Final Third Failings Plagued U.S. Men Throughout 2015
November 19, 2015
WHEN JURGEN KLINSMANN took the reins of the United States men’s national team four years ago, the grand promise of his tenure was supposed to be a more proactive style of play.
That dream has failed to materialize.
This week the Americans managed a 6-1 blowout over a mostly amateur St. Vincent and the Grenadines side followed by a scoreless draw on the road against Trinidad and Tobago to start off the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign. While those results have succeeded in getting the squad off to a solid start in this round of qualifying, and rescued the U.S. from a streak of four straight losses to CONCACAF opponents, the team is still struggling to assert itself in matches and is seriously underperforming in the final third of the field.
In the year following the 2014 World Cup, fans and pundits alike have found many causes for the Yanks' uneven results, ranging from Klinsmann himself to a lack of talent in the player pool. However, the statistics of the past year paint a very clear picture of the true culprit.
In 2015, the Americans played 20 games against a wide variety of opponents ranging from world powers like Brazil and Germany to CONCACAF rivals like Mexico and Costa Rica to lowly minnows like Cuba and St. Vincent.
In those 20 matches, the U.S. has won the possession battle 10 times and lost it 10 times, a perfectly even distribution. The U.S. has also been above 45% in possession an additional four times over that 20-game span, meaning that in 70% of its games over the past year, the U.S. has been in the thick of the midfield battle.
However, things fall apart for the U.S. when it moves into the attacking third. Over those same 20 games played in 2015, the U.S. has only been ahead in the shot count on four occasions—winning that battle a mere 25% of the time.
When added up over the course of 2015, the U.S. has averaged a 52% advantage in possession over its opponents, but has been outshot 291-206.
This tendency was apparent once again against Trinidad and Tobago, especially in the second half. Dominating possession after intermission, the U.S. repeatedly carried the ball up the field with ease, only to be bereft of ideas or sloppily losing the ball once the team approached the Soca Warriors’ net.
These troubling statistics are the result of Klinsmann’s inability to construct a cohesive midfield, something he has struggled with since taking over the U.S. squad. While often deploying two or even three defensive midfielders in his setups, he has eschewed the use of a dedicated attacking midfielder.
Over the past four years, Benny Feilhaber has been largely relegated to the international wilderness, Lee Nguyen has been called up only to be left on the bench, and Mix Diskerud—when he does play—has been used most often as a holding midfielder.
Absent a true creative presence in the middle, Klinsmann has instead relied on a number of stopgap measures—most notably using Clint Dempsey as a withdrawn forward or Michael Bradley as an advanced midfielder. Neither idea has ever fully unleashed the U.S. attack, with Dempsey taking too many touches in the final third and Bradley taking too long to make decisions once he advances into the attack.
Sad, but largely true. RT @RobUsry Dempsey really kills any formation freedom Klinsmann has. Once he's gone options open up.— American Touchline (@AmerTouchline) November 24, 2014
Bradley did not make this pass. Because he is not a #10. pic.twitter.com/lTLXyUk4aN— Will Parchman (@WillParchman) November 17, 2015
Finding a way to add a true No. 10 into the mix, however, is easier said than done because of the U.S.’ struggles with its own formations. The team has always looked lost in a 4-3-3 and usually been a man short in the middle when playing in a traditional 4-4-2.
Of the remaining options, Klinsmann’s best bets are using a 4-2-3-1, a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield, or Bob Bradley’s old 4-2-2-2. All three options would provide the opportunity to play a dedicated creator, centrally in the 4-2-3-1 and diamond midfield 4-4-2, or two creators pinching in if Klinsmann went with the 4-2-2-2.
All three have distinct advantages and disadvantages.
The 4-2-3-1 would give the U.S. width and numbers in the middle, while protecting the recently porous backline with two shields in a double-pivot. Coordinating that double-pivot can present challenges, but those can be worked out in training. The more troubling issue with the 4-2-3-1 is that when the U.S. has deployed a single-striker set in the past, they have often left that striker on an island starved for service.
The diamond midfield, for its part, can give a team the best of both worlds, providing numbers in the center of the pitch, width when needed, and two strikers. However, this type of interchange requires intricate coordination and time to develop, something unlikely to happen as long as Klinsmann continues to tinker with his lineups.
Finally, there is the 4-2-2-2. Some may view this as a regression, as the formation has been burned into the minds of many U.S. fans—fairly or not—as the epitome of Bob Bradley’s “bunker ball”. However, the formation has the benefit of providing for a solid block of six to defend and the ability to unleash lightning quick numbers-up counterattacks, especially with the right personnel.
Unfortunately, Klinsmann doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon. These most recent games—sans Dempsey—provided a perfect opportunity to make a fresh start and use a true facilitator, but that opportunity was ignored.
Diskerud was left on the bench, while Nguyen was left off the roster completely. New call-up Darlington Nagbe was given a chance in both contests off the bench, but to be fair, he has looked best in recent weeks for the Portland Timbers while playing a No. 8 role in a 4-3-3, not as a No. 10.
For now, the U.S. will have a long layoff, its next action coming in the 2016 January camp. But if the team wants to see more success in 2016 and be more productive with its advantages in possession, Klinsmann needs to make a tactical switch in the months ahead.
John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.