Friendly Takeaway

Wednesday, October 13, 2010 | View Comments
USA's midfielder Jermaine Jones (15) battles for the ball with Colombia's midfielder John Valencia during their international friendly soccer match in Chester, Pennsylvania, October 12, 2010. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT SOCCER)

Why all the hate of the 4-3-3? Yes, it turned into a 4-1-4-1. Yes, it looked uncomfortable. Yes, it produced no shots on goal. Well, I guess with these factors going against it, I can understand the hate. But, I find myself in counterpoint again to a vocal portion of the US fan base. Here’s what I saw in these two games that gives me hope.

The fan base has been clamoring for a change to a more attacking, possession based formation. They got what they wanted in the 4-3-3.

And it wasn’t effective.

This was particularly the case on the front line. So, let’s break down that line in this formation. Jozy isn’t yet to the level that he can be effective as a single striker. Holden is much better passing the ball than making runs at defenders. Shea, while skill-wise is a good fit for that wing position, received his first cap and showed the accompanying nerves. With this the case, it should not be that surprising that the US struggled to create opportunities. Contrary to popular belief, there is a reason that the US has played a 4-4-2; its players are currently best suited for a 4-4-2.

Transitioning to a possession oriented, attacking team is not going to be pretty. Too many of the traits and tactics that made the 4-4-2 effective for the US are counterproductive in an alternative formation. For example, the dump pass into the deep corner works great in the 4-4-2. Either the side midfielder receives the ball and has two targets in the box or one of the central forwards peels out and the side midfielder makes a diagonal run into the space left by the forward. We’ve seen this second tactic consistently in US games over the last couple years. Long ball down the side, Altidore peels off, receives the ball, makes a move, passes to the diagonal run of Dempsey or Donovan.

In the 4-3-3, this tactic doesn’t work if it is the striker receiving the ball in the corner. If Altidore receives the ball in the corner. There is not another striker in the middle to create space for the diagonal run. Leaving a cross or back pass as the only options. The cross is not a solid option because only the opposite winger is in a good position in the box. This leaves the attack killing backpass as the best option. Too often, Altidore was on the receiving end of long balls into the corners because the wingers weren't there.

The wingers weren't there because, there are tactics that don’t work in the counterattacking 4-4-2 style that are essential to an effective 4-3-3. In the 4-3-3, more of the width needs to be provided by the side backs. This allows the three midfielders to stay central and dominate possession and the two wingers to stay forward. This didn’t happen last night. With Spector rarely getting forward, Holden was forced to check down. The experience on the left side was similar, but to a lesser extent. With the wingers checking down to provide the width, the formation changes into a 4-1-4-1 which is why it was Jozy chasing down the balls in the corner.

For the side backs to provide width, they need time to get forward. This time can be created by the interaction of the central defenders and the central midfield. A ball turned over played into the central midfield, back to the central defenders, then back up to the central midfield gives the side backs time to enter the attack from their defensive positions. On the second possession by the central midfield, the passing options should have developed; internal passing among the central midfield, passes outside to the sidebacks, diagonal balls to the wingers, and the through or over the top ball to the striker. The time necessary to get into these positions, of course, stymies the counterattack and deep long ball on which the US has survived. But if the goal is possession, the counterattack should not be the primary option after a turnover.

This summer, I discussed at length where I thought the US should be heading based on the projected talent pool in 2014. These past two matches has done little to change my opinion. Jermaine Jones looks capable of playing any of the three central midfield positions. Eric Lichaj looked very good going forward and his defending was solid for a first cap. Outside of blown clearances, the defense was solid, even without Onyewu being match fit. While playing in the 4-4-2, the offense had rhythm even without Donovan.

If the US is to use a possession oriented formation, its going to have to sacrifice results. Villarreal generally plays with two up top. So for Jozy to develop into a player capable of playing as a single striker, he is going to have to get that experience (and the poor offensive performances that come with this) with the national team. For the side backs to find the right balance, they are going to get caught out occasionally. For the central midfielders to find their short passing rhythm, there are going to be bad turnovers that lead to breakaways.

Effectively playing a possession oriented formation will require growth from the players in the talent pool. With that growth, there will be growing pains. The US is not in a position where it can seamlessly transition from one style to another. If we really want to see the US become a team that can hold possession and work an offense, its going to require time and patience.
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