Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Thoughts, tactical analysis: USA 2-2 Russia

I've been left scratching my head after the US's 2-2 draw with Russia as to how my assessment of the USMNT performance could differ so much from American soccer journalists and pundits. The overwhelming sentiment on Twitter and from game commentator Taylor Twellman has been that the US back four was poor and that the draw hides what were serious deficiencies in this evening's performance, particularly at the back.

I'm hardly an eternal USMNT optimist and am willing to accept we stole a draw we hardly deserved. But I can't get on board with the idea this was an overwhelmingly bad performance from the US and one that hints at an ominous World Cup qualifying campaign ahead. Consider the context in which this game was played. Russia's entire starting lineup consisted of domestic-based players meaning they obviously faced far less travel time. This is a big deal in a midweek game in which players are forced to play for their club teams at the weekend and then immediately hop on a plane to join their national teams. The travel is exhausting, particularly on the back of a weekend game. The bulk of the US team today consisted of players based in Western Europe but also included MLS and Mexican league players- the travel was extensive for all involved.

Travel time aside let's also consider the opponent. Russia currently sit 9th in the FIFA World Rankings and in Fabio Capello they are led by a manager who has won multiple domestic titles in Spain and Italy and hoisted the Champions League trophy as manager of AC Milan. He's unbeaten in his first six games with Russia. They've gotten off to a perfect 4-0 start in their UEFA World Cup qualifying group including a win over Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal. This was no feeble opponent the US were up against. Away from home it was always going to be an extremely difficult fixture to get a result from.

The US back four has come under the harshest criticism from American soccer journalists after the draw. US Soccer Daily (@USsoccerDaily) tweeted after the game, "Big questions in the back." SI's Grant Wahl echoed that sentiment stating "questions about the U.S. back line will remain." Twellman continued to reiterate throughout the broadcast that Tim Howard was the only thing preventing the score from being 4-1 or 5-1 to Russia.

That the US had a few problems defensively was clear. Howard indeed had to make key stops and Russia certainly created more dangerous goal scoring opportunities. However, the bulk of the defensive issues occurred high up the field with the US midfield and forwards and I'd argue the back four was more impressive today than they had been against Antigua and Barbuda or Guatemala.

The US played a 4-3-3 with Danny Williams in midfield just in front of the back four and Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones in front of him playing as more box to box midfielders. Jozy Altidore played center forward and was flanked by Joshua Gatt and Herculez Gomez on the outsides. The US's five most advanced players (Altidore, Gatt, Gomez, Jones and Bradley) rarely seemed to be on the same page as to whether they were going to press the ball high up the field or collectively drop deep. Often half seemed to be pressingg while the other half were dropping so that the US defense was stretched vertically when they needed to be compact to make the field small for Russia. This opened up big pockets of space in the middle of midfield for Russia to collect the ball in and run towards the back four.

Another big problem for the US defensively, particularly in the middle of the second half, occurred when the US gave the ball away after the center midfield triangle of Williams, Jones and Bradley all advanced forward to support the three forwards. This created a big pocket of space between Williams and center backs Clarence Goodsen and Geoff Cameron for Russia to play an outlet ball into and counter, leaving the back four exposed. Too often it was lackluster defensive shape or cheap giveaways from the midfield and forwards that left the back four scrambling to stop Russian players whose movement off the ball had eluded the US midfield. Given the difficult situations the back four were frequently put under, I thought they did a decent job slowing down the Russian attack. Yes Tim Howard had to make some good stops but that's nearly always going to be the case against strong sides like Russia away from home. It's telling that the only Russian goals came from a silly giveaway by Danny Williams and another mental error when Maurice Edu and Goodsen switched off on a quick Russia restart. In the run of play the back four looked up for the challenge and it was the defensive shape of the midfielders and forwards that was the biggest defensive concern.

One of the concerns with a 4-3-3 is that, unlike a 4-2-3-1, there is no attacking central midfield player that plays just off the striker to connect midfield and attack. In the first half, Russia's willingness to get numbers behind the ball forced Jones and Bradley to check back deep to receive the ball. With Gomez and Gatt both operating in wider areas there was a large gap between the midfield center midfield three and Altidore. Therefore the only way to advance the ball forward was either through long balls into Altidore or hopeful balls over the top into the corner for Gomez or, more often, Gatt. The problem with the long passes hit into Altidore was that when he was able to control them and the hold the ball, he was isolated and there was no one for him to lay the ball off to.

In the second half the US did a better job of linking midfield and attack by getting players into the space between the Russian center backs and center midfielders. Gatt and Gomez at times both tucked inside into these pockets of space but most often it was Jones linking defense to offense with his powerful bursts forward from midfield. Jones' decision-making and game awareness can be frustrating but his work rate and ability to advance past opposition center midfields both off the ball and with the dribble make him a handful to deal with. Although he's not in the same class as Yaya Toure or Abou Diaby, he possesses the same trait that makes these two so difficult for the opposition to deal with- the ability to singlehandedly link to defense to offense by bypassing the opposition central midfield with powerful vertical runs. Michael Bradley has received all the plaudits for his play in midfield but it was Jones ability to usher the ball into the attacking third that allowed the US to play higher up the pitch and enabled Bradley to get in positions where he could use his creativity and quality on the ball. Jones deserves more credit for what was one of his stronger games in recent memory for the US.

4-3-3 vs 4-2-3-1
4-3-3 formations like the one used by the US today use one deep lying holding midfielder with two other midfielders that do more shuttling up and down the field. 4-2-3-1 formations use two holding midfielders (one tends to advance higher up the field when in possession) and one attacking midfielder that sits off of the center forward. 4-3-3's can be especially vulnerable to counterattacks, particularly when a team likes to get its outside backs forward. When a team in a 4-3-3 loses possession it's often left with only its one holding midfielder and two center backs to slow down the counter. It's impossible for the holding midfielder to cover the entire width of the pitch so opposition players easily move into space either side of him to receive the ball where they can then turn and run at the center backs. The extra holding midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 makes it easier to defend the width of the pitch on the counter- with two players rather than one in front of the center backs it makes it more difficult for the opposition to slide into pockets of space in the midfield and turn.

With Danny Williams operating as the loan holder in a 4-3-3, Russia were able to frequently collect outlet passes on either side of him and counter when the US lost possession. Had this been a competitive fixture against a side as strong as Russia, Jurgen Klinsmann would have almost certainly opted for two holding midfielders (4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1) rather than just the one to mitigate the threat of counterattacks. However, he almost certainly opted for the 4-3-3 with preparation for next year's crucial World Cup qualifiers in mind. With the exception of Mexico, the US's opponents in the CONCACAF hexagonal will get numbers behind the ball and defend deep. It makes little sense for Klinsmann to use two holding midfielders in these games where it will be important the US to get bodies forward to trouble crowded opposition defenses. Today's game was therefore probably one example where Klinsmann played a lineup with future opponents in mind rather than creating a reactive lineup to the opponent at hand.