The United States turned in two differing performances in its two winter friendlies, first losing in Chile before defeating Panama at home. The different circumstances in the matches, along with the wide quality gap between the opponents and the U.S.’s set-up in each, accounted for the results.
The Americans looked uncomfortable and were repeatedly exposed in a new tactical scheme against a second- or third-string Chilean side before a return to the familiar led them to a much-needed victory against Panama. It’s no coincidence the U.S.’s better match came from a well-known foundation.
It’s important not to get caught up in formation, but the U.S. experimented with a three-center-back system in the first before reverting to the 4-2-3-1 in the second.
The trial lasted about 45 minutes, as manager Jurgen Klinsmann returned to a four-back system in the second half against Chile, but it was enough to see that the new idea wasn’t fully cooked.
As Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola once said, formations are no more useful than telephone numbers. Traditional notation offers a highly generalized idea of a team’s identity, but just as phone numbers won’t give a person’s exact location — prior to the age of cell phones, anyway — three or four numbers strung together can’t accurately represent any team’s true ideas in modern football.
The U.S.’s system against Chile featured three central defenders, two holding midfielders and two forwards. An additional midfielder floated between the holding a forward blocks, and the wingbacks were expected to cover the majority of the wide spaces up and down the field.
With the U.S. failing to keep possession, the wingbacks were pinned back and created a five-back look for the team. Brek Shea and DeAndre Yedlin ended up chasing the game and exhausting themselves.
Against Panama, two defensive midfielders again shielded the center backs, but only two played alongside the fullbacks. Additional wide players split the workload in defensive and attacking phases on the flanks, and one shadow and one target striker played off one another in attack.
Philosophical talk about the usefulness of formations aside, the U.S. looked more comfortable and dynamic in the familiar shape used often before the World Cup. It offered a return of more than just people standing in their usual places; the individual roles also returned to the norm.
The fullbacks overlapped in attack, wingers cut inside to support, target forward Jozy Altidore finally had a constant partner from shadow striker Clint Dempsey and central midfielders Mix Diskerud and Michael Bradley took turns stepping forward. Defensively, the U.S. fell back into two standard blocks of four.
Neither system the U.S. primarily used could make up for the absence of a true creative playmaker, as Dempsey is more of a runner than a No. 10, and Diskerud and Bradley play more effectively in deeper, facilitating roles. As a result, players took turns creating by committee, whether a midfielder stepped up or a winger cut inside.
The second goal against Panama provided a perfect example, as Altidore dropped off the front line into the No. 10 space, then Zardes cut inside with the ball as Dempsey burst forward. On the same play, Diskerud looked as if he might try to join the attack but held off to prevent drawing a defender toward Zardes.
At the World Cup and up until these past two games, Bradley has been assigned with the playmaker’s role, but his instinct isn’t that of a natural No. 10. Receiving the ball off the defenders against Chile and Panama, he did not appear to check his shoulders often enough when receiving, which can lead to not seeing open spaces up the field and opting for simpler passes.
However, Bradley’s smart play leading up to his goal against Panama showed why he’s still one of the U.S.’s most important players. After he swung in a dangerous corner kick that nearly nestled inside goalkeeper Jaime Penedo’s near post and planted the idea in his opponents’ minds, he hit the second in quick succession to the opposite post.
Lee Nguyen and Luis Gil, both No. 10s by trade, played in this camp, but Klinsmann didn’t have the confidence to play either from the start and let the game grow around them. Playing as a substitute is a more reactive task, as the game has already been created, and they have to step into it rather than affect its evolution.
While the U.S. showed flashes of ability in the final third in both matches, its play out of the back still lacked. The possession philosophy of which Klinsmann has spoken frequently is still missing in the final product. The team rarely played out of the back against Chile in particular, and defenders specifically failed to make themselves available for short play off goal kicks.
Goalkeeper Nick Rimando waved players forward and launched long ball after long ball. When the U.S. did try to play out, its spacing was off; players and coaches often talk about playing with as few touches as possible in the back, but if their spacing isn’t correct, it won’t be possible.
The U.S.’s poor spacing was personified in near-goals for each opponent: Panama’s Blas Pérez missed a wide-open goal just before halftime after a missed connection between Rimando and Matt Besler; Jermaine Jones gave away a ball at a similar stage the previous game, forcing Rimando into an important 1-on-1 save.
One instance of successful play out of the back set up the U.S.’s second goal against Chile, and it showcased Steve Birnbaum as likely the team’s best center back in terms of possession. He used space effectively in the build-up, moving at supportive angles and making simple passes to allow the U.S. to play out.
Contrast his exemplary body shape and fundamentals with those of Besler and Jones, whose hips were often not square to the field and who didn’t move into the correct angles to make ball movement easy. Defenders are called on to “play simple” out of the back, but it has to be set up with constant movement and adjustments.
In addition, center backs marauding forward is a precarious proposition when done incorrectly, and Jones often drifted too far out of his area of responsibility, making it more difficult for the U.S. to build out.
He consistently crossed zones with his central-defensive partners and was generally too drawn to the ball in both attacking and defensive phases. In possession, he cut off passing lanes to players in better positions by drifting.
Right now, the U.S. still lacks a defining team concept that breeds familiarity and comfort among players with regard to how they should proceed in all situations — or simply put, the team still has no true identity.
The U.S. came closer against Panama to finding what works than against Chile (caveats about the quality of opposition notwithstanding). Again, it’s not about the formation; it’s about the collective idea within the chosen system.
The formation becomes an unnecessary focus when players don’t understand the nuances of what’s being asked of them.
They fall back into comfortable notions of formation rather than roles when they haven’t been properly defined through choreography and repetition in training.
It might be time for Klinsmann to stow his experimental spirit and focus on instilling whatever his personal coaching philosophy dictates as the best way to play. Just as Guardiola’s teams are riddled with his fingerprints, as are José Mourinho’s with his and other top managers with theirs, Klinsmann has to put his stamp on the team.
Forget about fitness. Forget about formation. This is about identity.