The Tactics of Victory: Why The U.S. Won in the Snow
ASN tactician Liviu Bird sees through the snow—he is from Alaska, after all—to dissect the United States’ first Hexagonal victory. What he finds is a return to ways that allow the U.S. to have success.
March 23, 2013
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A hard-fought 1-0 win over Costa Rica on Wednesday marked a return to tactics with which the United States has great success. Despite snow obscuring the lines and oftentimes making it difficult to see across the width of the pitch, the adjustments were clear as day. Instead of falling into a defensive shell, Jurgen Klinsmann sent his team to play positive, attacking soccer.
In a way, it was all decided before the match even started. Instead of playing three defensive midfielders, as has become the norm, the U.S. played two holding men in a 4-3-3. With Herculez Gomez and Graham Zusi running the wings, the formation also had the width the team lacked in Honduras.
Costa Rica helped the situation by trotting out a 5-4-1 that included the New York Red Bulls’ Roy Miller as a roaming defender. Los Ticos relied on their wing backs to provide width, and a box midfield left Alvaro Saborío all by himself up top.
The away side made the same mistake Klinsmann has been making: it relied a bit too much on its defensive players for width in the attack, which in turn allowed the U.S. to push more numbers forward.
Beasley Threat on Both Sides of Midfield
DaMarcus Beasley was the Man of the Match in this game by many accounts. According to ESPN, he led the U.S. in touches and completed passes at halftime, with 57 and 35, respectively.
Costa Rican right back Cristian Gamboa stayed closer to home than Bryan Oviedo did on the opposite side, which allowed Beasley to make runs forward until the opponent switched to a 4-4-2 in the second half and eliminated the space. Los Ticos’ formation slightly leaned toward its left side, leaving the channel on Beasley’s side open. Geoff Cameron also found some space in the same fashion, but much less often than Beasley did, simply because of Oviedo’s tendency to hold higher.
Midfielder-turned-defender Beasley interchanged often with Herculez Gomez in front of him. Both players’ heat maps indicate they covered the same ground for much of the game. When Beasley overlapped or got caught forward, Gomez would drop in and assume his defensive responsibilities. This was always likely to be one benefit of having a midfielder play out of position at left back.
Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore combined and ran off one another all game long. Altidore would drift wide, slashing through players to find the ball from Jermaine Jones or Michael Bradley, and Dempsey would fill the space left behind. Dempsey is an expert at making runs off the back shoulder of defenders—it’s how he scored the only goal of the game.
In this instance, when Altidore has the ball wide, Bradley makes the slashing run across the back line. Three Costa Rican players follow him and don’t check their back shoulders, leaving Dempsey to float in undetected at the back post.
If it were higher on the pitch, Altidore could float a ball over the top to him, but because of how close he is to the goal, the forward has a go himself. The ball falls kindly to Dempsey off the woodwork, and he is all alone to tap it in.
Three’s a Crowd
Playing two men under the attacking players instead of three gave Jones and Bradley more room to operate than they would otherwise have. One player moved up the field while the other would hold the space in front of the center backs. Both had space to find the ball in the midfield and distribute, frequently looking for the wide players. Gomez and Zusi’s starting positions in the 4-3-3 ensured the ball could move from middle to wide without extra effort, giving the U.S. maximum possible outlets to keep the ball.
Despite the abysmal conditions, the U.S. kept the ball on the floor and possessed better than it has in recent history—definitely better than it did in Honduras, when options going forward were nonexistent for central players.
The pass completion rate in the attacking half was only 8 percent lower against Costa Rica than against Honduras. Given the difference in field conditions, that’s a drastic improvement. Also notice the location of possession: it’s farther up the field, with more flank involvement.
The passing map also reveals the one subpar U.S. player in Denver. The Beasley-Gomez combination found more space to attack than Zusi, who completed just 11 passes compared to Gomez’s 33.
Part of that was due to Oviedo’s persistent attack from his left wing back position, which required Zusi to track back toward his own defense more often than he would have liked. Oviedo was one of Costa Rica’s main attacking threats, but he often started too deep in possession to be able to do much.
When the U.S. plays with deliberate width, it brings out the best in everybody. It takes pressure off the back line, which may often be inexperienced these days, and it gives Bradley space to pull the strings in the middle. Options in attack are endless, and Dempsey and Altidore make a mean pair of goal scorers. Having players on the flank draws defenses out and naturally spreads the field, which allows for ball possession and higher quality runs in the gaps.
With the gauntlet that is Estadio Azteca looming, it’s possible Klinsmann reverts to his defensive ways and sets a posture that the U.S. cannot hope to break. However, if he wants his team to go forward and be confident, he won’t allow it. Instead, he’ll put the same type of lineup on the field and let the team go for three points.
It was Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata who said, “It's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” The same principle holds true here.
Staving off attack after attack in a defensive formation could lead to an away point and possibly even a win, if the U.S. can hit on the counter. But it’s far from the progressive, technical game Klinsmann was hired to instill.
Liviu Bird is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. Follow him on Twitter.