And so it begins— in a matter of days, the USMNT will take on Ghana – the team that has knocked the US out of the previous two World Cups – in a match Jürgen Klinsmann is calling a must win.
So what can we expect tactically from this game? For that, we turn to the USA’s friendly against Nigeria to gain some possible insights.
Days prior to the friendly against Nigeria, the United States squared off against Turkey and deployed an attack-minded midfield of Brad Davis, Michael Bradley, Graham Zusi and Jermaine Jones lined up in a diamond formation. Although the US’s attack looked quite dangerous throughout the game, the defense was shaky at best, and it became clear that Jermaine Jones, by himself, did not offer the back line enough cover. A few days later, on a hot day in Jacksonville, Jürgen Klinsmann trotted out his solution against a good Nigeria team.
In order to shore up the back line, Klinsmann added a second defensive midfielder, Kyle Beckerman, swapping out Graham Zusi, and, if you believe the official match lineup, pulled Dempsey back to left mid creating a 4-2-3-1.
From a defensive stand point, the lineup was a vast improvement over the previous two warm-up games, and, suffice it to say, it’s a good bet that this will be the lineup Jürgen Klinsmann will go with against Ghana.
USA vs. Ghana: A Tactical Preview
So, from a tactical standpoint, how does this system stack up against Ghana? Well, before we can get to that question, there are a couple of things of note to go over about this new look USA side.
Formations tend to be quite fluid in modern soccer, and sometimes, trying to define them in a neat numerical way is a fool’s errand. Nevertheless, analysts like me would be out of work if we simply conceded the battle, so to help us in this increasingly difficult task, we turn to the aid of fancy computer models and opta stats.
As mentioned before, officially the US lined up in a 4-2-3-1 against Ghana, a departure from the diamond midfield of games past; however, the data paints a different picture.
To begin, let’s put the spotlight on Clint Dempsey who is listed at left mid; however, the data suggests that, in actuality, Dempsey played most of the game as a supporting striker. This can be clearly seen in his heatmap courtesy of mls.com’s matchcenter chalkboard.
Of course, this isn’t really a surprise to anyone familiar with Clint Dempsey’s game. However, in order for Dempsey’s movement to work within this formation, the players around him must be in total sync with his movements. Perhaps the player most affected by Dempsey’s movements is Jermaine Jones. When Dempsey drifts inside, Jones becomes defensively responsible for the vacated space on the left, and in the game against Nigeria, this is exactly what we saw from Jermaine Jones. Notice how often the following heatmap indicates Jones made his way to the left hand side.
If you are starting to think all of this sounds suspiciously like a diamond, you are not alone.
Despite the listed formation, the data suggest that we merely saw a change in personnel in the Nigeria game, not a change in actual formation. In a simply must read piece for MLSsoccer.com, Devin Pleuler, one of my favorite data scientists at Opta, did an amazing job of tracking in great detail the evolution of the Klinsmann diamond through the use of network passing diagrams of his own creation. Here is what his model generated for the Nigeria game.
As you can see, this so called 4-2-3-1 is, in reality, simply an adjusted diamond with more defensive bite on the left side. Another notable aspect of the diagram is just how important the passing ability of Geoff Cameron and the forward positioning of Fabian Johnson is to the attack.
In terms of the Ghana game, these two wrinkles to the attack are also areas where the US might be tactically vulnerable.
For the most part, this newly adjusted diamond is well-suited to tame a team like Ghana, who, in general, like to move the ball centrally. But, (and it’s a big one) Ghana is also lethal on the counter, with a speedy striker partnership of Asamoah Gyan and Majeed Waris (although Waris may or may not be healthy), which means the US has to be careful. If Jones and Beckerman are able to sufficiently frustrate Ghana’s build up play, look for Ghana to go route one and try to spring these speedy forwards. This will mean that Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler will have to be on top of their game. Geoff Cameron, whose passing is now an essential part of the US’s build up play, will also have to be careful with his passes. One interception and Ghana could easily capitalize on the counter.
Similarly, my final concern has to do with Fabian Johnson and the defensive support behind him when he makes his attacking runs.
Indeed, one of the bright spots of the last few friendlies has been how dangerous Fabian Johnson has looked playing as an inverted wingback. For those unfamiliar with the term, an inverted wingback is a wingback that likes to cut inside, rather than the usual overlapping run wide play of a traditional wingback. Like traditional wingbacks, inverted wingbacks have to pick and choose the right moment to make their runs in support of the attack or risk being caught out of position. Of course even the best wingbacks in the world can’t predict when one of their teammates will clumsily give up the ball leaving them caught up field and out of position, so these attacking runs are always a bit of a gamble.
In the game against Nigeria, Fabian Johnson got up field a lot and will mostly likely do the same against Ghana.
As you can see from the diagram below, when Johnson makes these attacking runs, Kyle Beckerman is left defensively responsible for an enormous amount of space.
Remember, should the ball be turned over while Johnson is up field, and, with Jones essentially tied to the left to cover Dempsey, Beckerman would be the lone man standing in the way of a Ghanaian counter attack down that right hand space — and anyone who remembers the US’s 2-1 loss to Jamaica in 2012 can tell you that Kyle Beckerman’s lack of speed makes him a liability against speedy teams in such situations.
Unfortunately, when Jürgen Klinsmann dismissed the much speedier Maurice Edu from camp, he put himself in a position where he has zero sub options if Beckerman’s lack of speed becomes an issue, save a late game substitution of Mix Diskerud, moving Michael Bradley back into that defensive mid position.
So what’s the take away from all of this? The US must be disciplined when in possession of the ball, or Ghana will counter, and counter hard—which could be curtains for the USMNT’s 2014 World Cup run.
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Heatmaps and tactical illustrations courtesy of MLSsoccer.com, and used with permission, all rights reserved.