Formation Migration

Wednesday, August 04, 2010 | View Comments
TSHWANE, June 23, 2010 Coach of the United States Bob Bradley reacts during the 2010 World Cup Group C soccer match against Algeria at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Tshwane, South Africa, June 23, 2010. The United States won 1-0.

As we close in the Brazil match, I think it's a fitting time to take a look forward to Brazil 2014. Many throughout the soccer media and blogosphere have put together lists of who could be on the plane, more interesting to me is what will the team look like. Who develops, who avoids injuries, who is on top form come 2014 is impossible to guess. However, by looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the pools instead of individuals, we can form a general idea of what the overall team’s strengths and weakness will be. Building a formation that plays to the strengths of the pool rather than the individuals creates the team style that we've all been looking for the US to develop. Accentuating the strengths and hiding the weaknesses of the pool should be the goal.

The 4-4-2 that Bob Bradley used sporadically in early 2009 and throughout the last 12 months succeeded to a certain extent in hiding the US’ weaknesses. When possible better defending side backs (Bocanegra and Cherundolo) and central midfielders capable of defending well (Bradley, Clark, and Edu) attempted to reinforce a back pairing vulnerable to ground passes. Goal scoring was handled by a talented midfield while opportunities were created for them by using a bull (Altidore) and space created by a cheetah (Davies, then Findley).

But the next four years will see departures, development, and new arrivals. Below is my analysis of each positions’ strengths and weaknesses (with links to Keith's analysis of the pool) followed by an analysis of how those strengths and weaknesses fit together.

Positional Analysis

Goalkeeper – Doesn’t matter, it’s not going to effect the formation. But they’ll still be good.

Center Backs – The strengths of the center back pool are their size and strength. Many are projecting a Gooch/Gonzalez CB pair that would be 12 feet, 9 inches and 420 pounds in the central defense. This group is not the fastest, while most of them aren’t slow compared to you or me, in the upper echelons of soccer, they have average speed at best.

Side backs (Left and Right) – That the two side backs on the 2010 World Cup roster who are under 30 were both converted forwards should be a sign about this player pool; defense is not their forte. With the exception of Spector, this player pool does not have Bocanegra type players who can play CB or a SB equally well. But compared to their CB brethren, this group is fast. In fact, compared to elite soccer players, some members of this group are fast. They also have a decent bit of attacking prowess.

Central midfield – Depth, depth, and more depth. It’s time like this where I wish we could trade national team players. I’m sure we could find some country who would take some beefy 6’3” CB and Sacha Kljestan for an above average striker. But really this group can that has players that can do just about anything that you would want them to do. Defend, yes. Score, yes. Pass, yes. As a group they maybe a little light on dribble technique, that’s about all I’ve got for weaknesses.

Wings – This is again a position where the US has a lot of cover and individuals that can do most anything that a coach could wish for. This group has tons of pace, decent dribbling skills for breaking down defenses, can be the creative forces of the team, can score, and can even get back and defend. Surprisingly though there is a general lack of great crossers from the flanks. This is more a group that likes to cut in towards goal.

Forwards – This is probably the toughest group to break down. We can safely assume that the US will have some speedy striker options and some power striker options. What we don’t know is whether anyone in this pool will be a great finisher come 2014.

Formation Analysis

Starting from the back begins to limit what formations make sense for the US to play. With a relatively non-diverse center back pool and no standout defensive options in the side back pool, playing three across the back is a non-starter. That leaves us with two center backs anchoring the formation.

With two slowish CBs in the middle, defensive support will be required from other positions to fill gaps. Because the side back positions will necessarily have their own defensive responsibilities with attacking wingers, a defensive midfielder is probably a necessity.

Because of the size and strength of the CB pairing, the US should not be highly vulnerable to crosses. This means the side backs need only prevent wingers from cutting into the box. This does not require highly skilled tacklers, phenomenal positional awareness, or other great defensive capabilities, it requires decent tactical awareness and great speed. It also should allow for the side backs to get forward on a regular basis. All of these characteristics play into the pool’s strengths and result in players playing more like wingbacks than fullbacks.

With the attacking capacity of having wingbacks over fullbacks, employing traditional side midfielders is redundant. Moreover, the lack of crossing skill in the winger pool makes this not a huge loss. Not having side midfielders eliminates the possibility of a 4-4-2, a 4-4-1-1, or a 4-2-3-1. By stationing the defensive midfielder in the hole in front of the center backs, space is created to use two center midfielders, the position the US is currently deepest in. The center midfielder pool is filled with players who have played both central midfielder and side midfield in the current 4-4-2, having a skill set that allows them to play a little wider than a traditional center mid. Players like Feilhaber, Kljestan, and Torres have this combination of skills.

With eight players positioned the formation looks like this:


         CB        CB
WB        DM         WB
         CM       CM

Here’s where things get interesting. There are a number of ways to configure the final three positions. The primary three being 1) three on top to form the classic WW, 2) an attacking midfielder and two center forwards for a diamond midfield and 3) a variation of the 4-3-2-1, Christmas tree could be used.

A non-traditional (read non-symmetrical) option would be to have one attacking midfielder and one center forward and a single winger. This winger could either be constrained to one side or have the freedom to float back and forth as the game progressed.

More than the rest of the formation, the placement of the three primary attackers will depend on who develops and who is on form throughout the cycle. Because of the current state of the striker pool, the US is probably better off in a formation using one true striker supported by several surrounding players. Removing most of the defensive responsibility from a support player like Donovan would alter his positioning on the field allowing him to give a lone striker support that he cannot give in his current role. The combinations that give this support are comprised of attacking midfielders and hybrid midfielders/forwards. The number of right foot options cutting in from the left side makes that side the more likely to house a single wing forward.

Since before the Confederations Cup, Brazil used an unbalanced formation. Unbalanced formations will likely become more common over the next four years as a way to create mismatches and open space for attackers. The US could benefit from this trend. In a formation with a single winger on the left, space is opened on the right for the right sided central midfielder (likely Michael Bradley) to move forward into the box. It also allows a centrally stationed attacking midfielder (perhaps Holden, Donovan, or Dempsey) to cheat slightly right to find space when necessary. As of now, Bradley still owns the record for most goals by a US international in a European club season. Until two strikers can prove to be better goal scorers than Bradley, Donovan, and Dempsey, it makes sense to create a formation that puts these players in positions to score.

Overall, this type of formation creates the passing triangles that stimulate possession. At the same time, the aging of our best defensive sidebacks means the US will lose some of its ability to withstand pressure. However, the talent pool is beginning to generate the players needed to play a more possession based game as way to alleviate pressure on the US defense. The pieces are all there to make a change to a radically different system.

A couple of side notes:

Thanks to Must Read Soccer, after I wrote the vast majority of this piece, I saw this article, about the WW formation, which only intensifies the rationale for migrating to this formation.

If Bob Bradley stays on as coach, I think we will see him tinker with these types of formations, because he has already tried a similar formation in a very important game for the US. As I was writing this post, I realized that this was a very similar formation that he used in the ill-fated Costa Rica game at Saprissa. Bradley went for speed and attacking from the side back positions with Beasley and Wynne. And while it was listed as a 4-3-3, it was more of a 4-3-1-2 with Donovan playing the role of support striker/attacking midfielder sitting centrally behind Altidore and Dempsey.

In that Costa Rica match, the US looked like it had no clue what it was doing in the new formation. Missed tackles by Torres and Mastroeni and Wynne’s decision to force a winger inside instead of outside resulted in goals against the US, resulting in a formation change at halftime and destroying any hope that Bradley may have had in moving to this formation for the 2010 World Cup. However, conceptually this type of formation makes sense for the US talent pool and they make sense from a tactical standpoint to counteract the 4-2-3-1. With a cycle to implement it, and the maturation of the necessary pieces, I think Bob would give it another go. However, with the importance of the Gold Cup, I can see him waiting until after then to make the change.
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