All the talk at the African Cup of Nations in January was of how Algeria had decided to abandon the three-at-the-back system that has been habitual in North Africa for a couple of decades (and with which Egypt has won three successive Cups of Nations) and adopt a back four.
After an opening 3-0 loss to Malawi -- which at the time was ranked 73 places below it in the world rankings -- while using three in the back, Algeria switched to a four. The Algerians proceeded to keep clean sheets against Mali and Angola, then beat Ivory Coast in the quarterfinal, only to lose discipline in a 4-0 defeat to Egypt in the semifinal. Rangers center back Madjid Bougherra spoke in favor of a four, making the point that a back four operating zones is easier for players who do not regularly play together because it requires less interaction and mutual understanding than a three.
Sure enough, Algeria began the World Cup with a back four against Slovenia, although with no orthodox left-sided midfielder, left back Nadir Belhadj had license to get forward almost as though he were a wing back. That seemed to cause Slovenia initial confusion, but it was notable that by halftime Miso Brecko, the Slovenia right back, was beginning to take advantage of his lack of defensive responsibility to become an extra man in midfield, which is probably the main reason Slovenia had come to control the game even before Abdelkader Ghezzal's red card.
Against England, though, Algeria coach Rabah Saadane reverted to a far more orthodox back three. One of the reasons 3-5-2 and its variants have largely gone out of fashion (although it seems to be making something of a comeback at this tournament) is the prevalence of 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. Against a customary 4-4-2, two center backs mark two center forwards with a spare man, with the wing backs given the green light to advance, ideally pressing the opposing wide midfielders back onto their fullbacks. A team playing 3-5-2 overmans three-to-two in central midfield, the wing backs tend to be forced deep by opposing wingers, leaving three central defenders to deal with one center forward. One spare man is fine; two is redundancy, allowing the side playing the lone central striker to overman elsewhere, usually from the fullback positions. Of course, one of those two spare central defenders could push into midfield, but if he does that he may as well be a midfielder to start with.
England, bewilderingly, played into Algeria's hands, with forwards Wayne Rooney and Emile Heskey both deployed high up the pitch in what was effectively a straight 4-4-2, allowing Bougherra and Antar Yahia to mark them, with Rafik Halliche operating as a spare man. Had Rooney dropped off into an attacking midfield position, as he did in qualifying, then one of those three central defenders would have been pulled out into an unnatural position, and holes would have been created for England to try to exploit from the flanks.
England's failure to do that was one reason it was unable to create opportunities, and it surely suggests that U.S. coach Bob Bradley should play with a single striker -- or, if with two, then at least instruct one of them to make darts in behind the wing backs, as Charlie Davies did so effectively against Spain's fullbacks in the Confederations Cup a year ago. The likelihood is that Bougherra, a splendidly uncompromising figure, will pick up Jozy Altidore, who is unlikely to enjoy the physical advantage he did against Marko Suler in the Slovenia game.
Algeria's greatest deficiency is at center forward, and it was notable against England that it pretty much operated without one, with Karim Matmour, usually an advanced midfielder, functioning as a "false nine," or dropping deep from a center forward position. That is the main reason Algeria so often seemed able to find passing options in midfield -- as England holder Gareth Barry effectively dealt with two men -- but also why Algeria, despite shading the possession stats, created next to nothing in the way of clear chances.
Against the U.S., it's hard to know whether Saadane will stick to his policy of containment, or whether his ambitions will stretch to seeking the win that could take his side to the last 16. It seems probable he will opt for a cautious start, probably with Matmour as a false nine again, with Ryad Boudebouz and Karim Ziani -- excellent against England -- used to support him from midfield. He then has the possibility of either Ghezzal, his suspension now served, or Rafik Djebbour to come from the bench and offer a more natural center forward's threat.
There seem to be two areas where the battle will be lost and won. The first is, as ever, in the center of midfield, where Michael Bradley probably needs a defensive presence alongside him -- presumably Ricardo Clark or Maurice Edu -- to handle Boudebouz and Ziani. The other is where the U.S.' wide midfielders meet the Algerian wing backs. The two areas are related -- assuming Algeria plays as it did against England -- by the way when Algeria is out of possession, Boudebouz and Ziani drop wide to try to prevent the opposing fullbacks from pushing on.
Clint Dempsey's battle against Foued Kadir will be intriguing, but the key matchup should be between Landon Donovan, who has had a superb tournament so far, and Belhadj. The Slovenia left back is a natural attacking player, and if he can impose himself upon Donovan, forcing him back and making him stay wide, the U.S. may find itself lacking a creative edge. If Donovan gets the better of Belhadj, though, then Algeria's already limited attacking options are reduced even more.
In those wide areas, it's essential the U.S. gets its fullbacks forward. Even if Steven Cherundolo, who formed such an effective partnership with Donovan against England, or Carlos Bocanegra do no more than occupy Boudebouz and Ziani, that at least should allow Michael Bradley and his midfield partner to engage Algeria's two central midfielders, Hassan Yebda and Mehdi Lacen, rather than letting them function -- as they often did against England -- as an additional defensive shield.
Against Slovenia, the U.S. lost the first half by ceding the center, and won the second by regaining control and exploiting Altidore's physical advantage. Here the Americans seem to have a clear advantage in attacking wide areas, demanding a more thoughtful approach to work the ball to Dempsey and Donovan than the inspired muscularity that turned the game against Slovenia.
Jonathan Wilson is the author ofInverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.