By Ridge Mahoney
Out with the diamond, in with the Christmas tree.
Or did the USA play with more of a pentagon in midfield while beating Nigeria, 2-1, on Saturday in its final World Cup warm-up match? An ESPN pre-game graphic showed a 4-2-3-1 alignment, which with two holding mids and a line of three midfielders in front of them probably best resembles a trapezoid.
A formation is a starting point, a framework, for how players align themselves on the field. It necessarily shifts and changes as situations develop and more important than how it looks from the stands or on television is how it functions, and there’s geometry within that geometry, too.
One of the keys for high-passing, high-movement teams such as Barcelona is the players’ ability to shrink and expand triangles of different shapes and sizes all over the field. One of the keys for the USA against Nigeria was using Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman as double pivots; they stayed connected most of the time and moved together to protect the back line and funnel balls forward. Michael Bradley used this foundation to cover great expanses of the field, and the ostensibly wide midfielders -- Alejandro Bedoya and Clint Dempsey -- were able to tuck inside and open up space for the outside backs.
The diamond midfield used primarily against Azerbaijan and Turkey wasn’t designed as a blueprint for the World Cup, though at times in Brazil the American alignment could resemble it. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has constantly put his players, both collectively and individually, into uncomfortable situations to force them into decisions. He’s changed formations and tactics and personnel at halftimes of games to broaden their range of experiences as well as alter the game’s dynamics. He doesn’t say so publicly, but he’s been willing to sacrifice a result for a worthy experiment. While winning all three warmup games, the USA encountered several obstacles.
Against a bunkered Azerbaijan, the USA struggled in cold, windy conditions. Turkey’s attack exposed one of the diamond’s great vulnerabilities, that of a lone holding mid –- in this case Jones –- trying to cover the vast space in front of the back four. But the defensive breakdowns were not solely the fault of Jones; the Americans didn’t cover for each other quickly enough.
Teams that consistently play the diamond, such as Real Salt Lake in MLS, work constantly on the positioning and cohesion necessary to imbue defensive stability and how to break out when possession is won. The diamond shrinks and flattens out when RSL is defending, and expands in the attack.
Bradley is an ideal player for the attacking tip of a diamond, but who can play the defensive point at the other end? Beckerman does an incredible job for RSL yet at the World Cup level there aren’t many men who can do that job alone. If the outside mids pull back and tuck in, the attack suffers greatly. RSL has refined its system so well that players step in where they are needed, which is the essence of any successful system in the modern game.
Klinsmann is trying to take the USA into a new era, that of a national team pool sufficiently stocked with talented, intelligent players who can flourish in different formations and systems. At times, he’s resorted to the familiar and comfortable 4-4-2, yet that alignment can be played so many different ways -- which is one of its strengths -- it’s not as standard as it once was and some observers have declared it obsolete. While most teams play with four in the back, there’s almost infinite variance in what the other six are supposed to do.
But the coach knows well that the chalkboard is not the field. He’s stressed the technical and psychological aspects along with the tactical. Since taking the job nearly three years ago, he’s compiled an amazing amount of data on dozens of players. He’s put them in demanding situations and watched their reactions. Ideally, a formation maximizes the strengths of the players selected. Yet during a World Cup match every player will confront moments of crisis. If opponents focus on stopping Bradley and Dempsey, how does the USA adapt?
One of the major talking points of every World Cup is which teams got their formations and systems right, and which did not. For the Americans, this brutal set of matches will be a measure of where they are as players, whether or not Klinsmann devises the perfect game plans.