Monday, May 31, 2010

Thoughts on U.S. Soccer before the big dance...

If there’s one thing that’s clear to me at this point, it’s that Jonathan Spector shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the field in South Africa. Other than trying to throw Landon Donavan into a jet engine when getting on the plane to Johannesburg, I don’t know what he has to do for Bob Bradley to realize he ISN’T VERY GOOD RIGHT NOW!

Perhaps at some point he may have value (since he does play in the EPL), but for the moment he’s become a serious liability. Dating back to the second half of the Confederations Cup final, Spector has gotten torched by a myriad of skilled players who’ve found themselves lined up against him.

And the U.S. play at right back was a microcosm of their play overall this past Saturday against Turkey: a second half change led to a victory. Indeed, Spector’s removal and Steven Cherundolo’s insertion was a key substitution. (That said, Cherundolo had a mediocre game against the Czech Republic, making it painfully clear how thin the U.S. is at that position.)

As bad as Bob Bradley’s team looked in the first half, the second half was a reassurance. Jose Francisco Torres’s emergence off the bench proved a critical part of the fight back against a well organized Turkish side.

Elbow room for the engine room

The key to U.S. success on offense seems to be in creating space for playmakers Landon Donavan and Clint Dempsey. When these two (especially Donavan) can get seriously involved, America can look a formidable unit. When, however, they are squeezed out of play (like what happened for the majority of the first half against Turkey), then the U.S. looks like an intramural team.

The first half against the Turks was a failure because Turkey compressed the space with ease, confident that neither U.S. forwards (Jozy Altidore or Dempsey) could stretch play vertically. This is because neither prefers to make the deep runs into the corners that Charlie Davies perfected.

Just like in football, a lack of a deep threat allows U.S. opponents to play press coverage. The result of this is that both Donavan and Dempsey are effectively taken out of the game.  The only real chance created by the home side in the first half was by Altidore’s moment of magic (splicing between two defenders before sliding in a cross that was just out of Dempsey’s reach).

The second half saw the entry of Robbie Findley. As much as he may resemble a headless chicken from time to time, the man can run like the wind. His speed gave American offense a dimension it hasn’t had since. Charlie Davies was injured.

The natural reaction by any defense to the mere threat of this speed is to sit deeper than before. This, in turn, alleviates the space issue for Donavan and Dempsey (who had taken up his more familiar role at outside midfield by this point). Once this is achieved, the offense springs to life.

The tying goal was proof of this. Findley was allowed an eternity to make the chip over the top to an onrushing Donavan who then set up Altidore. That kind of time was afforded to someone like Findley (not known for his ball control) only because gaps had been forced open between the Turkish midfield and defense. Space creates time (as my old coach relentlessly said). And with that time, Findley created a goal.

The inherent problem of 4-4-2

One thing that’s becoming clearer and clearer is that Bob Bradley will not deviate from his system. This could prove problematic for a number of reasons. Yet it’s in game number one of the World Cup that the folly of Bradley’s stubbornness could be shown up.

Wayne Rooney, England best player, is not a traditional striker. Though he is fully capable at being a traditional front man, Rooney appears most comfortable in dropping slightly off the front line and searching for space in the gaps between the opposition’s midfield and defense (“in the hole” as it’s known).

This could expose a large flaw in Bradley’s system. A proponent of the standard 4-4-2, the American coach could run into the same problems that English Premier League managers dealt with in the late 1990’s. This happened when the introduction of non-traditional strikers like Eric Cantona and Dennis Bergkamp wreaked havoc on a league dominated by 4-4-2.

The “problem” that I’m referring to is a question of marking. In a 4-4-2, the two central midfielders are tasked with marking the other team’s central midfielders (a manageable 2 v 2 matchup). However, when an opposing team has a striker who drops off like Rooney, then it creates a man advantage in the midfield (3 v 2).

The natural logic is to have the spare central defender step up to cancel this advantage. Yet, this in turn creates a hole in the back line. It’s the kind of hole that England’s outside midfielders (especially Steven Gerrard) could exploit.

The solution?

Giving 4-3-3 a try! Why not experiment in the last warm up game against Australia on June 5th? Move Donavan and Dempsey outside of Altidore in the front. Then insert the powerful Maurice Edu as a holding midfielder in the “Claude Makelele role” sitting just in front of the back four.

That would give Michael Bradley license to go forward and be the true “box to box” midfielder that makes him so effective. Whoever the third midfielder would be (my votes for Jose Torres) would also have the ability to get forward and help link with the offense.

This solves the problem of Rooney dropping off the front line because Edu can deal with him safe in the knowledge that Torres and Bradley will not be outmanned in against England’s two man midfield. It also means there's a spare defender (which is never a bad thing for the occasionally shaky U.S. defense.)

Donavan and Dempsey are not true wingers either, but their versatility makes them more dangerous starting out wide (Brazilian Nilmar put a scare in England's back-line playing this wing role in a friendly last year.) They could, in the very least, pin back England's outside backs (Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole). Being free to drift out wide also makes them more apt to find space and be involved in the game (which, again, is a key.)

This version of 4-3-3 (which is basically a 4-1-2-3) is the same formation that Jose Mourinho used so effectively in his time at Chelsea (2004-2006). The Portuguese manager espoused the use of 4-3-3 against 4-4-2 in saying:

“Look, if I have a triangle in midfield – Claude Makelele behind and two others just in front – I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. That’s because I will always have an extra man. It starts with Makelele, who is between the lines. If nobody comes to him he can see the whole pitch and has time. If he gets closed down it means one of the two other central midfielders is open. If they are closed down and the other team’s wingers come inside to help, it means there is space now for us on the flank, either for our own wingers or for our full-backs. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things.”

So I leave it to you Bob Bradley. I’m clearly not the only one who recognizes our serious flaw heading into the most important game for U.S. soccer this year. Even Jose agrees with me. And frankly, they don’t call him “The Special One” for nothing…

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