Missing as many key players as it did, Honduras was always likely to sit in and defend against the United States. ASN tactician Liviu Bird writes that the key to breaking through was a change in perspective.
June 19, 2013
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SANDY, Utah—One thing is certain from Tuesday night’s World Cup qualifier for the United States: Honduras is better than Panama. The visitors offered not only a stout defensive test, but they were also dangerous going forward at times.
It was as hot on the field as it was in Salt Lake City, with whistles and stoppages permeating the match and causing a stop-and-start that was always going to favor the team playing for a point. If the U.S. could break through once, that would have been enough to win.
To get forward more effectively, Clint Dempsey played the most definite shadow striker role of the Hexagonal, operating just underneath Jozy Altidore. The U.S.’s 4-4-2 was basically an “empty bucket”—two deep midfielders and two wide men underneath the pair of strikers, although Dempsey checked back occasionally.
Honduras came out in a 4-1-4-1, with Jorge Claros holding very deep in front of the center backs and clogging passing lanes. Roger Espinoza pressed on a bit higher and drifted to the left, while Mario Martinez cut in on offense, and Wilson Palacios pushed up from central midfield to support Carlo Costly (and Roger Rojas, when Costly went out of the match).
Who is the No. 6, and Who is the No. 8?
Jermaine Jones made his way back into the U.S. starting lineup, cleared after a concussion he suffered in Jamaica on June 7. But while Geoff Cameron was more than happy to play a secondary role to Michael Bradley in the June 11 win over Panama, Jones wanted to be the center of attention in the midfield.
Jones’ best role is as the traditional No. 6; he’s a hard-nosed defensive midfielder who specializes in making life hell for opposing attackers. Bradley is the No. 8, the box-to-box midfielder who takes the ball from his defenders to jumpstarts attacks from a deep-lying position.
Bradley had another stellar night on the ball, going 74 for 82 in passing. On the other hand, Jones sent a number of errant passes and often tried to thread passes through spaces that just weren’t there.
In this example, look at the tight Honduran defense in the middle. It should be easy enough to get forward—just go around them on either side. Instead, Jones tries for the home-run ball, and he is frustrated when it doesn’t work out.
A couple minutes later, he does it again. His driven aerial pass toward Eddie Johnson sails over the midfielder’s head and out of play. Bradley, Fabian Johnson, and Matt Besler offer simpler passes that can be made on the ground.
It’s about playing the percentages most of the time in the midfield, which is what makes Bradley so effective—he has a solid sense for when to keep the ball and when to go for it.
And when Bradley goes for it, his difficult passes end up with the U.S. still in possession most of the time. Here, a gap opens up in that Honduran defensive cluster, and he can find Altidore’s feet on the front line. Altidore does well to outmuscle his marker and get on the correct side of the ball.
Around the Outside
With that tight bunch in the middle, the best U.S. option was more often to move the ball wide and attack from there. Brad Evans overlapped minimally, but Fabian Johnson ended up being one of the most effective U.S. attackers.
His passing record was also good on Tuesday, as he completed 48 out of 59 attempts, including 31 of 36 in the attacking half. He was a menace going forward, getting around the wide midfielder often, whether it was Eddie Johnson or Graham Zusi (the two switched flanks often).
Fabian Johnson played on the wing against Panama, and his effectiveness there came in keeping possession. He tucked in and checked back often, laying the ball off to keep it ticking for the U.S. However, when he has space to operate and get forward from the back, he can run at players and provide service into the box.
His starting position from outside back is a big reason for his success going forward. When his center backs or holding mids are in possession, he is already stretching the defense by getting high and wide.
This shot is from the seventh minute, when he created one of the first U.S. chances in the game. Eddie Johnson tucked in, Jones played a ball over him to Fabian Johnson, and a quick one-two combination saw Fabian Johnson get in behind Honduras’ defense.
On the goalscoring play, Zusi tucks in, giving Fabian Johnson room to get around him. This play builds slower than the counter-attack above, so Fabian Johnson’s starting position is deeper, and he more floats than sprints to a higher spot.
By the time Bradley gets on the ball, Fabian Johnson is again stretching the Honduras defense. In attack, players should be looking to provide both width (heels on the touchline for wide players) and depth (stretching defenders vertically to give more space underneath).
Fabian Johnson, Zusi, and Altidore provide the depth here. Evans and Eddie Johnson provide some width.
When Dempsey has the ball, Fabian Johnson and Zusi’s positioning pays off. Gaps open up in the Honduras defense, and Fabian Johnson times his run through perfectly to stay onside.
Zusi recognizes the space Fabian Johnson has in behind, so he flicks an inch-perfect pass into the penalty area for his overlapping outside back.
Altidore loses Juan Pablo Montes, his marker, but even if Altidore isn’t in position to finish, Eddie Johnson and Jones are. That original stretching of the Honduras back line gives the late runs space underneath the defense to be dangerous.
U.S. > Honduras > Panama
Honduras played similarly to Panama, but the reason the U.S. had more trouble is simply because Honduras is a better team, both individually and collectively. It ended up being a rather ugly game in a lot of respects, but a letdown seemed inevitable.
The U.S. hasn’t yet shown enough quality to defeat top CONCACAF competition in the same way it beat Panama. Gritty wins, such as Tuesday night’s, are more the norm against the better teams (Mexico, Costa Rica, and Honduras, to name three in the Hex).
The free-flowing style the Americans displayed against Panama is what fans should expect against that lower level of opposition, but the U.S. is not yet to the point of breaking down the best teams that way.
Liviu Bird is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. He is also American Soccer Now’s resident tactical expert. Follow him on Twitter.