The Middle Game

Tuesday, June 14, 2011 | View Comments
By Jason Kuenle

Oversimplifying soccer tactics, there are three basic ways to approach a match: 1) be an aggressor, 2) defend and counter, or 3) bunker and only defend. The US, under Bob Bradley, has established their game plans for dealing with 1) and 3). What remains is effectively dealing with teams that employ a defend and counter approach against the US. Looking at results from the past two years, the magnitude of this issue comes into focus. In many ways, the success that the US has had over the past ten years and more pointedly in the Confederations and World Cups, has influenced and will influence how teams play against the US. While top teams around the world will continue to bring the game to the US, the second tier of European countries, Ghana in the World Cup, and Panama this past weekend have highlighted the US struggles against counter-attacking teams.

First, I think there is some subtle distinction between 2) and 3) that often gets overlooked. Putting numbers behind the ball does not automatically equal bunkering. Bunkering is when there is not a tactical plan to attack from that defensive position. It is an approach marked by hopeful long balls and two to three players being involved in the counterattack. It is the tactic that the US used against top competition for years, though the US now rarely bunkers. Against top teams, the US now has what marks a defend and counter team, a tactical plan to come out of its defensive position and orchestrate organized counterattacks that exploit one-on-one matchups. It is this that separates defend and counter from bunker.

To understand the US weakness against the counterattack, a quick look at the tactics against the other two types of opponents is helpful. Against teams that come in as the aggressor, the US uses a defend and counter scheme. By playing a compact and organized 4-4-2, the US creates the typical 8 man defensive box that is effective in choking off most attacks. The finer tactical points that makes this system a counterattacking system and not a bunker is that Dempsey plays with slightly less defensively responsibilities than the other midfielders allowing him to play higher and join in the counter sooner. Donovan’s speed on the other side allows him to usually outpace his defender to also join the counter while still maintaining full defensive responsibilities. Finally, Bradley's job in this scheme is to provide the late support if the front four have managed to keep possession. These players combined with any two strikers create one-on-one situations in the counter. When a US player wins that one-on-one, it usually results in a goal scoring opportunity and often results in a goal (see Altidore versus Spain, Donovan and Dempsey versus Brazil, and Davies versus Mexico).

On the other side, against teams that bunker, the US brings players more permanently into the attack and has now brought on central defenders more capable of possession and in late game situations removing a defensive midfielder and bringing in Feilhaber or Kljestan. This game plan was played to perfection in the win over Canada. Bradley was brought more permanently into the attack, as were Cherundolo and Bocanegra while Ream and Goodson provided more incisive passing on the ground to midfielders in advanced positions. Canada’s counterattack was not well organized, in that it rarely created the one-on-one situations that the counterattack seeks to exploit. Because of the lack of consistent counterattack from Canada, the US could commit players forward and still not be overwhelmed defensively. Similarly, when teams that began a match playing a defend and counter style have taken the lead and choose to bunker or have reached a point in the match of playing for a draw, the US has been moderately successful in prying the defenses open and scoring late goals (see Clark versus Trinidad and Tobago, Bradley versus Costa Rica, Donovan and Bradley versus Slovenia, Donovan versus Algeria, Agudelo versus South Africa, Altidore and Dempsey versus Canada, Cherundolo being fouled to set up the free kick for Goodson’s goal versus Panama). In comparison to the list of goals against aggressive teams, these goals have a much greater tendency to involve players like Clark and Cherundolo in the build up and finish.

Defend and counter teams have given the US a lot of trouble in the past twenty-four months. Slovakia, Denmark, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Ghana, Poland, Paraguay, and Panama all took points from the US using this general approach. Unlike defending against an opponent who is bringing the game to you which requires disciplined team defending, the key to defending the counter is disciplined individual defending. Both of Panama’s goals were set up by losing individual defensive battles. While the yellow against Jones was probably unjustified, it was going to be called a foul giving Panama the set piece chance. Ream’s terrible decision to swing away lost his individual matchup and gave away the penalty.

Unfortunately, the US talent pool does not have many defenders that are complete packages defensively. In many ways the defender pool is the mirror image of the US attacking pool. As discussed above, the US attackers have the talent to win enough individual matchups on the counter to make it a usable strategy. In contrast, the US defenders are not so talented that they can keep the counterattack from being a usable strategy. Cherundolo and DeMerit are probably the most solid defenders, but both will soon lose enough pace to fall out of that category. Bocanegra has already lost a step; Ream and to a lesser extent Goodson can be beaten with strength or speed; Bornstein and Edu have positioning errors too regularly; Onyewu has not been effective when paired with the younger backs; Lichaj and Chandler are both great assets in the attack, but questions remain about their ability to defend; and Jones makes rash decisions in defending. For all of their individual flaws, the US performs very well with team defending (except when Onyewu is the organizer) which is a testament to the team’s organization and why the US defends better against aggressors (time to organize) and teams that bunker (numerical advantage).

When you look at the countries that can routinely beat good counterattacking sides, you generally see experienced players at the back with high level European experience. The US came closest to that from 2007 to 2009 with both Bocanegra and Onyewu at the peaks of their careers. Through that time, that combination recorded clean sheets against counterattacking countries including Switzerland, Poland, Guatemala, and Trinidad and Tobago. Since Bocanegra has been moved wide and Onyewu went out with his knee injury, the US has looked much more susceptible to counterattacking teams. At the same time, the changes at the back and elsewhere, made the US a better defend and counter team. So, while you see the US struggling more against defend and counter teams, you see the US simultaneously do better against aggressors. In my opinion, the US have become the second best defend and counter national team in the world behind Germany. Unfortunately, the number of teams that will play aggressively against the US from the opening whistle has dropped to a dozen or so.

With the growing reputation of the US, teams that may have played the aggressor five years ago will now be taking the defend and counter approach. The change in tactics required of this shift in opponent strategy is that “next step” that many keep calling the US to take. The US talent pool is too good at the defend and counter tactic to not make that its primary strategy. This works if the US finds that early goal and forces opponents into becoming aggressors.

The US has a recent history of giving up the first goal in matches and giving up that goal early. For the US against counterattacking teams, there is some advantage to getting off of a 0-0 scoreline relatively quickly. Ideally, that comes by scoring an early goal. In this situation, the US can revert to their preferred defend and counter strategy. Unfortunately, the goals have generally gone the other way. However, it does change the match to a style the US is more tactically suited to play though not nearly as well as defend and counter. The US has not given up late goals to opponents that have bunkered, meaning there is little risk to giving up the first goal if the all-out attack for the US is working well enough to grab two goals. Late goals that they have give up have been to either aggressors (Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Italy) or teams continuing to defend and counter (Poland, Ghana, Czech Republic, Denmark). Like the US, these countries rarely, if ever, bunker.

The question then becomes one of prioritizing strategies. The US best back four to help grab that early goal are not the best back four for the defend and counter style who are not the best back four at defending counterattacks. What we’ve seen is numerous mixes of these three extremes, none of which have worked out well. The Ream-Goodson partnership can be seen as shifting the balance of this equation. The combination gives the most support to grabbing that early goal, but it is vulnerable to the counter. However, because the US has already been vulnerable to the counter, this pairing is probably worth the gamble.

Playing a strategy that involves attempting to take the game at counterattacking teams in search of the first goal is a risky strategy, but one that makes sense given the strengths and weaknesses of the current US player pool. While the defend-counter scheme of the US has brought more success against top level teams, the strategy shift has also made the US more vulnerable against counterattacking teams. Wins against Spain and draws against England and Argentina do not outweigh consistent struggles against teams like Panama. If the US does not soon find a way to more consistently score the first goal against counterattacking teams, Bob Bradley’s time at the top may be running out.
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