Thursday, October 11, 2012

Klinsmann's 3-man central midfield has given USMNT defense needed strengthening

The jury still seems to be out on whether the USA are showing enough signs of progress under Jurgen Klinsmann to suggest the 48-year-old German is the man to lead the team to a successful 2014 World Cup run. Historic away wins under Klinsmann over Mexico and Italy hint at a team on the rise, yet a puzzling loss to Jamaica in a World Cup qualifier in July, controversial roster selections and an underwhelming goal-scoring record have raised doubts among some American supporters about his ability to effectively manage the national team.

A number of the concerns surrounding Klinsmann's first year and a half on the job are reasonable. Four losses from his opening six games wasn't the impression he would have expected to make. The US have not packed enough of a punch in front of goal. In Klinsmann's 18 games in charge, they have scored more than one goal only three times and have averaged just 1.17 goals per game. He got his tactics wrong in the 2-1 loss to Jamaica, putting the US in a precarious position in World Cup qualification. We voiced our frustration on this blog about his decision in that game to leave Clint Dempsey high up the field just behind forwards Jozy Altidore and Herculez Gomez, leaving the three man midfield of Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones, and Maurice Edu stretched to cover the width of the pitch against a Jamaica side playing with two wingers. His most recent decision to leave Altidore off the roster for the upcoming qualifiers and his hesitation to select Michael Bradley to the squad early in his reign raised questions about his team selection.

However, despite what many see as a disappointing first 15 months on the job, it's important to consider the type of soccer the national team was playing prior to Klinsmann's arrival and how it has changed since. Under Bob Bradley the US were an undisciplined side tactically, particularly defensively. From January 2010 until he was sacked in July 2011, Bradley's team played nine teams ranked in the top 30 of the FIFA World Rankings. They drew three of those and lost the other six. In those nine games, they conceded an average of 2.2 goals per game. Klinsmann has faced seven sides ranked in the top 30 and won 2, drawn 1 and lost 3. During those games, the US have conceded 1.2 goals per game, a full goal improvement over Bradley. The US are nowhere close to being able to match the technique of Europe and South America's best sides. In order for the US to compete with them they need to be organized and have great defensive shape.  Klinsmann's biggest contribution the national team thus far has been to improve that defensive shape by introducing more modern formations, specifically formations that use a three-man central midfield and provide more adequate cover for the back four.

Bradley's default formation was either a traditional 4-4-2 (I use traditional to mean a 4-4-2 with two center midfielders and two wide midfielders) or a 4-4-1-1 with a withdrawn forward behind a #9 striker. Both of these systems use only two center midfielders, and typically Bradley would play one of either Maurice Edu, Ricardo Clark, or Jose Torres alongside his son Michael. Played well, 4-4-1-1s and 4-4-2s can be fine formations, and there were games throughout Bradley's tenure where the US looked strong playing them. However, he showed an inability to change these formations and move to ones with three-man center midfields when the tactics of the opposition dictated that he should have.

One of the biggest problems that can arise defensively for a team using a 4-4-2 is the gap of space that often opens up between the two center midfielders and the back four. In a 4-4-2 the center midfielders are responsible for getting tight on the opposition center midfielders. If they're forced to push high up the field to do this, it can create dangerous pockets of space in front of the back four for opposition attackers to move in to. Opponents who receive the ball in these areas have time to turn and dribble at the back four. This forces the center backs to make a decision to either contain the dribbler and continue to back up or to step out and try to win a tackle. If they continue to contain they run the risk of allowing the man in possession to get into a dangerous shooting position. But if one center back steps it allows the opposition to play dangerous through balls into the space left vacated by the stepping center back. I've labeled this gap "problem area" in the diagram below. One way to minimize these gaps between center mids and center backs is to push the back four high up the field towards the center midfielders. However, holding a high defensive line comes with its own risks. High lines are susceptible to balls over the top or slipped in behind the back four, particularly when your center backs lack pace to keep up with opposition forwards. They also require an intelligent back four that knows when to collectively step forward to put the opposition offsides. With high defensive lines, the problem area therefore tends to become the space between the back four and goalkeeper.

The USA's performance at the 2010 World Cup offered a perfect illustration of a 4-4-2's defensive shortcomings in the center of the pitch. The US played a 4-4-2 in every game with Jozy Altidore paired with either Herculez Gomez or Robbie Findley at forward, Bradley in the center of midfield alongside either Edu, Torres, or Clark and Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey occupying the wide areas. All three goals the US conceded in group play resulted from an opposition player making a dangerous run into the gap between the back four and midfield, leaving the US defense out of position. In the opening game against England, Wayne Rooney dropped back from his forward position into this gap (video below). Not wanting to allow the dangerous Rooney to get the ball in this space and turn, center back Oguchi Onyewu felt the need to step out of his position in the back four and track Rooney. This opened up a huge amount of space between the US's other center back, Jay DeMerit, and left back Carlos Bocanegra for an England player to burst into, something Steven Gerrard was all too happy to do. Rooney never touched the ball but his incisive movement had done the damage. Lampard's pass found its way to Emile Heskey who laid it through for Gerrard to comfortably tuck home. Clark, Bradley's partner in central midfield that day, often gets blamed for the goal and indeed he failed to track the run of Gerrard. However, the defensive system was more to blame than Clark. As a center midfielder you're used to passing off forward runs to your center backs. He did a poor job of reading the situation, but the gap in defense should have never opened up. Even if he'd tracked Gerrard from the outset, the England midfielder still may have beat him in a foot race into the space.

England were also lined up in a 4-4-2 that day. Had Bradley gone with three central midfielders, the US would have had a spare man in the center of the park to sit just in front of the back four. That would have allowed Onyewu to pass Rooney off to the spare midfielder rather than getting himself out of position by tracking him. The gap would have never opened up for Rooney to run into, and that goal would likely have never happened.

In the US's second game against Slovenia, Clark was replaced with Torres but the US kept it's 4-4-2 shape. Again, they were made to pay for allowing the opposition to get into pockets of space between DeMerit and Onyewu at center back and Bradley and Torres in the middle of the pitch. In the video below (at 1:09), Valter Birsa drifts unmarked into a 20-yard gap in front of the back four. He receives the ball, turns and shoots before DeMerit or Onyewu are able to step. His finish was incredible, but the amount of space he was given to drift into was criminal and a product of the US's flat, four-man midfield.

Slovenia's second goal again came from an opposition player drifting into the problem gap. Forward Milivoje Novakovic drifts away from the US center backs to receive the ball in the gap where he can turn and slip it through for his forward partner Ljubijankic. The bulk of the blame for this goal, however, falls on Onyewu for his woeful positioning. The other three defenders had done their job pushing forward to close the gap and make the defense more compact. Onyewu was likely positioned so deep because he was worried about his lack of pace being exposed with a ball played in behind him. He wanted to keep Ljubikankic in front of him rather than on his shoulder.

Less than a year on from the World Cup, Bradley hadn't learned his lesson. In a friendly with Spain, he fielded a 4-4-2 against a Spanish side lined up in a 4-3-3 with a world class central midfield trio of Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, and Santi Cazorla. Outmanned in the midfield, the US were subsequently picked apart 4-0. That two of the four goals were scored by Cazorla, an attacking midfielder who makes a living finding pockets of space between defense and midfield, is no surprise.

The obvious key defensive feature of three-man central midfields is that they provide an extra layer of defensive depth in midfield. The extra midfielder can fill the most dangerous areas of space in front of the back four. Incredibly, even after the World Cup and the battering from Spain, Bradley refused to accept his side was often being overrun in midfield. In the end it would cost him his job as he again fielded a 4-4-2 against Mexico in the Gold Cup final. El Tri's first and third goals came from players receiving the ball unmarked in gaps in the middle of the field. (You can see the goals here at 2:30 and 4:28.)

Klinsmann would have certainly recognized the reasons behind the US's rather porous defense under Bradley. He has experimented with a number of different formations, 4-4-2 included, and has said he picks his formations based on the strengths of the players he has available and the style of play of the opposition. In other words, he is flexible and likes his teams to be able to play a number of different styles. But one feature that has been fairly consistent in Klinsmann's lineups is a three-man central midfield. Whether a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or diamond 4-4-2, he has shown that he likes to have one center midfielder available to sit in gaps just in front of the back four to prevent the opposition from receiving the ball in these dangerous areas. It has worked to shore up the defense. The US have conceded more than one goal in only three games under Klinsmann. Of the four goals conceded in this World Cup qualifying round, three have come from free kicks. The difficulty the US have had creating genuine goal-scoring opportunities against weaker CONCACAF opposition has been frustrating, but that phase of the game will come as players like Landon Donovan recover from injury.

Jurgen Klinsmann has made the US a more sophisticated side to match up against, and that will have its benefits in the long run.

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