USA vs Portugal: A Tactical Preview
They had it! They flipping had it—in the palm of their hand, on the tips of their fingers. They could feel it, could taste it— They Had it…until they didn’t. Soccer is a cruel game, and on Sunday, it couldn’t have been crueler.
That being said, there is a lot to be learned from this game, and it’s my job to shake off the shock and analyze what ended up being one of the most memorable games in our nation’s history. This is what I saw.
The big debate going into the game was 4-4-2 or 4-5-1, and some truly great minds went head to head on twitter over this issue.
In the end, Jurgen Klinsman gambled and went 4-5-1.
As Mathew predicted, by playing a single striker, the Portuguese fullbacks were given liberty to bomb up the flanks. Here are the heat charts.
A tactical error by Klinsmann? I’m not so sure. I think it was actually by design. The US essentially packed the midfield and dared Portugal to go wide or face the tight midfield trio of Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley inside. In the end, the gambit almost worked. Although both Portugal goals came from wide play and an unfortunate mistake by Cameron, for the most part, Portugal was quiet from the flanks. As active and aggressive as the Portuguese fullbacks were, here is a diagram of all their crosses. The ones marked in red are off the mark. As you can see, that’s most of them.
At the same time, Almeida’s freedom to bomb forward did end up costing us on Portugal’s first goal. Sure Cameron made a mistake and Portugal got a lucky bounce, but at the end of the day, you create your own luck, and that goal doesn’t happen if Almeida isn’t allowed to be so far up the field to facilitate Veloso’s cross.
On the flipside, despite widespread pre-game criticisms by me and people much smarter than me, Jürgen’s 4-5-1 was vindicated in its ability to consistently create chances. In fact, this was probably the best midfield performance I’ve seen from a US team since the 2002 quarterfinals.
The US attack worked like an accordion, with Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones dropping deep in defense and pushing up in the attack.
This came at a cost, however, as all three of our center-mids were forced to run a marathon in order to work the accordion attack so well.
USA vs Germany
So what does this mean for the Germany game? More than most people think, I’m afraid. The fittest man in the world couldn’t run 12-15 miles, half in the Amazon, and not feel tired legs 3 ½ days later. Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones are 32 years old. You have to think these games have taken a major toll on their bodies.
Worse yet, Klinsmann did not bring any other defensive-mids on the trip —no Edu, no Williams, no Clark. Now the US finds itself going into a game against one of the tournament favorites in a scenario where the number of goals they concede to Germany could very well determine their fate in the tournament.
Considering this—Klinsmann has 3 options—all of them a gamble.
1. Continue to rely on the work rate of these three players and pray they have the stamina to get through the game.
2. Bring in the less defensively oriented Mix Diskerud.
3. Bring Cameron into the midfield and replace him in the backline with Brooks.
Combination and fullbacks
Instead of the raw speed of old, the US worked the counter with beautiful combination play, and as you can see from the following charts, these counter attackers were worked from the inside out—center-mids to fullbacks.
For me, the biggest highlight of this was the play of Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones.
The chemistry these two showed on the night was magical to watch, and as you can see, the US found the majority of their success down that right hand flank.
… and surprise, surprise, guess where FJ spent most of the night?
Can we expect a similar performance from Fabian Johnson against Germany? In short, the answer is mostly likely no. The reason the US had so much success working down the right hand side is because Ronaldo is a notoriously lazy defender. As you can see from his heatmap, he spent almost no time in the defensive 3rd.
Now compare that to the heatmaps of Germany’s front 3 against Ghana.
The German 4-3-3 may be incredibly fluid in the attacking 3rd, but in the defensive 3rd, it is quite rigid, and each of the front 3 have clear defensive responsibilities.
So what hope does the US have? Emulate Ghana— press high, push the the German midfielders back, and for the love of God, track those runners. Hit-em quick. Germany’s defense relies on its front three getting back to defend. Don’t let’em. Use pressure to force turnovers and break with speed before they can get back. With tired legs, there is no doubt that the bench will have to step up big. It won’t be easy—nothing great in life is, but if the US can hold on, there is no telling how far they can go in this tournament.
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Heatmaps and tactical illustrations courtesy of MLSsoccer.com, and used with permission, all rights reserved.