 on 2010/06/15 at 12:31 AM

    The “beat Mexico style” idea is sort of brilliant, but I actually think we’ve developed two styles. First, as you say: Beat Mexico (or at least go toe-to-toe). Second, though: Beat everyone else in CONCACAF, most of whom, at least away (and, against us or Mexico, not infrequently at home!), park the bus in front of their own goal. We’ve had plenty of practice in breaking down defenses.

    I’m also not sure you can call the US and Slovenia the same sort of team. We counterattack because our athleticism is, at this point, more world-class than our skill (even though our collective skill has leaped forward in the last decades). We struggle when we encounter a team that matches our physical prowess (while bettering our skill or tactical understanding) — which is why the England draw was a big result, and why Germany would be a rough matchup. Slovenia, on the other hand, counterattacks because a more open game would expose their lack of athleticism, capitalizing instead on their combined tactical nous. I’d be terrified if we were playing ourselves, but we aren’t.


    • I somewhat disagree with the first point – we haven’t really developed a style against the park-the-bus opponents of CONCACAF. We play the same game and rely on superior athleticism, skill and conditioning to tell eventually.

      Your second point is excellent and a distinction I feel silly for failing to make clear.


      • Posted by dude on 2010/06/15 at 11:35 AM

        I agree. However, we definitely have the players to break down this team in Torres, Holden, Edu, Buddle, and Gomez (I’d say Feilhaber, but he isn’t in form). In essence, we need to play at least one of these players, preferably Torres. I don’t see Findley as doing much against a team, unless he’s developed phasing abilities or something; his speed can’t break down a stay at home defense.


  4. Posted by Ryan R. on 2010/06/15 at 12:45 AM

    If we win by a greater margin than England over Algeria we guarantee advancement? If we then lose to Algeria and England/Slovenia draw, we’re even on points with Slovenia and could become a victim of point differential.


    • Posted by Ryan R. on 2010/06/15 at 12:45 AM

      Sorry. I mean goal differential.


    • I was more thinking along the lines if England win, we’re through, If Slovenia win, we’re through, but you’re actually right…

      We can’t go out and lose 4-0 to Algeria and expect to go through but we might be able to get away with a narrow loss, depending on the goal differential situation after the second match going in…


      • Posted by Ryan R. on 2010/06/15 at 11:05 AM

        Okay, cool. I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t off with that one because I didn’t want us going through on Friday and me not knowing it.


  5. Slovenia didn’t look very good at defending set pieces. I think this is how we will get our goal(s)


  6. Posted by DanPA on 2010/06/15 at 6:10 AM

    I also commend the “beat Mexico” is our style… brilliant.

    In the opening game Slovenia’s defense looked solid, but Algeria didn’t look especially dangerous or creative going forward. Was the Slovenian defense made to look really good by a lackluster Algeria? or did the Slovenians force Algeria away from any dangerous attacking form?

    My impression was that both teams were rather reserved in their attacking and creativity. Algeria seemed to be resigned to mostly playing hopeful balls to their strikers without committing too many midfielders forward… and that didn’t put the Slovenian defense under much pressure.


  7. Posted by Sinn Fein on 2010/06/15 at 7:21 AM

    Great article. Out of curiosity where are you getting the stats about top speed and pass completion %? Or do you point your radar gun at the television screen?


  8. […] Posted by cosmosredux in USA vs. Slovenia, USMNT, World Cup '10. Leave a Comment (This is Part II of IV of our USA vs. Slovenia Preview) (Part I) (Part II) […]


  9. Posted by Dougs on 2010/06/15 at 2:52 PM

    “beat Mexico” style may have been accurate in 2006 but not under Bradley. While being unable to name them offhand I remember a number (4-5) games in the last year or two in which we had to break down an eleven
    man defensive front and did so effectivley through quick passing and triangular play through the midfield. Do any of you remember watching a studio 90 video where bradley is yelling at the players to move the ball more quickly? I think that is because that is the key to scoring on a parked bus — chAnging the direction of the attack quickly.


    • Well, that’s really the point of my piece isn’t it. This game will answer that question – have we really moved on from “beat Mexico”? If we break Slovenia down and score a couple times while staying disciplined and keeping a clean sheet i think magic 8-ball says “outlook looks good”.

      And I’ll say it now – for all the frustration we’ve had with Bob Bradley’s conservatism, it’s turned out that he’s a very good manager indeed.


  10. A bit late to this party, Jonathan Wilson checks in with his preview for SI: http://bit.ly/JwilsonPreview


    • Posted by kaya on 2010/06/16 at 10:55 AM

      Certainly a good article from a tactical standpoint, though he doesn’t venture so far as to make any differentiation in skill level. I suspect he doesn’t see much, if any, but we shall see soon enough.
      I have to take exception to his statement of Gooch’s excellence. Since that first warmup game against Czech Republic, I think we’ve seen he has excellent quick reactions, and a surprising pace (couldn’t believe he matched Rooney), but time and again got caught being undecided, going up and only half commiting. I don’t know if this is because he’s not mentally or physically sharp enough, but besides the SWP run that was shot straight at Timmy, I had the impression that pretty much all of England’s break away chances came from Gooch errors. (I also found it surprising that you pointed the finger at Boca over Gooch for the Gerrard goal.)
      Anyway, the Slovenia game is certain to be a more forgiving one, but I hope Gooch has been spending his time watching tape. (DeMerit, too, for that matter… he was doing a lot of grabbing.)


      • Posted by s44 on 2010/06/16 at 12:58 PM

        It was the man’s first full game in months, against some of the best attackers in the world. He did well, and should improve mental sharpness as long as his body stays fit.


  11. Posted by kaya on 2010/06/16 at 11:01 AM

    I did finally re-watch the England/US game. I’d always found the criticism of Altidore from people shocking… but it’s not at all. Jozy was huffing and puffing 11 minutes in. He seemed out of gas after his nice run around Carragher. Obviously, Bob wanted 2 big target guys when he put Buddle in at 80 minutes, but frankly I think Robbie was the better hold up player. Kind of shocking to say that about a 20 year old, but I have the impression that Jozy really needs to work on his fitness.


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