Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Klinsmann gets second half adjustments wrong

The United States' World Cup qualifying campaign got off to a troubling start in San Pedro Sula as Honduras overcame an early Clint Dempsey goal to emerge 2-1 winners. Despite fielding an offensive 4-3-3 formation, Jurgen Klinsmann's side were cautious in the first half and created few quality goalscoring chances throughout the 90 minutes.

Klinsmann surprisingly left veteran and team captain Carlos Bocanegra out of the back four, opting instead for a center back pairing of Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez. With Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson taking up the fullback positions, the back four was comprised of four players taking part in their first qualifying campaign. It was a brave decision on the part of Klinsmann to go with youth over experience- and Bocanegra's replacement Omar Gonzalez was one of the US's better players- but we're left to wonder whether Bocanegra would have provided the organization at the back to prevent Jerry Bengston's second half winner.

Danny Williams sat in midfield just in front of the back four. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones played as shuttling midfielders higher up the pitch.

Jozy Altidore was given the start at center forward. Clint Dempsey occupied a narrow position on the right and Eddie Johnson played a bit wider on the left.

The US started the game cautiously, with the midfield dropping fairly deep and allowing Honduras to to circulate the ball around the back. When Honduras had the ball deep in their own half, Dempsey and Johnson would push up alongside Altidore so that the US defended with a forward bank of 3 in front of a midfield bank of 3 in front of the back four. Strangely, the front 3 didn't press Honduras's back four and instead only offered token pressure. With plenty of time on the ball, the Honduran back four were easily able to advance the ball past the forward three. At this point, Dempsey and Eddie Johnson would drop in alongside Jones and Bradley to form a midfield bank of four. Williams dropped in to fill the gap between the defensive and midfield banks of four- making the US defensive shape more or less a deep 4-1-4-1. That the US didn't press wasn't a surprise. In an away qualifier Klinsmann was always going to be cautious and the 90 degree temperature would have made pressing unsustainable. However, it was a bit strange Dempsey and Johnson didn't immediately drop off into the midfield when the US lost possession.

The deep 4-1-4-1 shape meant Altidore was often left isolated up front. Honduras pressed when the US won the ball back, A combination of Honduras's pressing and some untidy passing from the US made it difficult to possess the ball out of the back and advance up the pitch with short passes. As a result, the US were frequently forced play long into Altidore and hope he could retain possession long enough for reinforcements to join in the attack. When the US were able to keep the ball, Dempsey drifted centrally from the right just in behind Altidore while Johnson stayed wider on the left. They looked most dangerous when Altidore checked back to collect the ball in between the lines of Honduras's 4-4-2. This forced one of the Honduran center backs to step out with him, leaving a hole in the center of the Honduras defense for the US to play balls in behind for Dempsey and Johnson making runs from the outside.

Honduras's opener came from a spectacular overhead kick from Juan Garcia but the corner kick that ultimately led to the goal was a result of Honduras's pressing and a lapse of concentration from Chandler who had a difficult afternoon. Chandler failed to clear his lines inside his own box, allowing Carlos Costly to nick possession. Gonzalez made a fine last ditch tackle on Costly but Garcia scored on the resulting corner.

Diamond 4-4-2
The US set out in the second half in a what would typically be described as a diamond 4-4-2 but what in reality was more 4-2-2-2. Bradley dropped deep alongside Williams and looked to collect the ball from Cameron and Gonzalez and link passes forward to Dempsey and Jones who were playing narrow higher up the field. Eddie Johnson played alongside Altidore as a center forward pairing. Bradley was given the deeper role because he's a more creative passer than Williams- the US needed a more creative player in that role to link defense to the four more advanced attackers.

Presumably Klinsmann made the tactical switch to enable the US to control possession by playing with four midfielders in the center of the field. Honduras had 57% possession in the first half and Klinsmann likely wanted to take the game to them more in the second half. While the switch did result in the US keeping the ball better in midfield, the lack of any wide players allowed plenty of space for Honduras's midfielders to run into when they regained possession.

Flat 4-4-2
Maurice Edu replaced Williams in a like for like sub on 58 minutes. Sacha Kljestan was brought on for Eddie Johnson a minute later, prompting another tactical change from Klinsmann. Kljestan played wide on the left, Jones went to right midfield and Dempsey moved up front alongside Altidore in a 4-4-2. Graham Zusi, a player used to being employed on the right wing for the US, replaced Jones in the 68th minute. The US defended in two banks of four- Edu and Bradley were side by side- while Altidore and Dempsey stayed high up the field. The switch meant the US no longer had the extra center midfielder to fill in the space between the two banks of four- the position Danny Williams had played in the first half.

Two things were almost immediately noticeable when Klinsmann made the switch. Without the extra center midfielder, Honduras began to find space to collect the ball in the gap between Bradley-Edu and Gonzalez-Cameron, leaving the US back four dangerously exposed. The absence of a third center midfielder also meant there was a huge gap in the middle of the field between Bradley and Edu and Dempsey and Altidore when the US were on the ball. With Edu and Bradley deep and Dempsey and Altidore high up the field, they had no one to fill the space in between and provide a link from midfield to attack. After falling behind 2-1, the US couldn't regain possession and when they did they struggled to keep it long enough to create anything meaningful. The olé chants that came from the home crowd as their side easily passed the ball around the US midfield in the closing moments of regulation time were a frustrating reminder of Klinsmann's frequently inability to get his tactics and personnel decisions right in important games.

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