By Liviu Bird
June 11, 2014

Across three World Cup warm-up matches, the United States went from looking chaotic and disorganized against two non-World Cup foes to capable against a World Cup-bound opponent. The team’s short-term evolution marked a preparation period that wasn’t world class, but one from which the U.S. has emerged looking solid and up to the task.

Manager Jurgen Klinsmann decided to utilize a diamond midfield and a couple variations after the U.S. played a 4-2-3-1 during the majority of his tenure so far. This came after the firing of assistant coach Martín Vázquez, who was largely in charge of tactics, and a successful showing against Mexico in April. The results over the past few games were mixed, but there is an undeniable difference between the team that landed in São Paulo this week and the one that floundered against Azerbaijan in San Francisco just two weeks ago.

Packed-in Azerbaijan provides unrealistic test

From the first kickoff, it was clear the game against Azerbaijan would be different from anything the U.S. will face in Brazil. A last-minute precautionary change left Clint Dempsey out of the lineup, only exacerbating the trouble the U.S. had in connecting midfield with attack in its opening test.

What was supposed to be a diamond midfield ended up looking like a flat-four set, with the wide men staying closer to the touchlines and Michael Bradley drifting back too far to be much of a traditional playmaker.

Screenshot: ESPN

That allowed Azerbaijan to pressure more effectively in the midfield, especially when a forward dropped in to fill the No. 10 space, empty due to a lack of playmaking presence. That’s always a risk in a flat 4-4-2, and that match reiterated Bradley’s favorite spot on the field: drifting between the holding block and forward block as a box-to-box conduit.

Screenshot: ESPN


The U.S. also struggled to play out of the back against the Azeris, who funneled the ball well defensively. Here, Jermaine Jones drops in to find the ball as Matt Besler’s only option, but as soon as he receives it, he can’t turn or play out effectively, with all his options covered.

Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson advanced too soon, making themselves stagnant and easy to mark. In the end, a 2-0 win was the result the U.S. wanted, but it felt more like pulling teeth than putting on a pair of silk boxers, as the disjointed and frustrated Americans could only score on crosses lumped into the box.

Turkey exposes defensive flaws

Turkey was a much better opponent, and it pushed the U.S. out of its comfort zone and showed several problem spots, primarily along the back line.

Screenshot: ESPN

Chandler in particular had a rough showing, getting pulled around like cotton candy by the mobile Turkish attackers. Here, he steps up too high as a result of Brad Davis getting sucked into the middle, leaving the back side completely exposed to a simple overlapping run by the right back. The problem was largely Turkey’s ability to unlock areas of the field with ball and player movements.

The player serving the ball above is Caner Erkin, Turkey’s left back, and winger Selçuk Inan has cut far inside and between the midfield and defensive lines, which is what causes Chandler to step out of position.

Screenshot: ESPN

Klinsmann countered by inserting Kyle Beckerman, a more disciplined defensive presence, and shifting the U.S. to a flat-four midfield when out of ball possession. However, this put even more pressure on the defense, as Turkey found space to play around the two blocks of four and throw numbers forward, as the U.S. had minimal presence in the forward block.

Screenshot: ESPN

The penalty that resulted in Turkey’s goal came off a series of errors in the back line. Chandler again stepped too high to pressure, causing John Brooks to shift over too far to cover him. Generally, the fullback and center back should never overlap on either side because it leaves massive gaps in the back line if the other center back fails to compensate.

Geoff Cameron doesn’t slide over, leaving space for an easy ball in behind. In his recovery run, Chandler ends up facing his own goal with the ball at his feet, giving it away to a pressuring midfielder. One area that did improve between the Azerbaijan and Turkey matches was the fullbacks’ sense of when to make forward runs. This ability is what saw Fabian Johnson become the U.S.’s most dangerous creator in both of the last two tune-up games.

Unlike the Azerbaijan match, Johnson timed his runs to perfection. In the build-up to his goal, he sees an opportunity for a simple one-two combination with Bradley. Instead of passing early and making it easy to intercept, he dribbles at the defender to commit him to pressuring the ball. Bradley also pulls back to the right angle and keeps his hips open, allowing him to receive across his body and face forward.

A central midfielder facing forward is the fullback’s visual cue that the overlap (or underlap, as Johnson does here) is on, and it ensures he can receive the ball in stride and on the move, preventing the stagnation of the Azerbaijan game.

Nigeria builds U.S. confidence in pragmatic approach

What was supposed to be the U.S.’s most challenging match of the training camp against Nigeria ended up being the easiest, both because Klinsmann set up the team perfectly and because Nigeria played very poorly. The Super Eagles struggled in attack and failed to pressure the ball as a unit defensively throughout the game.

Screenshot: ESPN

The game brought a return of the three-defensive-midfielder formation that Klinsmann played early in qualifying in Honduras, but this time, the individual roles were defined much better and allowed each player to play to their strengths. In essence, it was a diamond midfield again, but with the shadow striker retreating and the wide points of the diamond instructed to track back immediately.

Formations are just convenient notations and starting points, and they don’t define a style of play — as Klinsmann’s words in the lead-up to the match reiterated — so it’s all essentially semantics. The important aspects of any lineup are player movement and patterns. The best systems play to the players’ strengths.

Bradley and Jones both like to be free to drift and find the ball, while Beckerman hardly strays from center. Having him in the lineup with a less-imaginative midfielder such as Alejandro Bedoya filling out the set solved the problem of central midfielders straying at the same time.

Screenshot: ESPN

The U.S. strictly observed a low line of confrontation with extreme discipline in ball pressure. Having a block of three in front of the back line ensured the fullback would never be isolated in a one-on-one situation against an opponent, which would be useful in combating the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo in group play.

Many problems persisted in the back, masked by Nigeria’s inability to capitalize. The center backs were fairly poor defensively, clearing feebly on several occasions. Three holding midfielders could help cover those individual shortcomings against Germany and Portugal.

The U.S. scored one of its best team goals under Klinsmann in this game, which also happened to be Jozy Altidore’s first goal since December. In possession, Dempsey pushed high alongside Altidore, and Jones and Bradley were free to drift and cover ground. The result was dynamic movement in midfield that made keeping the ball much easier.

Altidore’s first goal capped a 14-pass sequence, the opportunity created by Jones moving across midfield and connecting simple passes on the ground and another well-timed underlapping run from Johnson. Nigeria’s lack of ball pressure is also notable, minus both times Jones has the ball, a luxury the Americans probably won’t have once the World Cup kicks off.

Later in the game, a similar sequence almost results in a goal. This 13-pass build-up needed a 14th that it never got, from Dempsey to Altidore on his left, to find its way into the goal. It was another long spell of possession that ended in a goalscoring opportunity — the kind of play that Klinsmann promised when he was hired but has only provided sporadically so far.

Make-or-break game vs. Ghana nears

Based on both teams’ form heading into the first group game, the U.S. has a good chance to get three points against Ghana on Monday. Beyond that, the group gets much more challenging, as Germany and Portugal have the ability to draw out the U.S.’s defensive troubles.

Despite having a largely different crop of players from the one the U.S. faced in 2010, Ghana will provide similar challenges to four years ago: an athletic team that goes to goal quickly after winning the ball, especially in the midfield and final third. A disciplined defensive showing like the U.S. had against Nigeria would go a long way toward ensuring it flies away from Natal with at least a draw.

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