Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Merry Christmas Tree, Bob Bradley

Bob Bradley's tactics were very effective against Spain and he was given a lot of credit in the Football media. However, those of us who follow the USMNT more regularly know that this is a case of even a stopped clock being right twice a day. Bob Bradley's usual tactics just happened to be highly effective against Spain. Spain want to play through the center of midfield and rely on individual brilliance to tell. They are shut down by pressuring their creative midfield players, denying them time and space to turn, face goal and pick out the pass to create chances, and defending deep so Torres and Villa don't have space to run into behind the back four. This is why Spain are always knocked out of these tournaments unexpectedly - they have trouble breaking down teams they dominate when they force them to defend deep.

This tactic was effective against a team like Spain and has been effective against a team like Mexico that likes to play through the middle. This is one reason why we've had their number in recent years. However, Mexico has gone from playing straight up the middle to playing from wide into the center so I would suggest that they've cracked this tactic now by waiting until our midfield gets pulled out to the flanks and then cutting inside. Bob Bradley needs something new that will work against the better European teams as well as Mexico and Spain.

While USMNT fans wait expectantly for his return from injury, the addition of new boy Jermaine Jones of Schalke to the USMNT set-up just screams for a 4-3-2-1 christmas tree formation. This tactic would dominate the center of midfield where we tend to be a bit soft and concede goals, helping us tighten up defensively and ensuring we are still very dangerous on the counterattack. In this variation on the diamond midfield, the lone striker is supported by two creative players that lie deeper and have freedom to roam the pitch finding space. The 3-player midfield is relatively narrow, anchored by a player that stays deeper in midfield, provides the easy option and changes the point of attack in possession while sitting in front of the back four when defending. The two shuttling players can be can be two box-to-box types or more defensive destroyer types but they must work very hard, which we know they can do.

This scheme is well-suited to our best available players, with Altidore or Davies playing up top, Donovan and Dempsey behind and new-joiner Jones anchoring a narrow midfield three with two of Bradley, Edu, Feilhaber, Torres and Clark shuttling. The shuttling midfielders are free to press high and play box-to-box while Jones sits in front of the back four and is the easy option in possession. Defensively that pushes opposition attacks onto the wings where Donovan and Dempsey's responsibilities are to pressure the opposing fullbacks. Unlike the traditional diamond midfield this scheme doesn't suffer from a lack of width because of a this defensive assignment - one of the attacking players should always be starting out wide. This makes the one of Davies, Altidore not starting a killer sub that could come on in like-for-like or for a midfielder to revert to 4-4-2 or go to a 4-3-1-2 setup, with Donovan or Dempsey dropping back into midfield.

Defensively, the attacking midfield should try to deny service straight up the flanks by putting pressure on the opposing fullbacks, forcing them to play the ball inside, where the two shuttling players are given license to pressure by the sitting player who looks to cut out the through balls and patrol the space in front of the back four in an arc. This allows the midfield to apply high pressure, without worrying about leaving space in front of the back for long-range shooting. If the attacking team beats the pressure, everyone drops back and defends space, with the shuttling midfielders applying pressure centrally when the ball is in their area and supporting inside the fullbacks and further up the pitch when it's on the flank, ready to mark any late runs inside the fullback. The fullback should be ready go with any outside overlapping runner with the midfielder taking the man who played the ball. We have the center backs to deal with aerial crosses so an overlap isn't dangerous unless the player making the pass is left alone to receive a cut-back in an area to shoot.

Luckily, our centre-backs no longer trade in comedy defending but Bradley's tactical acumen is entirely geared towards that previous era - our players of a few years ago against the Mexican style of a couple year ago. Defensively, we must shed the "stop the cross to stop the goal mentality" that pulls us out of shape because we have two solid, centrebacks that are good in the air. We should be happy to concede some possession on the flanks and defend against the inside cut-backs and leaving space to shoot in front of the central defenders. How many goals have we conceded from aerial crosses? Not many.

In our attacking play, we need to stop pretending we have a striker that can win the ball in the air and bring others into the play because we just don't have that player at the international level. Brian Ching is clearly not a replacement for Brain McBride. The USMNT is a good counterattacking team, pure and simple, so we need to stop conceding so softly and learn to make two goals tell, even against the world's best, with regularity. So Happy Christmas Bob, these are the tactics that ensure your son can stay in the team and we stand the best chance at the World Cup.

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