[USA GAME PLAN] Should the USA start out in a 4-4-2 formation against Paraguay on Tuesday (Fox Soccer Channel, 8 pm ET) after finding success with it in the second half against Argentina, or is there a better way for Coach Bob Bradley to utilize his available talent?
A formation switch at halftime of the Argentine game rekindled the cracking debate of which alignment is best for the U.S. national team, and seldom mentioned is the stark fact that against superior opposition tactics can cause problems as well as solve them.
In the 1-1 tie, an improved second-half performance upon changing from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 shrouded the fact that quicker play and sharper decisions were contributing factors. Still, the Americans at best were even in the second half, and it wasn’t a bunch of O’s that allowed the X’s to run over them in the first 45 minutes. Rank inferiority on and off the ball were to blame, full stop.
Starting out in a 4-4-2 against a rampant Argentina probably would have exposed the USA even more, as the central midfield trio of Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu and Jermaine Jones looked completely out of sync and several other players performed well below par. Trying to contain Argentina with those three isn’t a bad tactic in itself, but without cohesion and communication the Americans were caught in soccer’s version of the shell game and seldom caught up to the ball in the first half. And when they did win possession, eight or nine times out of 10 they gave it right back, so sluggish were their movements in support and off the ball.
More incisive attacking play from Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey would have relieved some of the Argentine pressure, but those two players were seldom prominent, either, save for a Donovan run late in the first half that produced from Dempsey a blocked shot and a follow-up effort that was easily saved. They were pinned deep in their own half much of the time, which constricted the flanks even when the U.S. gained possession, since Argentina had less space to cover in the middle third while it pressed to win back the ball.
The attacking flaw in a 4-2-3-1 formation is not in the lone striker, but rather a dependence on those three players in support. Many national teams and international clubs use the formation and create plenty of opportunities. (It was the “now” formation at the World Cup, used by Spain, the Netherlands and Germany, among others.)
Using an attacking mid such as Mixx Diskerud, Sacha Kljestan or Benny Feilhaber centrally – or perhaps Donovan in the middle flanked by Dempsey and Stuart Holden (unavailable because of injury), for example – gives the system much greater promise yet retains the solidity of defending primarily with six players. However, against a team like Argentina – anchored by Javier Mascherano and Esteban Cambiasso – few Americans can flourish in that spot.
If that central player is ineffective going forward, and fails to link with his flank partners and the central mids as well as the forward, attacks are difficult to sustain. Against a team as good as Argentina, individual performances are more important than tactics. The formation changed, but so did the dynamics, with a busy, active Juan Agudelo stretching the Argentine back line, which helped the other sub, Tim Chandler, venture into the attack, and opened up space for Dempsey and Donovan.
If Chandler starts against Paraguay at right back, he could be moved to right midfield at some point, which would give Eric Lichaj a chance to play and also exhibit Chandler in his regular position. He’s played right back for Nuremberg because of injuries. In the middle, against Argentina Michael Bradley got a full 90 minutes out of Jay DeMerit and Oguchi Onyewu; he could move Carlos Bocanegra into the middle with one of those two to give Jonathan Bornstein a run at left back and bring Tim Ream on as a sub at some point.
Coach Bob Bradley used only two subs against Argentina, so for Paraguay he may use all of his six available substitutes. The release of Edson Buddle back to his German club Ingolstadt leaves the U.S. with only two listed forwards, Jozy Altidore and Juan Agudelo, so it’s unlikely – but not impossible – that Bradley start them together up top. He still has nine midfielders on the roster, though Feilhaber may not play because of an injury. The USA can dress 18 players, including two goalkeepers; with Buddle’s departure, the squad is down to 21.
Paraguay is not Argentina’s equal, yet it comes into this match fresh off a 3-1 thrashing by Mexico in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, and has a lineup dotted with experience. It will be another good test for the Americans, and a better chance to win, no matter how they are deployed.