Photo by Michael Janosz/ISIphotos.com
By DAN KARELL and FRANCO PANIZO
The U.S. Men’s National Team didn’t win on Wednesday night against Mexico, but they did give head coach Jurgen Klinsmann plenty of things to ponder as he puts together his World Cup squad, and overall plans for the tournament.
At the center of Klinsmann’s thoughts could be the team’s formation going forward. On Wednesday, Klinsmann surprised everyone by starting with a 4-4-2 diamond formation as opposed to his preferred 4-2-3-1 system, and the tactical change proved effective early on.
With Michael Bradley playing the point of the midfield diamond, Kyle Beckerman sitting as a holding midfielder, and Brad Davis and Graham Zusi along the wings, the USMNT moving forward looked dangerous and scored twice in the opening 30 minutes of the match.
Bradley played a key role in both U.S. goals, the first coming off a corner and the second providing a flicked-header assist after making a late run into the box. But while Bradley took the credit, the tactical setup of the team allowed Bradley the freedom to roam forward with Beckerman watching his back.
“Every coach obviously tries to see where the strengths of each one of those guys and I think Michael has tremendous strength getting in the box and joining the attack,” Klinsmann said after the match. “Purposely, we moved him out of the double-six or the six and the eight role into a 10 role. That means for Kyle in that moment – or if it’s a Jermaine Jones or whoever you put in or Maurice Edu that came in in that same role – a lot of work, a lot of work. I think it has a lot of good sides on it.”
By playing in the 4-4-2, the U.S. were able to out-number Mexico in midfield, especially as Davis and Zusi pinched in and played more narrowly. At times, with right back Tony Beltran and left back Michael Parkhurst bombing forward, the USMNT had three to four central midfielders, giving them a numbers advantage ahead of the Mexican trio in Miguel Herrera’s 5-3-2 system.
El Tri’s midfield group of Julian Zavala, Carlos Peña, and Isaac Brizuela didn’t do themselves any favors even when they did have the ball, succumbing to the high pressure defense of the Americans and giving the ball right back. Peña in particular lost possession ten times during the match and finished with a passing completion percentage of 60 percent, according to Opta.
On the other side, Bradley finished with an 85 percent completion rate and Beckerman finished at 93 percent. All together, the four U.S. midfield starters had a passing completion percentage of 86 percent, recorded one goal and two assists, and won the ball back 28 times.
The formation change helped bring out the best in Bradley for the USMNT.
“The hope was that (Bradley would) get into the box,” Klinsmann said when asked about his decision to play a diamond in midfield. “The hope was that he’s also dangerous to score and gives Clint (Dempsey) and (Chris) Wondolowski help.
“Often (in the past), we had situations where we didn’t give enough support to our forwards, especially if you look at Jozy. Often we he had kind of him disconnected and moving in another striker up front (helps), so purposely I told Clint there was no need to do kind of dropping back all the time, which he still does because it’s in his game. If we have two guys to play into up front and Michael joins it, and then obviously in the half-positions guys like Brad Davis or Graham that can actually then go forward as well, I think it’s going to be more difficult for opponents to read us.”
Bradley and Beckerman worked extremely well together in the diamond formation, which suits Beckerman’s strengths. Their success as a tandem will almost certainly put pressure on established starter Jermaine Jones.
“I think one of our strengths is that we have the ability to play in a lot of different ways,” Bradley said. “I didn’t necessarily look at it so differently tonight other than now you’re playing with a guy in Kyle who does a good job of taking care of things and kind of being disciplined, so it gives me more freedom to be mobile, to be on the move, to get forward, to be up and down, to be more two-way. There’s no doubt I enjoy it.
“To kind of play off my instincts in those ways, depending on the game, depending on the opponent, it’s certainly something I enjoy.”
Bradley’s comments about Beckerman being disciplined could be seen as a hint at the biggest criticism that Jones faces, which is that he is too undisciplined when partnered with Bradley, which limits what Bradley can do getting forward.
The move to a 4-4-2 formation wasn’t the only rarity of the night. The last time that both Beckerman and Bradley had started together was on Nov. 15, 2011, when the USA defeated Slovenia on the road, 3-2. Interestingly enough, as Beckerman pointed out after the match, the U.S. used a 4-4-2 in that game as well and they were able to score three times.
Beckerman, who is usually a replacement for Bradley off the bench or when Bradley is injured, said that he really enjoyed the opportunity to alongside the Toronto FC midfielder.
“It was a lot of fun,” Beckerman said. “I thought he was able to get into the attack, be effective, get close to goal, and it was just fun. We really had a lot of fun in that first half. I think the momentum changed a little bit (in the second half) but it’s something we can work on. I think we had a little foundation today to build on today and we’ll see if we can get better.”
— Franco Panizo contributed to this report