Tactical choices in the center key to USA-Mexico CONCACAF Cup playoff
Neither the United States nor Mexico heads into the CONCACAF Cup match in an ideal situation. Unrest has been the theme since the Gold Cup, with Mexico battling–yet appearing to narrowly avoid–key injuries sans a full-time manager and Jurgen Klinsmann still with some calls to make in regard to his first-choice lineup.
Through the chaos in each camp, the key on Oct. 10 will likely be each team’s defensive approach. The finer details—player selection and formations—could change, but the broad strokes should remain the same because coaches don’t have time to drastically change now.
Given the caginess that one-off matches of great importance tend to carry, Saturday's will probably be a close game, so not conceding the first goal will be important. Matches with something at stake between the two have been a mixed bag recently, with the U.S. winning by two goals, Mexico winning by two and the teams playing a scoreless draw in the past three non-friendlies.
The team that tempers the game’s usual emotions and maintains its composure will likely be the winner. If the last set of friendlies is any indication, Mexico is better equipped to handle the match-up right now than the Americans. Here are some clues into how both teams may approach the playoff for CONCACAF's 2017 Confederations Cup berth based on their most recent performances.
Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti reverted to El Tri’s five-man back line against Argentina in the first game since Miguel Herrera’s firing, and the team seemed to find comfort in the familiarity of the organizational buffer it provided. Before falling apart in the last 10 minutes and settling for a draw, Mexico effectively kept Lionel Messi and Carlos Tévez at an arm’s length from goal.
Playing with five in the back ensures cover when players step out of the low block to pressure. When wingbacks Miguel Layún and Israel Jiménez moved forward, the central defenders and opposite-side wingback slid across to maintain a four-man line.
The same principle applies when a center back steps into midfield defensively. The other two tuck in behind him, and at least one of the wide men also takes a narrower position to keep the back line compact and provide balance.
Proper cover in midfield is also essential, and particularly magnifying José Vázquez’s role in his return to the starting lineup against Argentina. He played as the single holding man, rather than the two that Mexico deploys in its 4-4-2 system.
His presence allowed captain Andrés Guardado (who seems to have overcome an ankle injury to feature in the playoff in short order) and Héctor Herrera freedom to press in the middle, leaving Argentina with no outlet for simple entry passes into midfield. At the right moments, Vázquez could also step up to a free player and cut off a central passing lane.
The forwards were disconnected defensively at times against Argentina, but Javier Hernández’s work rate somewhat made up for that. He chased opposing defenders when they were on the ball, not allowing them a calm moment to pick passes.
His teammates maintained their compactness behind him and made possession difficult, leading to long balls and other low-percentage attempts.
In the back, injured captain Rafa Márquez’s qualities are well-known to American players in recent cycles. However, Diego Reyes and Héctor Moreno offer a vast amount of international experience and one-on-one ability should he not be 100% fit for the match, in contrast with the U.S. defenders through which Klinsmann has been shuffling since the 2014 World Cup.
It could be part inexperience and part Klinsmann’s incessant tinkering, but that pairing on the field has been one of the U.S.’s weak spots. Ventura Alvarado, John Brooks, Omar González and Michael Orozco all started in central defense against Peru and Brazil, and no combination of players looked particularly comfortable. Brooks and Gonzalez won't be with the U.S. Saturday night, but Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler enter the carousel as two veteran options. With DaMarcus Beasley and Fabian Johnson seemingly entrenched at the fullback spots, Cameron and Besler could step in between them.
The position is not the only place where the U.S. has been unsettled recently. The players in front of U.S. center backs have also endured changes. Jermaine Jones played 90 minutes against Peru and 72 against Brazil, having not spent more than an hour on the field at once since his springtime injury, and he showed his usual propensity to drift all around the field.
He played as the anchor against Peru before Klinsmann tried Alejandro Bedoya in that position against Brazil, yanking him partway through the first half. Neither Jones nor Bedoya provided much of an organizational presence in defense, and the U.S. shape remained far too stretched.
Thinking about defensive compactness, it’s not just about being mindful of the total horizontal and vertical space that players take up. It’s also the space between them and within units that can be exploited, which Brazil did with its probing possession play.
Rather than pressing high to shut down Brazil’s build-up, the U.S. fell back and pressed individually rather than as a unit. Brazil had no trouble playing through the intermittent pressure, resulting in several frustrating moments for the Americans.
Once again, Michael Bradley played a higher position than the regista-type role he filled during the last round of World Cup qualifying. Beginning with the World Cup itself, Bradley has been seemingly trying to play every midfield role at the same time, which is impossible for anybody to do effectively at the international level.
Many marveled at the statistics detailing how much ground he covered in Brazil, but as much as it was a manifestation of his endless work rate, it was also a product of his undefined and wide-ranging responsibilities. Harnessing that energy and channeling it into a spot where Bradley could help the U.S. most should be Klinsmann’s goal, and he hasn’t been doing that in the primary playmaker’s position.
Even as the anointed No. 10, he still dropped back deep into midfield to find the ball against Brazil, leaving Jozy Altidore by himself as a distant target to chase down long balls. For maximum effectiveness and to mesh with his natural tendencies, Bradley might be more effective with a lower starting position, paired with a stay-at-home No. 6 such as Kyle Beckerman, who has played in three of the last four U.S. matches against Mexico.
It does no good to have Bradley checking back and either facing his own goal with the ball at his feet—as a hold-up forward would do, but much lower on the field—and leaving Altidore disconnected. As an undefined drifter, Bradley leaves the U.S. without a steady presence just ahead of the back line and behind the front line, negatively affecting defensive organization and whether the U.S. can win possession in higher areas.
The Americans hardly ever recovered the ball in the top half of the field against Brazil. They made seven recoveries and two interceptions, while Brazil corralled 15 loose balls and intercepted four in its attacking half.
Similar to the way Mexico played against Argentina, Brazil pressed high and collectively, leaving no space for the U.S. to play out.
If El Tri displays the same mentality at the Rose Bowl, the Americans will find it difficult to get into any sort of rhythm on the ball, which the players and coaches said was a main topic of training during the September window.
Meanwhile, the Americans haven’t settled on a steady defensive system, with players trying to learn new roles on the fly against international-level opponents. As much as Klinsmann and the media have focused on central defense as a major gap, central midfield also desperately needs sorting out.
Particularly with regard to the team’s defensive shape, it will be difficult to reverse the progression of results and style of play since the World Cup without those two areas down the spine of the team locked in.