Is 4-4-2 the answer?

[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.

12 comments about "Is 4-4-2 the answer?".
  1. John Roode, March 29, 2011 at 8:20 a.m.

    I said it in response to Gardner's article yesterday. The central player behind the front runner is actually a withdrawn striker, not a mid-fielder. You need a goal-scorer and someone who can find the space created by the front runner. You need service from your flank players. If I were to play that system, I'd have someone with above average speed and high work rate up top. Donovan would play the withdrawn striker (a position perfectly suited to his skills). I would put true flank players on the flanks... again, high work rate with the ability to take people on in the corners and serve balls, as well as defend... and preferably a left-footed player on the left side. In front of the center backs would be 2 defensive mids... that's the only way you can play Bradley there... and it probably wouldn't be Edu. He floats too much. You need someone who can truly play in tandem with the other midfielder. The choreography between those two and the center backs is critical. Because a ball in posession of the opponent in the space between the 2 mids and the center backs is a major problem for defenders. Outside backs would support flank players in both getting forward and defending. It's really not rocket science. But you have to understand the role of the withdrawn striker. He is actually the best player on the field... both in terms of skill and understanding/reading the game.

  2. Phil Love, March 29, 2011 at 8:49 a.m.

    Ahhh, a well-articulated dream, John. If we had the players you describe, maybe any system would work for us. If Bradley tries the lone striker again, we should put together a mob with torches (like the old Frankenstein movies) and menace the US Soccer HQ.

  3. I w Nowozeniuk, March 29, 2011 at 9:42 a.m.

    Sacha Kljestan or Benny Feilhaber are not capable...time for BB to sit Michael down and come up with a combo that can mumbo. BB's game plan restricts the qualities of LD and Dempsey. These two guys need to have the ball at the right time & place.

  4. Walt Pericciuoli, March 29, 2011 at 9:56 a.m.

    I agree with I w Nowozeniuk. We need to try new mid field combos. Donovan and Dempsey must be more involved in the match no matter where they play. I put that on the players, not the system. Once the whistle blows, there is nothing that resricts their movement.

  5. Philippe Fontanelli, March 29, 2011 at 10:02 a.m.

    I finally agree with one aspect of Ridge Mahoney's comment where he left off M. Bradley, as it should be. He has no place inthe starting line up (maybe a sub. See RM's comment below:
    "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 I disagree with "defending with six players" against Paraguay, it's not Argentina. We should play an attacking soccer that fits in with our players and the American mentality.

  6. Bill Anderson, March 29, 2011 at 11:19 a.m.

    Keeper: Yeldell (why do we need to see Tim again?) Defense: Tim Ream in the middle, Chandler on the Right, and Lichaj on the Left (play with depth for Ream) Midfield: Deskerud on the wide right, Feilhaber on the wide left, Edu and Bradley holding with Donovan slightly advanced acm (if Bradley can't string together passes, sub in Klejstan or Jones) Forwards: Dempsey and Agudelo (Jozy late in the game when his athletic ability will make up for his absence of technique). In the future leave off established veterans like Donovan and Dempsey and please-please-please build for the future...

  7. Jeffrey Organ, March 29, 2011 at 11:21 a.m.

    If Bradley wants to play with 5 midfielders, why does he seem to hate "Gringo" Torres. He isn't the best defensive what. Unlike most of our players he actually is comfortable on the ball, doesn't panic when under pressure and might actually be able to bring Dempsey and Donovan into play when he is on the field. I know one thing for sure; he is a whole lot better attacking-mid than Edu. Let Bradley and Jones win the ball and let Torres create in a five man midfield. Bradley claims he wants to experiment in friendlies, why is Torres not given a real chance.

  8. Bill Ford, March 29, 2011 at 3:50 p.m.

    A 4-4-2 won't solve the problems. Only a new coach and better players will.

  9. David Huff, March 29, 2011 at 5:10 p.m.

    The true answer is the forced departures of Bradley, Flynn and Gulati along with the nepotism legacy found with "Junior".

  10. Eric Hernandez from EDUSC, March 30, 2011 at 12:03 a.m.

    Thank you all for the intelligent responses, I have found them all very insightful. It’s all to easy to see the game from another perspective when your not on the sideline, maybe its time for our National Coach to take the back seat, and maybe he too can revisit some of his decisions he has made in the past few seasons. Has anyone ever heard of the Peter Principle? Just like we circulate our players around the world to develop as players, maybe its time we include our national coaching staff in the same tumble cycle. The game continues to evolve, however the basic principles remain the same, 4-4-2, 3-5-2, 4-3-3 or what ever you conjure up you need the players, that is the players on the field not on the bench. We have yet to tap the vein that holds the real talent we seek for our national team. It’s out there, and we will need to find it before the next world cup and get them the “big game” experience soon. Maybe now is the time to bring is some new direction to the federation if we are to make our mark on the world scale next time around.

  11. James Froehlich, March 30, 2011 at 10:31 a.m.

    I always get a laugh out of these articles(thanks Ridge) that profess to solve the USMNT problems by devising the best formation - get real!! -- changing formations for the USMNT is like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic !!!!!! The US has two world class field players in Dempsey and Donovan and a couple GK's, Howard and Friedel. Beyond that we have a couple up-and-comers. The problem with the USMNT is that US Soccer continues to fail to encourage, develop, and identify the truly skillful, world-class players. As much as I would love to blame BB for our problems, he is only the tip of the problem. HIS real failure is that he has failed to use his position to demand changes in the way we train our athletes and he has aided and abetted the SYSTEM by his personal failure to select and develop more skillful players. US Soccer's failure is really the choice that they have made --- They would rather field a credible, work-man-like team team that doesn't fail miserably in the short term, than take the necessary chances to develop a more skillful team over the long run. Mediocrity is their goal and they have been quite successful in achieving that.

  12. David Huff, March 30, 2011 at 12:06 p.m.

    @ James, totally agree with you, mediocrity is their signature brand and do not allow skilled quality to get in the way of such an inferior product.

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