71713_isi_sheabrek_usmnthcs071613106 Howard C. Smith/isiphotos.com
Talking Tactics

The Costa Rican Defense, Wide Play, and Brek Shea

Despite a 1-0 win over Costa Rica, the U.S. Gold Cup team is far from fully developed. It struggled to get through another tough defense, and the player who scored the winner has serious limitations.
BY Liviu Bird Posted
July 17, 2013
1:11 PM
FACING ITS BEST opponent of the current CONCACAF Gold Cup, the United States trotted out what should have been a dynamic lineup in its 1-0 win over Costa Rica on Tuesday. Each midfielder, in particular, could be considered a possession player.

But while the U.S. out-passed and out-possessed its opponent, the middle players were frustratingly ineffective for much of the game. Costa Rica wanted to stifle attacks through the central channel, and it did so very effectively.

Meanwhile, Jurgen Klinsmann’s team played its most straight-up 4-4-2 to date, with the middle four very close to flat and the top two staying high up the field. As the World Cup qualifiers in June progressed, this transition was gradual, but now, it seems the U.S. has basically abandoned the 4-3-3 in favor of the more traditionally American formation.

Costa Rica Clogs the Middle
Similar to the snowy qualifier in March, Costa Rica played with five defenders, including two wingbacks. Central midfielders Yeltsin Tejada and Celso Borges never strayed far from center, and wingers Rodney Wallace and Kenny Cunningham also pulled defensive duty toward the middle of the field. As a result, the area inside the width of the 18-yard boxes turned into a no-fly zone. Of Mix Diskerud’s 12 unsuccessful passes, half were balls he tried to play into the middle. Stuart Holden failed to connect 10 times, out of 14 bad passes total, when he tried to link through the central channel.

Three center backs patrolled behind Borges and Tejada: Roy Miller, Giancarlo Gonzalez, and Michael Umaña. In the defensive half of the field, Costa Rica recovered 18 loose balls, made 26 clearances, and intercepted the ball eight times. (By comparison, it had 16 recoveries, eight clearances, and six interceptions in wide areas.)

Because of the Ticos’ defensive emphasis, neither team tried to go through the middle much. The U.S. ended up with most of its attacking play out wide, and Costa Rica went through its wing players more often when it got forward.

Winging It
Wingbacks are a common feature among Central American sides. In the first group game, Belize also played with five in the back and two wingbacks. The formation starts as a 5-4-1 defensively and morphs into a 3-4-3 in the attack because those players are asked to do a lot of work and provide much of the team’s attacking width.

In possession, Carlos Johnson and Junior Diaz opened up to find the ball at their feet, allowing Wallace and Cunningham to stay central. However, notice in this instance that while Johnson is high and wide, Diaz stays closer to his central partners.

Costa Rica always had four players at the back to defend. If they were to attack more in the same formation, both wingbacks could conceivably step up at the same time, as there would still be three in the back. By contrast, in a four-back system, only one outside back can step at a time, otherwise only the two center backs would remain to defend against a counter-attack.

However, Costa Rica emphasized defense on Tuesday, even though it needed a win to secure first place in the group.

When the U.S. attacked, all five defenders dropped to the backline. Cunningham and Wallace also withdrew more, leaving Jairo Arrieta alone as a forward.

For the U.S., Costa Rica’s system meant it had to be cautious going forward. Right back Michael Parkhurst stayed home almost all game, and while DaMarcus Beasley bombed forward multiple times on the left side, Jose Torres stayed central and withdrawn to combat the wide attack if the Americans lost the ball in the process.

Landon Donovan did well to stay out of the middle, as that would have given the impression of four central midfielders at times. Instead, he drifted high with Chris Wondolowski and to the right side, where he found the ball more often—including on his game-winning assist.

Costa Rica had its speed in wide areas and primarily counter-attacked through them. Wallace and Cunningham were not shy about taking players on with the ball at their feet, while Arrieta worked to shake off the American central defenders—to little avail.

Brek Shea is Not International Level
Brek Shea is one of the more polarizing figures on the American squad in this tournament. Factions of fans seem convinced he is a golden-haired deity, while others are sure he is the worst player on the squad.

From a tactical viewpoint, Shea’s play in the Gold Cup in particular has not been up to an international standard. He has one dimension on the field—his speed—which can be easily negated by proper positioning and one-on-one defending.

He always looks to get in behind, almost never wanting the ball at his feet. This provides just one attacking option, instead of the several he may be able to find if he were willing to find the ball, look up, and assess his options. But for Shea, it’s always about running.

Here again, he only has eyes for the long ball, ignoring the space underneath the back line that has opened up. One possible reason why: Against Cuba, Shea failed to connect on 11 of his 28 attempted passes, and all but two passes he completed were backward. His ability on the ball is minimal, unless he happens to be running at full speed and trying to get past a defender.

In this final example from the Costa Rica match, Donovan has the ball in the middle of the field, and Shea is the most viable option. Again, Shea runs away from the ball instead of checking to it.

If he were to check into the yellow space, he has three options: play Herculez Gomez through, play Joe Corona in behind, or try to dribble through one-on-one. If Shea receives the ball at his feet, the probability of a U.S. attack yielding an opportunity on goal is much higher than if he tries to take yet another ball over the top.

Also, it’s a much easier ball for Donovan to play with his weaker left foot to find Shea’s feet than try to hook a ball across his body and behind the Costa Rican defense. In the end, Shea cannot adjust his run to come back to Donovan’s pass, highlighting a final reason to look short first: It’s much easier to move forward than backward.

If Shea looks for the ball at his feet, and a defender closes him down too quickly, he can always adjust his run to get in behind. The reverse is not quite as simple. However, having the ball at his feet underneath the backline exploits Shea’s lack of high-level decision-making on the ball, which is why he never looks for it and why he is not up to the high international standard that Klinsmann is—supposedly—trying to instill.

Rematch in September
Tuesday night’s progression could be similar to what fans see in September, when the U.S. travels to San Jose, Costa Rica, to take on the Ticos in another World Cup qualifier. Even if the personnel is different, the style will likely be the same, as will the sweltering weather.

By then the U.S. will have to find a more convincing way to deal with Costa Rica’s stifling defense. The Ticos provided the sternest test that the second-tier American selection has faced in its Gold Cup quest so far, and although the U.S. won, it was far from convincing.

Perhaps introducing some of the first-choice players into the team, as Klinsmann will likely do for the knockout round, will raise the level and allow for a more thorough performance.

OK, having said all of that, we want to hear your take. Share any and all thoughts in the comments below.

Liviu Bird is the Cascadia regional editor for SoccerWire.com, as well as an ASN contributor. Follow him on Twitter.

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