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The tactics of defeat

Defensive Errors Bury U.S. Early vs. Costa Rica

ASN tactician Liviu Bird breaks down all three Costa Rica goals from what was a painful night to watch for American fans. He finds plenty of flaws but a little hope as well.

BY Liviu Bird Posted
September 07, 2013
4:23 PM
When Michael Bradley went down at the end of the warm-up, his absence took over the mind of every American fan. Costa Rica promptly took hold of the game against the United States, going up 2-0 in the first 10 minutes on the way to a 3-1 victory.

What might have been had Bradley been in the lineup is not up for debate, simply because it will always be impossible to know for sure. However, a trend emerged from all three Costa Rican goals that should be especially concerning: the mistakes that led to them came from other experienced players.

At 2-0 in the first 10 minutes, tactics go out the window to a certain extent. Sure, the wing backs in Costa Rica’s 3-4-3 system caused all sorts of trouble combining with the forward line. Yes, the Americans’ lack of a true target striker hurt them early in the game, when all they could do was launch long balls forward.

But when players lose individual battles and assignments, it throws off the balance in the collective unit and makes building anything seem impossible. The first two Costa Rican goals snowballed into a tentative, shell-shocked game from the U.S.

A penalty gifted by a poor decision from goalkeeper Keylor Navas momentarily opened the door for a comeback, and the U.S. showed more poise in attack after scoring. But when Joel Campbell scored the third, it finished off a game that had really been over since the 10th minute.
Losing Assignments on Set Pieces
Jhonny Acosta’s third-minute goal parlayed American fears created by Bradley’s late withdrawal from the lineup. It was the worst possible start for the U.S., and it was both a well-finished set piece and an entirely preventable goal. When Costa Rica lines up for the corner kick, the U.S. has a standard mixture of zonal and man-to-man marking in the penalty area. One man guards each post, one marks the near-post space, and the rest man-mark.

Because of Acosta’s positioning, Geoff Cameron and Clint Dempsey (the near-post-space man) sandwich him, to prevent a header at either post. All Dempsey has to do is ensure that Acosta doesn’t get in front of him.

Similarly, every other defender has to stay goal-side and ball-side of their responsible attacker. Both Dempsey and Matt Besler, on Bryan Ruiz, fail, allowing their men to get inside them. It shouldn’t be too much of a problem because of how far outside the frame of the goal Acosta and Ruiz run. If Ruiz gets his head on the ball, he will likely flick to across the face of goal toward the back post.

But Acosta cranes his neck at the right angle to direct his header over DaMarcus Beasley on the near post and into the goal. Beasley doesn’t have enough time to react and clear his line because of the pace on the header.

Acosta managed a great finishing touch, aided by poor marking.

Failing to Track Late Runners
The wing backs get involved on the second goal, as Bryan Oviedo combines with Christian Bolaños on the left flank. Most of the Ticos’ wide play came from the left side, as Ruiz tucked in on the right side almost as a shadow striker underneath Campbell. On this play, Michael Orozco has stepped up too far, perhaps anticipating that Oviedo would beat Graham Zusi on the dribble. As a result, Omar Gonzalez is pulled out of his central position to cover when Oviedo sees the gap open, and his simple pass beats Orozco down the line.

At this point, Jermaine Jones should be on his horse, sprinting to recover centrally and provide defensive numbers. One simple look over his shoulder would show him why: Ruiz and Celso Borges are unmarked and making delayed runs toward the penalty area. However, the service should never get into the box. If Orozco recovers quickly, he and Gonzalez can double down on Bolaños, likely making him turn away or play backward to Oviedo. Campbell, Borges, and Ruiz all arrive at the right time, delaying their runs perfectly to ensure they are running at full speed when they get there.

Jones puts a little more urgency into his recovery run, but he should already be there to help the remaining defenders mark. On the defensive side of the ball, especially in their own penalty area, players should do all they can to prevent facing backward. Those situations have a propensity to turn into own goals, or at least weak clearances. Bolaños gets his cross off despite being defended by two players. The U.S. back line is officially strung out all over the penalty area. Jones is still not in position to defend. Besler is too far toward the near post, probably to cover both defenders on the ball, but with two there, cover is built in. At this point, if los Ticos execute even marginally well, it should end in a goal. All three attackers are in position to head powerfully on goal, while none of the three American defenders could clear effectively based on their body positioning. Because of Jones and Besler’s poor positioning, Beasley is left to contend with three attackers.

One Forward Terrorizing Two Center Backs
On the flip side, Campbell essentially beats three defenders on his own to score Costa Rica’s third goal of the night. Again, it’s a good goal borne of great individual action—but it’s also easily preventable. When substitute Jose Miguel Cubero clears Jozy Altidore’s blocked shot, Campbell is behind every American player on the field except goalkeeper Tim Howard. The U.S. is pressing for an equalizing goal, but that’s when focus on the defensive end becomes even more vital, to prevent being buried.

And the U.S. has numbers back, but none of the three players around Campbell are in position to contend with his speed. Besler is one of the faster American players, but he gives Campbell a two-step head start. (And Campbell is not offside because he’s in his defensive half of the field at the moment the ball is played.) When a team attacks, it should ensure that it is numbers-up in the back, at least by one. If Besler adjusts his positioning to be behind Campbell, he can track back with his run and perhaps throw off his balance and ability to gain full speed with subtle bodily contact.

Cameron should either be closer, or he can press into the attack, and Gonzalez can slide over. The cover players’ positioning is of less concern than Besler’s, though.

Campbell’s goal symbolized his night’s work, as he constantly made trouble for Besler and Gonzalez with his runs in behind. His runs were perfectly timed, and he occupied both center backs effectively, opening up the flanks for isolation (as on Costa Rica’s second goal).

The single forward’s job is not easy; so often, target players get frustrated with their lack of touches and take themselves out of the game mentally. All night, Campbell floated between the center backs and checked back into midfield at the right moments.

Contrasted with the U.S.’s lack of a target presence — and even what substitute Alvaro Saborio usually provides Costa Rica — Campbell gave los Ticos exactly what they missed in the snow game in March, and he was the best player on the field all night.

Two Bloodied Powerhouses

Another common refrain among American fans on Friday, besides lamenting Bradley’s injury, was a thankful if diffident exhortation that Mexico is in a worse position. News filtered through in the wee hours that the federation fired head coach Chepo de la Torre after a lackluster loss to Honduras at Azteca Stadium on the same night as the U.S.’s defeat in San Jose.

The U.S.-Mexico matchup that has provided much past intrigue has another layer this year, one of two continental giants trying to regain momentum after poor games. Of course, the U.S. is in better position in the standings, as it is one win away from World Cup qualification with the right results elsewhere.

But without Bradley, Americans should be concerned. His calming presence and leadership in midfield was sorely lacking Friday. Il generale once again showed his importance, but this time through his absence.

It’s often difficult to appreciate the subtle facets of his game on television, but his off-ball movement and vision are unparalleled in CONCACAF. The prospect of facing the U.S.’s biggest rival without so many key players, chiefly Bradley, could be enough to drive head coach Jurgen Klinsmann into temporary insanity as he frantically searches for a solution.

Liviu Bird is ASN’s tactical analyst. He is also a contributor to NBC ProSoccerTalk and Cascadia regional editor for SoccerWire.com.

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