The United States's 2-2 draw with Mexico Wednesday night included an overwhelming start that gave way to a blown lead, but add in a new formation and Julian Green's highly anticipated debut, and it was worth staying up late to watch.
For the first time in Jürgen Klinsmann’s time as head coach, the U.S. trotted out a diamond midfield, anchored by Real Salt Lake holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who plays the same role for his club team. Brad Davis and Graham Zusi, usually wingers, had more withdrawn starting positions, and Michael Bradley floated freely in the middle.
The formation allowed Bradley to excel, and it offered a new look that the U.S. could deploy to stifle an opponent’s creation through the middle. Green made his first appearance, and he did about as well as an 18-year-old first-timer should in international competition, while another young substitute, DeAndre Yedlin, had a much stronger showing in his second senior cap, looking confident and clean on the ball.
Meanwhile, the problems at the back still exist. Center back Omar González played a big part in both Mexico goals, and his awareness fell well short on the second one in particular. The main talking point after the game, though, is the midfield and the options at Klinsmann's disposal.
Bradley runs the show
Bradley will be the key to any American success in Brazil. Having him on the ball, turned and facing forward, is the U.S.’s best bet for exploiting anything an opponent’s defense may concede. Again on Wednesday, his soccer IQ was evident, as he made runs into the correct spaces and picked his passes well.
Partnering with Kyle Beckerman was an obvious difference that allowed Bradley to have the game he did. However, Bradley’s performance doesn’t really change depending on his partner. Take a look at his passing charts from Wednesday, the June 11 qualifier against Panama (probably his best game for the U.S.) and the June 18 qualifier against Honduras:
Against Panama, Bradley played with Geoff Cameron in the holding block because Jermaine Jones was out with a concussion. Jones, who often receives the blame for Bradley not reaching his full potential, returned against Honduras. Bradley’s passing maps don’t show much correlation with whom his partner is.
The thing that does change is that partner’s performance and the role he tries to play. It’s more of a spacing issue than anything, as Jones also likes to get forward into spaces Bradley patrols, while Beckerman is content to sit on top of the center backs and hold his positioning.
Beckerman is a destroyer type of classic defensive midfielder (coaches call this the No. 6 role), while Jones and Bradley both want to play box-to-box (the No. 8). Klinsmann has referred to the Jones-Bradley relationship as a 6-8 dynamic in the past, but that’s not the way Jones plays.
Looking at Jones’ passing against Honduras, the higher up the field he goes and the more direct he becomes with the ball, the less success he has. Contrast that with Bradley’s chart, where the dots in the attacking half are still overwhelmingly green.
Simply put, Jones tries to do too much and pushes himself outside his ability. He tries to thread the impossible ball nearly every time and winds up losing possession. The beauty of Beckerman’s game is in its simplicity. He stays disciplined in his positioning, connects short, manageable passes and, as a result, executes to near 100 percent of his potential every time. (Real Salt Lake fans already know all of this.)
But can he do it at a World Cup, on the biggest international level against world-class powerhouses Portugal and Germany?
Jones probably could, if he adopted the same kind of mentality Beckerman. Based on the level of play Jones has experienced and the qualities he has shown he does possess — regardless of whether he wants to use them — he could, but he needs to simplify his game.
Perhaps in trying to shirk the reputation of being prone to yellow cards, Jones has gone away from what made him an attractive option for Klinsmann in the No. 6 role.
Diamonds: forever stifling
Klinsmann knows his team’s best chance in Brazil lies in remaining patient and disciplined defensively. In his halftime interview with ESPN against Mexico, he said he liked his team’s compactness in the diamond formation. When he drew up the lineup on the board in the locker room, he emphasized his desire to “stay compact and connected.”
The diamond midfield allows for easy compactness because it’s built into the players’ starting positions. As with Barcelona’s fabled triangles in its passing game, the diamond can move all over the field and involve more than the four midfield players, which fits nicely into Clint Dempsey’s desire to roam as the shadow striker:
In every formation, a team concedes something. In a 4-4-2 diamond — just as in a 4-3-3, which the diamond morphed from — that space is the wide areas. That’s why Tony Beltrán looked so helpless early in the game, and that’s why Mexico found success by quickly changing the point of attack from a set piece on its second goal.
Numbers are concentrated in the middle defensively, which works against a team that plays three central midfielders and relies on them to create. However, it might not be the best course of action against Germany or Portugal. The U.S. playing a diamond midfield could isolate Cristiano Ronaldo against the right back and Thomas Müller against the left back, and that won’t end well for any U.S. player (or many others around the world).
In the attack, a diamond is also the easiest formation to get proper spacing as a team builds out of the back. Instead of a flat line of four or two lines of midfielders, the diamond offers four receiving lines in front of the center backs. The more levels a team can create with its shape, the easier it is to find pockets of space.
The goal in a diamond midfield is to get the central midfielders turned and facing forward. Once that happens, the diamond creates natural overloads and stretches defenses. If opponents don’t compensate for the overload, building through the middle is an option. If they pull defenders in, it creates one-on-one isolation or two-on-one overloads wide.
This sort of tactical nuance exists in every system, and players must be informed of the coach’s goals to make them aware of how to build play. This is why the majority of training sessions are closed: seeing the sausage get made would make it pretty obvious what a team is trying to do. It takes repetition upon repetition to get a team clicking in just one formation, and with the sporadic nature of national team camps, that makes it even more difficult.
Here’s another example of the diamond in a build-up, higher up the field, from just before Eddie Johnson’s late disallowed goal:
Michael Parkhurst, Clarence Goodson, Clint Dempsey and Bradley have created a four-on-three central overload here. Maurice Edu is retreating to cover for the advancing center back, Goodson, and Green is isolated against his defender. The ball winds up getting cleared, but a similar build-up to this one moments later results in Johnson being sprung through on goal and finishing well, only to see the flag go up.
One more camp until Brazil
Probably the biggest lesson that the U.S. is still trying to grasp is that the level of play that Germany and Portugal — and Ghana, but to a lesser extent — will provide at the World Cup will be echelons higher than anything the Americans experienced in this four-year cycle. The game against Mexico provided no new information, but the same themes continue to be reinforced.
The defense still looks suspect. Attacking creators, besides Bradley, are still lacking. The clock is ticking, and the U.S. still has not found an answer for those two huge areas of concern, whether it’s down to tactical instruction or personnel selection.
However, the future looks a little less dim. Green and Yedlin played well considering their experience levels, and a third talented young player, Luis Gil, also went through the whole camp and ended up sitting on the bench on Wednesday. Another challenge will be balancing the need to get them experience with the need for immediate results. One or two of them would benefit from being in Brazil to take it all in.