6914_isi_klinsmannjurgen_usmntjd060714101 John Dorton/isiphotos.com
Post-Game Analysis

Will This Gift Keep Giving? U.S. Tries Christmas Tree

Jurgen Klinsmann says formations don't matter, but the 4-3-2-1 setup used against Nigeria on Saturday certainly seemed to work. ASN's Mike McCall has more from the mixed zone.

BY Mike McCall Posted
June 09, 2014
10:16 AM
JACKSONVILLE, Fla.— From an outside perspective, the most interesting part of the U.S. national team’s Send-Off Series was that it provided ample fodder for an ongoing discussion about what the squad will look like when it takes the field in Brazil.

Who would win key position battles in the midfield and defense? Would Landon Donovan’s absence matter? Would the Americans come out in a 4-2-3-1 formation, as had seemingly become their trademark? Or, in an obvious tribute to the rapper Jay-Z, would Jurgen Klinsmann throw up a diamond in his midfield as part of a 4-4-2?

There will be no concrete answers until the U.S. suits up against Ghana on June 16, but Saturday’s 2-1 win over Nigeria certainly seemed to provide an enormous clue.

Following his statement that formation talk is “useless,” Klinsmann pulled a surprise by naming a squad with three central midfielders — Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman — that felt reminiscent of the early days of his U.S. tenure.

This was a free-flowing formation, operating as a 4-3-2-1 in defense and offering a range of options going forward.

Beckerman manned central midfield in front of the back four, flanked by Jones on his left and Bedoya on his right. Ahead of them, Bradley worked alongside forwards Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, who took turns playing up top.

The tactical adjustment was borne out of necessity, Klinsmann said, after his team conceded too much open space in a 2-1 win over Turkey. If that was an issue against the Turks — who will be watching the World Cup from home — what would happen against powers like Germany and Portugal?

“We have to make the space as tight as possible. That’s just the way it is,” Klinsmann said, adding that compactness was the theme ahead of the Nigeria match.

The message took hold.

Nigeria had much less room to roam than Turkey, and while there were still some miscues, the U.S. defended capably.

“Our main focus was, ‘Hey, we’re going to play against these good teams (in Brazil), they’re going to have possession at times,’ and it was about not letting them be dangerous,” Beckerman said. “There were times, especially in the first 20 minutes, where they had a lot of possession but they weren’t dangerous. So it seemed to work, what we worked on this week. … It was all about watching each other’s back.”

Now, to Klinsmann’s point, the improved U.S. performance owed more to personnel and hustle than the formation itself, but the 4-3-2-1 served as the vehicle to deliver what may be the right combination of players.

It was like a sturdy Christmas Tree, but with lower branches that morphed into the rocket-laden arms of a Transformer robot.

Beckerman didn’t have his best game, but his position allowed him to do what he does best: serve as Chief Back-Watcher and free up Jones and Bradley to be more active in the attack.

Starting from a deep position wouldn’t seem to play to Bedoya’s strengths, but he was effective nonetheless, and it helped to have active fullbacks like Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley flying up and down the wings.

After a slow opening 20 minutes, that system began to spring to life.

One of the team’s best early sequences came on a possession that saw touches from both Beckerman and Jones before Bradley’s shot forced a save.

And minutes later, Jones having the freedom to get forward led directly to the first goal of the contest (with help from Johnson and Bedoya). The same could be said of chances that Bradley created for Dempsey and Altidore in the second half.

That was a result of what had once seemed somewhat unthinkable. It has always been Jones vs. Beckerman for the second spot alongside Bradley. But now, could playing all three be the answer?

“Hey, I’m all for it. We can play together. That sounds good,” Beckerman said of Jones. “It’s great. He has such a motor and he’s so powerful. He likes to drive and get into the attack. So if I have to sit in there and watch his back, it’s all good, and I know he can cover a ton of ground.”

Bradley praised the adjusted approach as well, and it proved flexible with substitutions too. Graham Zusi was an easy fill-in for Bedoya, and when Mix Diskerud came on for Beckerman, Bradley dropped back a line to allow the Norwegian-born playmaker a chance to get into the attack.

“If [Jones and Beckerman] are both on the field, it’s not going to make sense for me to be hanging around so deep all the time,” Bradley said. “At the end, when Kyle goes off and I’m playing deeper, then I have to be the one to give the thing a little more balance. It just depends, tactically, on how we want to go about it.”

It wasn’t a perfect game, but the lineup did provide a few things that would come in handy as the U.S. slogs through Group G: a compact defense, a quick counter, the ability for Bradley to focus on creating chances, and flexibility and options off the bench.

There’s no telling whether that will be the formula a week from now, but it’s hard to imagine Klinsmann trying something new this close to the World Cup, seeing it work well, and then abandoning it.

Of course, he’s not about to hand that information over, but he did strike a very positive tone after the match. And with players making runs from deep on the counter, Saturday’s lineup may deliver the kind of formation-defying deception he’s looking for.

“We’ll try to build as many cards to play as possible so the opponent doesn’t know who the most dangerous one is at the end of the day,” Klinsmann said. “I think, step by step, we’re getting there.”

Mike McCall is an ASN contributor and enthusiast of Christmas trees both artificial and real. What did you think of the U.S. formation? Want to see it again in Brazil? Does it matter?

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