Tuesday, June 14, 2011

USA vs Guadeloupe: Tactical Analysis


According to our favorite scholarly source, Guadeloupe is "an archipelago located in the Leeward Islands, in the Lesser Antilles, with a land area of 1,628 square kilometres (629 sq. mi) and a population of 400,000."  

Contrastingly, the USA, "at 3.79 million square miles (9.83 million km2) and with over 308 million people [is] the third or fourth largest country by total area, and the third largest both by land area and population," in the entire world.

And yet the US managed only a minimal 1-0 win at home in an important tournament. 

Let's be perfectly clear.  The US looked very good overall and much better than the previous three matches (including the Spain friendly)........against Guadeloupe. And at times, the US even looked excellent...........against Guadeloupe, an archipelago located in the Leeward Islands with a land area of only 629 square miles and a population of only 400,000 compared to a country (US) with 3.9 million youth players in a country of 308 million total.

So what gives? 

As a good friend recently remarked, when a team (USMNT) comes out flat and gives up early goals game after game across two major tournaments (World Cup and Gold Cup), the coach has to shoulder a considerable amount of blame. Further, one would not be too off base to blame that coach's tactics.  In short, given the fact that the USMNT has come out flat in two games in the current Gold Cup, repeating a pattern that goes back to the early goals given up in last summer's World Cup, it would not be too off base to question whether Bob Bradley really knows WTF he's doing in both choosing and lining up his starting XI.  Here's what we've seen over the last four games (against Spain, Canada, Panama and tonight against Guadeloupe) to suggest that Bradley, in fact, might be making unwise tactical decisions.

The US is not playing negative football. Which is great. But our high line and our attack-minded approach has left us vulnerable at the back.  As our favorite scholarly source explains, "A high defensive line allows teams to pin opposition teams into their own territory and apply pressure when chasing for a goal, however, it leaves the attacking team vulnerable to counter attacks by quick opposition players."

That last sentence explains much of what has ailed the US over the last four games, including last night's win over Guadeloupe.  Bradley's 4-4-2 requires both Dempsey and Donovan to pinch in and play as attacking central midfielders rather than as wingers.  The US gets its width from the two fullbacks.  In this system, Altidore and either Aguduelo or Wondolowski play as strikers, and both Dempsey and Donovan press forward from either flank, looking to create and shoot from central positions but generally arriving from the outside.  Neither player hugs the sideline, for example, or tries to get behind the opposing fullbacks.  Bradley plays as a type of box-to-box midfielder (although whether such a position still exists in the modern games is subject to some debate), with Jones as the true holding midfielder.  The point being that in the US 4-4-2, Bradley will press forward when he can and Jones will hold back (generally speaking).  Finally, both fullbacks, Bocanegra and Cherundelo, for example, push high up the field. providing support to the attacking four of Dempsey, Donovan, Agudeuelo and Altidore (although through three Gold Cup matches, Donovan has typically stayed deeper than Dempsey, while the latter has often started from deep but has then looked to get forward, mostly on the left but frequently switching sides with Donovan).  To see how the US shape changed as the Panama game went on, click here.

The end result is that the US typically has 6-7 players in the attack phase when they are in possession, which has been fairly frequent in the three Gold Cup matches (I can't find any time-of-possession data thanks to the continued lame statistical coverage of the US soccer media). This is inspiring and shows how much confidence Bradley has in the quality of the US side. But it must be pointed out that Bradley's approach leaves only 3 outfield players (plus Howard in goal) to defend.  And what every team over the last three games has shown (Spain just tore us apart from every angle possible) is that you can get behind our two fullbacks and create havoc.  Panama did it and won, and Guadeloupe and Canada each created quality chances.

Tactically speaking then, pressing our fullbacks high up the pitch combined with coming out mentally flat has left us vulnerable, with the end result being two shaky wins and one loss.

If one wants to fault Bradley for his tactics, you'd have to begin with the fact that the US system thus far has been too attack-minded, leaving us vulnerable.  The "mistake" is thus a result of either too much confidence in the quality of the US side relative to its opponents, and/or a failure to get them mentally ready for the opposition--probably both.  The key vulnerability is pressing our outside defensive backs too high up the pitch.  Jamaica and Mexico will kill us if it continues.

Against Guadeloupe the US created an incredible number of quality chances (19 shots and 10 shots on goal). They muffed some of those chances and others were stopped  by a quality goalkeeper in fine form who had a great night.  Regarding the latter--stuff happens.  Regarding the former--the US has run out of excuses.  If you think riding the bench in Europe means you can throw your jock strap out on the pitch and win against highly-motivated quality athletes in the most important tournament in CONCACAF, you're fooling yourself.  Dempsey and Howard start week in and week out in a arguably the best league in the world.  But the rest of the US squad aren't exactly locked into their respective European clubs' starting XIs.  Donovan plays in the MLS and hasn't done jack in three Gold Cup starts, although last night he was more of a factor than just on free kicks and corners. Dempsey has been stellar throughout the tournament but missed two gimmes last night.  

The point is that if Bradley is going to attack, he needs to get his players' respective and collective heads straight from the start. Respect  your opponent and come out and win the first 20 minutes--and win them hard.  I do not see the US quality as being so far above Panama, Mexico, Jamaica and other countries that they can play without a sense of passion and purpose for a full 90 minutes and be assured of a positive result.  In the next stages of the tournament, Bradley needs to consider dropping the two fullbacks back or even going to a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-5-1.  Whatever the case, something has to change if the US hopes to advance to the final.  Panama showed that we are vulnerable physically and tactically.  We may have more skill and experience then the other teams (save Mexico), but it's clearly not enough if we hope to maintain our dominance of CONCACAF.

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