Two week ago I authored an article about the evolution of US tactics since Steve Sampson’s days.
Since that article, Bob Bradley has switched his tactical setup for two consecutive matches while continuing his incredibly consistent and predictable squad selection.
Bradley went from the empty bucket 4-4-2 against Honduras to a 4-5-1 with essentially three holding midfielders against Italy. The former formation allowed Honduras, without its two best midfielders to dominate the early play and exploit huge gaps in the American midfield early in the match. The latter formation allowed the US to dictate much of the early play against Italy, but the Azzuri are notoriously slow starters in international matches often times absorbing pressure for 20-25 minutes before really starting to take chances going forward.
When your manager continues to make tactical changes between matches (but rarely during matches something that will be addressed later), players have to rediscover what their role in a particular setup is. Bruce Arena famously in 2002 changed formations, tactics and the squad in every World Cup match using all but one eligible field player in the tournament. But Arena had previously tested each of the tactical alignments in friendlies- in fact the US’ sluggish form entering the 2002 World Cup could have been easily attributed to experimentation with lineups in friendly tune ups.
But Bradley unlike Arena has not tested his changes except perhaps in training and has left many players wondering what their role is. Beyond this, some players are made a scapegoat for mistakes like Jose Francisco Torres was for the first Costa Rican goals two weeks ago, while others like DaMarcus Beasley and Carlos Bocanegra can make fatal mistakes and continue to be selected. In fact it can be strongly argued that Torres was out of position because Beasley playing left back was thought to be releasing a through ball up the left flank to Torres, not playing a clumsy clearance that was intercepted which left Torres and the rest of the US team woefully out of position.
It’s no small irony that Torres came from completely outside the USSF youth development system while Beasley and Bocanegra have been within the system for ten plus years and both played for Bradley at the club level.
As inconsistent as Bradley’s tactics have been from match to match in recent weeks, his inability to make the proper tactical changes during a match have been exposed both against Costa Rica and Italy.
Even the much maligned Steve Sampson made quick tactical and formation changes after a devastating red card on the road years ago. In 1997, Sampson absorbed an early red card to left back Jeff Agoos and tucked his midfield into a compact shape that allowed the US to get its first ever point at Azteca Stadium.
Monday, with a one goal lead at halftime despite being a man down, Bradley attacked from the start of the second half, looking for a second goal which wasn’t going to come. In keeping his players in roughly the same position but playing without a defensive midfielder that was sent off, Bradley allowed Marcello Lippi to make two critical substitutions and give Andreas Pirlo a freer role to exploit the incredible amount of space that had opened up in the American midfield.