Thursday, June 26, 2014

Tactical threads: USA through the group stage

Well, the United States did it. We eked our way out of group G, dubbed by many to be the group of death. This article is designed to look at some of the common tactical threads for the US side through the three group stage games.

1. Kyle Beckerman has been our most important player. Note that I'm not saying best. He is the most important because he understands how to play his role - which is to play simply, organize things when we transition to defense, and ultimately free up everyone else to play their game. His positioning has been nothing short of astounding. He frees the rest of our midfielders up to make challenges on defense. He sits in and allows us to get forward in transition and also once we've established possession. Beasley and Johnson are free to take risks in attack because Beckerman sorts us out against the counter and lets Jones just run to track down the ball because Beckerman keeps the shape for the team in the middle. I know it is cliche, but Beckerman's greatest strength is that he just makes everyone else better by adjusting to the situation to allow other players to take full advantage of their strengths.

2. We are most dangerous in attack when we are able to string more than two passes together and allow time for our outside backs to get forward. In almost all of our most dangerous forays into the attacking third, either Fabian Johnson or DaMarcus Beasley have been making runs to create overloads on the wings. Unfortunately, we've been so bad at keeping possession that we haven't been able to fully unleash the backs to unlock our opponents. This issue is compounded by the following two points.

3. Michael Bradley is clearly playing in a role he is uncomfortable in. He was downright bad against Ghana. He was merely mediocre against both Portugal and Germany. So what gives? It's all about the types of movement he is accustomed to making compared to the types of moves he's now expected to make.

Bradley has always been at his best at winning the ball, let other players make the dynamic transition from defense to offense, then float around and be an outlet to receive the ball without a ton of defensive pressure.  The problem, is that he is now expected to be the dynamic runner in transition. And he simply isn't. I've seen a lot of the US media talk about how Bradley is putting in the workrate because he's covered more ground than anyone else in the tournament. That is exactly the problem - he's running too much. His runs have all been the moderately-paced floating that he's used to making in the deeper position. He isn't making the dynamic 10-yard sprints to pull defenders out of position or to receive the ball in-between the lines.

4. Our wide midfielders are primarily playing to just keep our shape. There's no creativity in the movement. They aren't switching positions on runs to force defenders to make decisions. They are basically standing around trying to make the field big as if we have already established possession. Except we have rarely established possession. So we haven't been able to transition on a counter attack successfully. Davis was invisible. Bedoya was pretty unremarkable. Zusi was serviceable, but not going to be a consistent threat on his own. They're all static and easy to defend.

The lone exception has been DeAndre Yedlin. He certainly doesn't have the best technical ability of the bunch, and his decision making is questionable at times, but he is dynamic in his offball movement. The kid sees space in front of him and he attacks it, whether he has the ball or not. Oh, and his recovery speed and experience playing at right back should also allow Johnson to get forward more often without as much fear of getting punished if we cough the ball up.

5. We are daring teams to beat us via the cross. We are concentrated on not getting beat through the middle. Our central midfielders are staying central when the other team has established possession. Our wide midfielders are sometimes giving help to the outside backs, but it is often late to arrive. That results in our outside backs defending 1v1 out wide and shaping their bodies to invite the attackers toward the endline to serve a ball in. This is the reason why the big noticeable mistakes on goals are mental lapses by our center backs. We're allowing ball after ball to be served into the box and eventually, we've turned off and made a mistake. It looks like Jurgen's instructions for the outside backs are mostly just don't let the opponents play from wide into zone 14 on top of the box. So far, that is job well done.

Ultimately, we're playing very reactive soccer. Our players either don't understand where they're supposed to be moving off the ball or their teammates don't understand the visual cues that tell them where their teammates are going to be moving to. Something has to change if we want to advance on something other than a lucky goal. We aren't a possession team and we aren't a counter team. We don't have an identity and we don't have a style of play in attack. That's on Klinnsman.