121113_isi_tactics_usmntmj101313155 Michael Janosz/isiphotos.com

Double Pivots, Empty Buckets, and the U.S. Roster

You have tactical questions, we have answers. Here is the first posting of American Soccer Now's #AskASN feature, with questions supplied by you and answers from ASN tactician Liviu Bird.
BY Liviu Bird Posted
December 11, 2013
12:40 PM
AT AMERICAN SOCCER NOW, we believe our community is our biggest asset. We want you to be part of the discussion, but it’s sometimes difficult to give a nuanced answer—or an answer of the right depth—in our comments section or on Twitter.

That’s why we asked you for your tactical questions, on Twitter and in the comments sections of the previous two tactical analyses. Here are answers to just a few of the many submissions we've received so far.

4-4-2 vs. 4-2-3-1

One of your favorite subjects was United States head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s formation choice. Whether it’s a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1, the lineup he puts on the field generates immediate discussion from television commentators and on social media.

In our tactical analysis of the U.S.’s 1-0 loss to Austria, CeeJaySquared asked: “Is this strategy (attacking wide backs with extra defensive help from the Center Mids) unique/requisite in the 4-2-3-1? How does it change (or does it change) in a 4-4-2? In other words, are these attacking backs and defending central mids the ‘[Klinsmann] effect,’ and will hold true in a 4-4-2 just as much as a 4-2-3-1, or do the backs stay home more in the 4-4-2 because they don't have the CM defensive help?”

That’s a hefty question, and it’s fairly exemplary of the type of discussion Klinsmann’s selection can generate. However, surprising as it may seem, you can call the U.S.’s formation whatever you want—it’s essentially the same thing.

Rarely do teams play one set formation all game. For example, the U.S. sometimes looks like a 4-4-2 in attack, or a 4-3-3, or a 4-2-3-1.

Defensively, the Americans almost always look like a 4-4-2, with the wide attackers dropping to support the outside backs and the two central attackers holding even (arrows on diagram).

In attack, it can appear as though Klinsmann has two forwards on the field or a forward and an attacking midfielder. That second striker is usually responsible for the entire area on top of the holding midfielders (blue zone).

In World Cup qualifiers over the summer, Clint Dempsey drifted all over the place but stayed relatively high, which allowed Michael Bradley or Jermaine Jones to step higher as well. On the other hand, Aron Johannsson held deeper against Austria, as did Sacha Kljestan against Scotland.

Heat maps paint the picture more clearly. Dempsey tends to affect the game more in the attacking third, while Johannsson, Kljestan, and Mix Diskerud find themselves closer to midfield more often.

Using the Double Pivot

Where the attackers’ movement makes a difference is with regard to the players directly behind them. As alluded to above, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones also like to attack. Their relationship falls under the category of a double pivot, about which we also received several questions:

Simply put, a double pivot utilizes two holding midfielders, each of whom advance at times while the other holds. The result is usually a late run out of midfield that allows passes into negative space that opponents must adjust to defend.

Bradley’s volley against Scotland in 2012 is a prime example of this. He played next to Maurice Edu in the holding block in that game (Jones played higher and laid the ball off for Bradley’s goal). At right, the Opta map of touches in the sequence somewhat illustrates the path of Bradley’s run.

Since Bradley and Jones have started playing there together, it has illuminated both of their strengths, namely Bradley’s deep distribution skills and Jones’ ability to break up attacks. Higher up the field, though, their relationship still needs a bit of defining, especially with regard to incorporating the third central player.

At times, Jones tries to do too much. At other times, Bradley has no space in which to advance because the third attacker kills it with a starting position that is too deep. That was part of the problem with Klinsmann’s original three-holding-midfielders formation.

Another central midfield pairing is an empty bucket, so named because of the shape it creates with the wingers. High wingers and low holding midfielders leave space in the middle of the field underneath the forwards, which kind of looks like a bucket when it’s diagrammed.

The difference between an empty bucket and a double pivot is where a team wants to create overloads. The double pivot makes it easier to overload the middle, as the wingers can tuck in and the second central attacker adds another body.

The empty bucket allows for wide isolation and overloads a little easier because the wingers stay high and wide, and outside backs can overlap to join, or the forward on that side can slide over.

As with all of the modern game, different hybrid systems exist as well. Just as with the 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 dichotomy, definitions are not restrictive, and teams can play different styles within the same game.

The Ideal U.S. Lineup

Nick Judge and soccerjohn asked by far the most popular question, a variation of "What do you think the best line-up and formation is, assuming all players are healthy?”

Check out the diagram at right for a visual representation, but here it is in text form: Tim Howard; Fabian Johnson, Matt Besler, John Brooks, and Timothy Chandler; Michael Bradley, Aron Johannsson, and Jermaine Jones; Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, and Landon Donovan.

With Johannsson’s form, he has to be in the lineup somewhere. Putting Dempsey on one wing, which is where he tore up the Premier League at Fulham, and Donovan on the other allows them to cut inside and Fabian Johnson and Chandler to overlap.

DaMarcus Beasley and Brad Evans played the majority of qualifying at outside back, but neither would be smart choices for a World Cup. Chandler doesn’t seem to be doing much better at the moment, but playing in the Bundesliga every week is better preparation for facing Cristiano Ronaldo than playing MLS, where Evans doesn’t even play right back.

Have a tactical question you would like answered in the next #AskASN tactical Q&A? Leave it in the comments section below, or tweet it to us using the hashtag.

Liviu Bird is ASN’s resident tactical expert. He also writes for SoccerWire.com and will be providing World Cup coverage from an American perspective for The London Telegraph. Follow him on Twitter.

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