112013_altidorejozy_isi_usmntte111913109 Thomas Eisenhuth/isiphotos.com
Talking Tactics

U.S. Loss in Austria Reveals 2013 Tactical Trends

ASN tactician Liviu Bird takes a look at Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones’ partnership, Aron Johannsson as the No. 10, and more defensive lapses from the loss to Austria.

BY Liviu Bird Posted
November 20, 2013
11:30 AM
The result was no better than four days earlier. A 1-0 loss to Austria on Tuesday marked the first two-game stretch without a victory for the United States since it followed a draw at Mexico in March with a loss to Belgium in May.

Scotland and Austria are a step below Mexico and Belgium in terms of skill, making this stint a bit more troubling. As it has been all year, the defense proved to be a weak point, breaking down under one of Austria’s only decent build-ups of the match.

The double pivot of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones in front of the back line picked up some of the defensive slack, as well as much of the impetus for starting attacks. However, Bradley had an unusually high number of incomplete passes (for him), only making good on 85.7 percent of his attempts.

Aron Johannsson made his second start as an American international, playing underneath Jozy Altidore in Clint Dempsey’s customary position—and if he keeps playing the way he does, he could easily start at the World Cup in front of Dempsey, who has struggled the last few months.

More Back Line Woes
Every game, it’s something else. The defense looked unsettled again on Tuesday, probably at least partly due to wholesale lineup changes that saw Geoff Cameron slot into the right back spot and 20-year-old John Brooks playing next to Omar Gonzalez in the middle. Cameron held down his side and made a strong case for starting over mistake-prone Brad Evans, but each individual defender made a mistake on the only goal of the game. When David Alaba turns in the middle, Beasley is tucked too far inside, marking eventual goalscorer Marc Janko. Overlapping right back Gyorgy Garics has all sorts of space on the flank. Meanwhile, Christoph Leitgeb starts a deep run from the midfield that would have resulted in at least a shot on target had he made contact.

Brooks should be on Janko at this point, and Gonzalez should have eyes on the player in an offside position behind him. Defenders on the international level must be comfortable matching up in one-on-one situations, freeing other players to play their roles. As Beasley corrects his positioning, he leaves a huge channel for Leitgeb to make a near-post run. If he doesn’t blow past Brek Shea and continue his work toward that dangerous space, Brooks probably clears the cross easily.

Garics swings his hips to cross, and Brooks is too central. Gonzalez is not goal-side of Janko. Cameron has not worked his way back to get inside of the third runner. Austria has three options in the area.

Leitgeb’s discipline pays off. The cross skims off his foot, but the hard run wrong-foots Brooks, who whiffs on his clearance. (It’s unclear whether Shea communicated to the center back that the runner was en route.)

Janko has a clear look at goal from on top of the six-yard box. Had Gonzalez done the work early to get back, he could have stepped in to tackle, but instead he can only watch the shot go into the net.

Brooks caught the most flak for the goal, as he should have—a solid foot through the ball, and it’s still 0-0—but every person involved in the play had a hand in the breakdown.

Changing Dynamic in Central Midfield Duo
Bradley and Jones put their development as a tandem on hold while Bradley recovered from his ankle injury, but now that he’s back, it seems the dynamic may have shifted. In the summer qualifiers, Bradley established himself as a box-to-box midfielder, while Jones looked best when he hung back as a destroyer.

However, they seem to be interchanging roles freely and both trying to play more box-to-box now. If anything, Jones was more advanced on most attacks, while Bradley dropped deep to receive the ball off the defenders and distribute. A deep-lying starting position is nothing new for Bradley, who often joins attacks late and likes to watch spaces open in front of him before moving to exploit them (see his evisceration of Panama in June). He still got forward in Vienna, but it looked as if Jones wanted to take more of the attacking responsibility. Jones has more of a desire to get forward than necessary at times, and it seems head coach Jurgen Klinsmann hasn’t quite found how to reign him in yet. It borders on compulsion and, at times, a lack of discipline.

For the U.S. to be dangerous moving forward, Bradley has to be the creative outlet. His vision is unmatched on the team, and Jones tries to thread impossible passes too often. While Bradley turns in a near-perfect passing percentage almost every time he steps on the field, Jones is much more erratic.

And the less the U.S. gives up possession, the less likely it is that its Swiss-cheese defense will get exploited in Brazil.

Iceman Stays Cool
The more time he gets, the better Aron Johannsson looks as a link-up man between the midfield and attack. He has an engine that allows him to run for days, and his constant movement between being the top point in the midfield triangle and a shadow striker keep defenses on their toes.

His defensive game is also highly underrated, as it takes his high energy level to consistently pressure defenders as he does. His angles are correct, and he effectively cuts the field in half when wide backs have the ball. Trouble is, he has no support in his efforts most of the time, but if the U.S. ever figured out how to initiate a high-pressure system, he would integrate easily.

On the attacking side of the ball, it’s all about finding spaces and passing lanes. Johannsson is always available to receive and always demanding the ball. This is just one example, but it shows why he fits in well underneath a target striker. As Altidore holds the ball up and attracts attention, he needs a quick outlet. In this instance, both Bradley and Jones press from midfield, and Johannsson drops back, crowding the space a little, but Johannsson still finds the right angle to both stay open and have space once he receives. The end result is a dribble into that space in front of him and a long-distance shot (his only one of the game), which highlights one of the main issues with his tireless work rate: sometimes, he takes his goalscoring attributes out of the game by playing so far away from goal.

One of pundits and fans’ favorite subjects is the difference between the U.S.’s supposed separate formations, 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1, but it’s not a formation issue—it’s about spacing and understanding between players at certain instances in the attacking phase of play. Most dismiss this as “team chemistry” that needs to build with time, but it doesn’t happen without coaching, and it’s been a consistent problem under Klinsmann. Oftentimes, the target striker is alone, and the shadow striker is not close enough to him. At other times, too many players crowd the midfield space (as in the play above) and leave no outlets closer to goal. Both make play too predictable and easy to defend.

See You in January
The next time the U.S. takes the field will be in the New Year, when a select group will split time between bases in Los Angeles and Brazil. Klinsmann has seven months to select a roster that he will take to his first World Cup as the U.S. coach.

It’s an unenviable position. If you were in his shoes, what would you do? After a successful 2013 that included a long winning streak, albeit a majority of the results against lower-level opposition, what does the U.S. still need to polish before boarding its flight to Rio in June?

Leave us a comment below. Also, let’s keep our tactical analyst busy: what pressing questions and discussion points do you have regarding the team’s setup? Submit your ideas for exploration in the comments section or on Twitter at @liviubird and @ThisIsASN, and we will do our best to address them in the coming weeks.

Liviu Bird is ASN’s tactical analyst. He also contributes to SoccerWire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @liviubird.

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