Omar2_140402_yang_soccer_us-mex_final-6 Stephen Yang

The Shape's the Thing: Klinsmann Adopts a 4-4-2

Jurgen Klinsmann mixed things up against Mexico, and it seemed to catch the visitors off-guard. ASN deputy editor Noah Davis spoke to the coach and players about the U.S.'s tactical adjustment.
BY Noah Davis Posted
April 03, 2014
8:05 AM
GLENDALE, Ariz.—The biggest surprise when U.S. Soccer announced the Starting XI against Mexico wasn't that Tony Beltran got the nod over DeAndre Yedlin. It wasn't the absence of Landon Donovan (especially in retrospect after word of the tendinitis in his left knee trickled out post game).

It was the formation.

Instead of going with its standard 4-2-3-1, the Americans played a 4-4-2 featuring a diamond midfield with Michael Bradley at the top and Kyle Beckerman at the base. The change was designed to do two things: give the lone forward help and facilitate Bradley's ability to freelance.

"The hope was that he gets into the box," head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said after the 2-2 draw. "The hope is that he is actually dangerous to score and gives Clint [Dempsey and Chris Wondolowski] help. Often, we had situations where we didn't give enough support to our forwards. When you look at Jozy [Altidore], often we had him disconnected."

In a dominating first half, the plan worked perfectly. Beckerman sat just above the center back tandem of Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez, doing the "dirty work" in the words of Landon Donovan, breaking up Mexican forays forward in that way he does so well. The Real Salt Lake captain was brilliant as the second-to-last line of defense and able to release pressure with smart passes after he won the ball.

His counterpart ran box-to-box, tracking all the way back to pick up the ball from the center backs when necessary and, freed of many of his defensive responsibilities, keying the attack. "He was able to get into the attack, get close to goal, be effective," Beckerman said. "It was really just fun." Whereas Bradley and Jermaine Jones work as two pistons, often misaligned, Bradley and Beckerman were more akin to an anchor and a free-floating buoy.

The U.S.'s second goal served as a perfect example of how the system should work. It came when Bradley made a long run into the box and flicked on a cross from an overlapping Tony Beltran. Bradley didn't put it on net but instead across the face of the goal where Wondolowski finished the play with aplomb. It showed everything that makes Bradley Bradley: timing, ability, understanding, and vision.

As a whole, the Toronto FC midfielder was happy with his role. "You're playing with a guy in Kyle who does a good job in taking care of things and being disciplined," he said. "It gives me more freedom to be mobile, to be on the move, to get forward, to be up and down, to be more two-way. There's no doubt that I enjoy that."

The question is whether it will continue. Klinsmann clearly wants to play Bradley and Jones, which will necessitate reverting back to the five-man midfield or keeping the four-man line but tasking Bradley, who is more disciplined than Jones, with holding back more. That, obviously, negates the tactical advantages on display against Mexico.

The 4-4-2 has its own flaws. The formation can get too narrow if the wingers like Graham Zusi and Brad Davis don't get wide enough, which is a tendency for the U.S., or if the fullbacks don't overlap. Klinsmann made sure to note how successfully Beltran especially but also Michael Parkhurst were in doing so against El Tri. They might struggle to do so, however, against stiffer competition where the Americans have less of the ball. There's also the concern of falling victim to a lightning-fast counter attack. Yes, we are talking about you, Cristiano Ronaldo. And, probably, like the entire German team, too. And Ghana while we're at it.

But Klinsmann likes the ability of the formation to get players into the attack. "If we have two guys to play into up front and Michael joins them then guys in the half position like Graham and Brad Davis go forward as well," he said.

That's been a weakness for the Americans in the past, as Altidore languishes without any support. In some sense, improving the attack could also make the defense better by putting more pressure on the position. In the first half – one of the best 45-minute periods the Americans have put together–they moved the ball quickly, passed crisply, and played with a pace that Mexico could not match. That's not something you would have said about the U.S. many times in the past. It was partially simply playing well, but the formation had an effect as well.

So yes, the 4-4-2 has a future for a number of reasons. The biggest one might not even have anything to do with specific games or opponents. Merely the threat of an effective 4-4-2 in addition to the well-trod 4-2-3-1 gives the Americans flexibility and forces teams to game plan for more options, thus limiting the time they can spend focusing on individual ones. Brazil, after all, isn't a one-off; it's a three-match tournament with two winners.

"We need to have two, if not three different systems, for the World Cup to hopefully confuse our opponents a little bit," Klinsmann said.

If his plan succeeds, he'll need formations for at least four games.

Noah Davis is ASN's deputy editor. Follow him on Twitter at @noahedavis.

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