United States Men’s National Team: Formation Paralysis and the 4-2-2-2


One of the positives Bob Bradley has brought to the United States Men’s National Team is formation stability.

Whereas Bruce Arena employed an admirable adaptability, Bradley’s move to an unvarying 4-4-2 has given his players consistent time within one system, allowing them to master its intricacies, the virtues of which can be seen in the States’ skill on the counter.

In the wake of his late-summer interview with Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, Bradley’s approach is often described in terms of Italy, given his stated admiration for last decade’s AC Milan teams. But the current set-up became popular thanks to its success with Brazil, where it has become common to adapt central defenders who have distribution talent to pivot roles in a 4-2-2-2.

While this formation leads to a huge gap in the middle of the pitch (making link-up play difficult), Brazil augments this approach’s deficiencies with the athleticism and dynamism of their four main attackers.  Think Kaká, Fabiano, Robinho.

The U.S.’s success with this set-up has come as Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and Charlie Davies settled into their roles. Once Bob Bradley acquiesced to using Donovan and Dempsey as wingers, it gave Davies a route into the team, giving the United States enough firepower to offset what is an inherently conservative approach.

But whereas Brazil’s depth of talent will allow them to stay in this system through injuries and dips in performance, the United States’s talent pool is not as deep. If injuries occur, the United States will have difficult finding players to fill the four key attacking roles.

Depth becomes a bigger issue when some of the program’s key talents have no spot in this specialized set-up.  Some of the players who do have spots have been forced to adapt their styles to the system.

In addition, at central midfield, where the U.S. has a reasonable depth of talent, limiting the team to two players of a certain type means many talents face increased competition.

Injuries to Clint Dempsey (pictured) and Charlie Davies are stressing a 4-2-2-2 formation reliant on the skill of its four attackers.  (Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Injuries to Clint Dempsey (pictured) and Charlie Davies are stressing a 4-2-2-2 formation reliant on the skill of its four attackers. (Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Expanding on Issues: A Shorthanded Attack

While the United States has three very good attackers (Donovan, Dempsey, Davies) and a prospect (Altidore) whose potential for growth justifies his continued inclusion, there have been recently been questions surround three of those four options. Davies and Dempsey are recovering from long-term injuries and are still doubts for South Africa. Thankfully, Jozy Altidore has found a strong run of form at Hull City after a fall that looked to compromise his development.

Through all this, the other attacker – Landon Donovan – has continued to be the most reliable player in the national team set-up.

If the States had to replace three of their attacking four, would it make sense to stay with a system so reliant on these four attackers?

We have seen Stuart Holden’ mixed results (Gold Cup, compared to Honduras), a perfectly acceptable rate of development for a player so young. Robbie Rogers has been similarly inconsistent, while the replacement forward options are also problematic. Conor Casey had a good performance in Honduras, but those are his only international goals, while Brian Ching’s virtues are lost without a player like Davies playing off him.

If the United States ever had to go with Casey, Donovan, Holden and Rogers for a stretch of matches, would they be best served keeping the current formation?

Possibly, possibly not, but the current inflexibility leaves no choice.  The lack of options only exacerbates the drawbacks of the 4-2-2-2.

Any criticism of Michael Bradley (pictured) must keep in mind: the 4-2-2-2 forces him to play out-of-position. (Photo: Newscom)

Expanding on Issues: Central Midfield Depth, Two Spots

In the Brazilian system, the key to the two central midfielders’ value is ball-winning ability and distributing diagonally to the wings and forwards going wide to win balls.

Perhaps this explains the United States’ reliance on the counter attack.  The U.S. has no players playing the deep midfield roles who can consistently provde this type of distribution (let alone overcome the formation’s problems and link-up conventionally). Michael Bradley could be this type of player in a more traditional, central midfield role but not from a defensive position to which he is less-suited.

In the current set-up, the U.S.’s best option for the pivot positions is to rely on their best ball winners, but Jermaine Jones and Maurice Edu have had fitness issues that could keep them from settling-in before South Africa. Ricardo Clark is the next-best option, showing consistent improvement over the last year, becoming the States’ best ball-winning midfielder.

Michael Bradley has valiantly played this role, slowly adapting over the qualifying cycle, but his talents are wasted in this spot.  In addition, his tackling is not his best skill, often putting him in a bad position as a central midfielder.  He may never be able to avoid the constant threat of yellow and red cards should he continue to be deployed in this role.

Bradley would be better in a pure, central midfielder’s role, if not a more attacking position (like he played at Heerenveen). His father’s system has forced him to be shoehorned into a role to which he is not suited.

Michael Bradley is not the only player without a natural spot in the 4-2-2-2. Kyle Beckerman, Jose Francisco Torres and Freddy Adu are also players who may need to change their games. And where do younger players like Chris Pontius – or even Stuart Holden – fit?

Perhaps they don’t, but in lieu of a deep talent pool like Brazil’s – where a player like Anderson could come in and replace Felipe Melo, even if a player like Diego doesn’t have a role – the United States faces a troubling choice when people get hurt:

Stay with a 4-2-2-2 that would exclude that match’s best options, or develop a back-up plan?

Bob Bradley's deference to Italy and AC Milan can be used to inspire a fall-back formation: 4-3-2-1. (Photo: Newscom)

Alternative: Of Pyramids and Christmas Trees

The United States’ success with a 4-2-2-2 makes it difficult to abandon it, but Bradley should have at least one other option to fall back upon in case of injury or bad match-ups. Given the United States’ depth in central midfield, its swallow pool at forward, that fall-back should be a 4-3-2-1.

Ironic because of Bradley’s Italy deference, his choice club – AC Milan – exclusively employed a 4-3-2-1 at the end of Carlo Ancellotti’s tenure.

Like the U.S. Men’s National team, Milan had a lot of depth at the 3-level (Andrea Prilo, Gennaro Gattuso, captain Massimo Ambrosini, Mathieu Flamini and players who could occasionally play at that level: Clarence Seedorf, David Beckham).

Like the USMNT, there was a thinning crop of forwards, where an aging Filippo Inzaghi continued to top the pyramid (or, Christmas tree) before this year’s switch to a 4-4-2 (and then a 4-3-3).

As would be the case with Bob Bradley’s team, AC Milan has had creative presences at the 2-level that were able to express themselves with the relatively free roles afforded by this system. Most famously, Kaká exploited this, but Seedorf, Alexandre Pato and Ronaldinho also saw benefits from this set-up.

For the United States, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey would be perfect fits at the 2-level, where Charlie Davies could also play there. This could also be a better fit for players like Torres, Adu, and Holden.

Playing with three central midfielders in a 4-3-2-1 could also offer protection for a back line that can have its relative lack of quickness exploited.

This summer, we have seen strong performances (Spain) from a United States central defense that featured Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit, but if you get either of those two moving laterally, they can be consistently beaten. Having three central defenders who can play deep helps keep the opposition from easily moving through the back line’s gaps.

With three central midfielders, you can are also less-reliant on players like Bradley, Feilhaber, and Beckerman being ball-winners. Again, we turn to AC Milan for an illustration.  Andrea Pirlo has played a deeper role for the recent Milan sides, but he’s never had to be a hard man. That’s been Gattuso. That’s been Ambrosini (to a certain extent).

Michael Bradley, in a 4-3-2-1, could play slightly above players like Jones and Edu and Clark.  With a more ambitious deployment, the USMNT could better utilize Bradley’s skill, helping the team to better link-up play through the middle of the pitch.

Having three players in the deeper positions of midfield would allow one (or more) of the Jones, Edu, Clark trio to jump into attack, leaving up to two players back to protect. The midfield trio could pick-and-choos their opportunities to get forward without leaving the team exposed.

The Need for Flexibility

The 4-3-2-1 could turn into a better option for the 4-2-2-2. It’s a better fit for the program’s personnel, and it allows for more on-field, tactical flexibility than the current set-up.

But the current approach has been proven to work. The players have developed a certain expertise, allowing them to give performances like the one we saw in Honduras.  Even so, the ability to switch to a 4-3-2-1 could be a valuable in-game tactical option, whether it be to preserve a lead or to augment play when the United States struggles though the midfield.

Even if the 4-2-2-2 remains the preferred option, the fitness and form issues that have plagued the United States’ attackers make a 4-3-2-1-option a beneficial fall-back.

19 thoughts on “United States Men’s National Team: Formation Paralysis and the 4-2-2-2”

  1. Good thoughts, but you are preaching to choir. Bradley will never change. He doesnt even make in game adjustments despite getting run all over the field.

    I will disagree about Holden though. He is not in the same league of creativity as Torres and at the international level is much better suited to get wide and send precise balls into the box.

    1. Hi Rex:

      Thanks for the feedback. I think we are actually in agreement on Torres vs. Holden, though in the context of the piece, it wasn’t really something I wanted to get into.


  2. Good piece – thought provoking. I like it. Gets the coach in me thinking – hope it gets Bradley thinking too. Keep up the good work!

  3. Interesting article but far too analytical in my opinion. Formation is important but it’s not like the formation will somehow greatly improve a team. Especially for Brazil, they play a free flowing game so formation matters less, little relationship to usa. Also why so many references to Davies? We all hope he can recover for WC but highly unlikely to be WC fit. Bradley has to consider so many other factors such as speed, height to win headers, team chemistry, injuries, toughness, consistency, hustle, balance, etc. As of today, injuries seem to be the major factor as to the perceived formation. It could easily be announced a 4-4-2 but actually since we can play 2 def mids to help our centerbacks, have a good choice of small but skilled attacking mids, and lack powerful forwards, you’d end up with essentially a 4-2-3-1. Not necessarily a bad thing.

    1. Zoo:

      Thanks for the feedback.

      Unfortunately. at times, I do tend to write as if I’m standing in front of a dry erase board and diagraming Xs and Os. I think some people like it, but I try to make it accessible. Regardless, I appreciate the feedback.

      Changing formation will not make the United States into Brazil, but I don’t think that should be the goal. Still, the Brazil references bare a large relationship to what the USA has tried to do. Just because the U.S. does not have Brazil’s plays does not mean their formation tries to accomplish different things.

      The references to Davies: the formation worked best when he was healthy and starting. I purposefully avoided talking about him in reference to the World Cup. In fact, this article is all about what to do when Davies is not available. There are not references to the World Cup or Davies’ availability for it.

      Regarding all the factors Bradley must consider, I agree, but nothing in my article should hint at those considerations being a non-factor in a potential formation shift. There is no reason a 4-3-2-1 should inhibit any of the benefits the team could get from those characteristics.

  4. It’s a good read but sadly that’s all since Bob will never change unless absolutely forced to by injuries, and even then he is very reluctant. You kept mentioning Davies but don’t forget that Bob wanted Ching in SA but his injury meant that Davies got a chance to show what he can do, otherwise Bradley would probably still be starting Ching every single game.

    The sad thing is that Bradley has convinced himself that he is a tactical genius. That has to be the case, why would anybody stick with a system so devoutly when it is so inconsistent and many of the results have come from defensive errors committed by the opponents rather than Bob’s offense being an effective weapon. Why would anybody deny the strengths of the team such as a deep player pool of attacking midfielders and insist on going with two d-mid spots who are then played by one or even two attacking players.

    For me the biggest failing of the Bradley system is that he has stuck with his system and his boys for over 3 years now and the team still looks lost, confused, and unmotivated. All we heard from the Bradley supporters was give him time to get the team to gel and then he will intergrate new players in. Well neither has happened the team at times plays like they just met and the new players were never worked into the squad resulting in the panic that we now have over who can replace the injured ones.

    I am hoping for the best but I fear that this World Cup, with Bob at the helm, has the potential to be THE biggest embarrassment for soccer in the US. Sorry about the disorganized rant. I not a writer or an expert, just a fan with an opinion and a big fan of this website.

    1. Great stuff, JL. I don’t agree with it all, but even the things I don’t agree with were great points.

      I think Bob Bradley would be more apt to change his formation and tactic is the media had a meaningful conversation about them. Unfortunately, that has not happened. In fact, the opposite has happened. Bradley has ben portrayed by some as an adroit puppeteer getting the most for inferior equipment.

      I don’t completely agree with those characterizations, but I think there is merit to the claim. Still, there is always room for improvement, and while Bradley possibly deserves credit for getting performances like the one in San Pedro Sula, there is always room to improve.

      In the piece, I wanted to engage the drawbacks the USMNT accepts by being inflexible in their formation. To me, that is a place were we could, Bradley-willing, see improvement.

      If the people covering the USMNT start to engage Bradley in this conversation, perhaps we will see more flexibility?

      Perhaps not.

  5. Nicely done Richard. A few notes:

    1. Symmetry can be oversold.

    For instance, without Davies we might play:

    Jose Francisco Torres is unique in our player pool. He has vision and can move the ball intelligently.

  6. I was reading this, waiting for the moment where I can point to a mistake, say “AHA!,” and stop reading anything the author ever posts. But this is very well done Mr. Farley. i completely agree with everything in here, you make a strong argument, and I can see what the positives are in a 4-3-2-1, even if it wouldn’t be my first or second choice for this team. But you’re right in that Bob has to change and be more flexible.

    1. Thanks, Kartik. I appreciate that you were willing to give the piece a chance, and I can definitely see why others would prefer different set-ups.

  7. One characteristic of Bradley’s strategy that bothers me and which I noticed particularly in the Denmark and Honduras games was his sending of the outside backs so far forward. In the Denmark game it seemed like the Danes had noticed the open space that was left at right back and instructed their team to take advantage of it during the half time break. Shortly after that they scored the goals that won the game.

    Hejduk was in the front right corner when Denmark made a break and although he is fast, he could not make it back to his position in time to stop Denmark from using the empty space. The same thing happened with Wynn in the Honduras game. Wynn sure did hustle back but often could not get back fast enough to do any good.

    I just don’t like the outside backs vacating their positions to that extent and I did not see any passes or moves on their parts to justify them being so far forward. I seldom see this strategy used in the foreign league games that I watch.


    1. Hi Tom:

      Often times I think the U.S. keeps their backs too far back in this system, as one of the keys to it is pushing the left and right wing backs forward, augmenting those four attackers in a way the two central midfielders are not deployed to do. Of course, the main reason the U.S. has been more conservative in this vein than Brazil: the U.S. goes not have Maicon, Dani Alves, Andre Santos, Michel Bastos-type players.

      When the U.S. does try to get attacking play from their flanks, they are in trouble. I think you do a good job describing it. They lack the play from the wing backs and defensive midfielders to compensate. A player like Felipe Melo can slot in behind a wing back who has pushed forward, but asking Michael Bradley to do this seems ambitious.

      When Bradley has Spector and Bocanegra as fullbacks, he can’t get those two into attack. He should be playing a flat back four.

      If Bradley had Cherundolo and Castillo, that’s different, and he can get more ambitious, though I would prefer he had Jones and Edu, when doing so.

  8. i’d prefer to see a 4-2-3-1 which enables us to hold an attack and the backs providing the width as well. the issue with 4-2-2-2 is demspey has to track back and no support in the middle leaving bradley to make reckless tackles.

    1. Assume Dempsey is playing the number ten? I agree. The issue is the same for Davies or whomever else is playing the supporting striker’s role.

      I do think that a 4-2-3-1 as the base formation would be better. I have questions as to whether the U.S. can fill-out the three atop the midfield in a way that is as effective as their two striker approach, but I would love to see this formation explored.

      I wanted to write a piece that gave the 4-2-2-2 some credit. I do believe, as I wrote to lead the piece, that the formation stability has helped the U.S. However, there does seem to be a bit of paralysis, right now.

  9. I’m with the guys advocating 4-2-3-1 – a position I’ve advocated here and on other forums. I also agree with the comment regarding Denmark’s exploitation of our push to send backline defenders too far forward.

    When Barcelona attacks, they essentially leave three defenders back. They typically don’ t push them forward the way BB likes to. There is a lesson to be learned here.

    The 4-2-3-1 alignment allows the USMNT to play to its strengths. Bradley, Jones, Clark and Edu can play the CDM roles capably in a rotation. Donovan and Dempsey can take the left and right wings, respectively. Torres would make a fine CAM. Bedoya, Holden, Feilhaber and Adu provide for competent substitute attacking midfielders.

    I’m not saying that the USMNT should go exclusively to this formation. However, being able to play it would allow the team flexibility that would be helpful against some opponents.

  10. In the Holland game I don’t think the formation would have made much difference. The problem there was in our passing. The Orange completed about 90% or more of their passes. My rough estimate is that we were only completing about 60 %. If we don’t do better that that in the World Cup, it will be 1-2-3 and out. I was very discouraged by our performance in Amsterdam and I had the feeling that the only reason we scored a goal is that the Dutch had relaxed their coverage of the corner kick.
    On the other hand, our corner backs stayed back behind the mid line most of the time, and the back line was strong against the Netherlands attacks.


  11. The energy and thiought in this forum is very exciting, and yhere seesm to be solid knowledge which in itself depicts a country maturing and developing within the apron of the beautiful game.

    What is right and what is not? I believ that we have afew inherent problems which need to be addressed before we start consistently showing strenght at the top level.

    First, the USMNT needs to develop a culture and identify if you will, around the base of players it holds. There seems to be no blue print for a developing a plan based on our existing human resources, but rather, forcing our gradually increasing volume ofhuman resources into a preconceived, pre-packaged tactical package. This is critically erroneous, and foolhardy. Emulation of other systems of play is a juvenile absurdity. The player pool the U.S. insists on developing, possesses a vastly different efficiency, productivity, technical capacity and mindset than similar players abroad. Pre-establishing a cookie cutter mentaklity will never solve the MNT ‘s inherent deficiencies. Talk of tactical formations is thought provoking at best, but pure wasted verbiage in reality. The USMNT needs to establish a tactical system. consistent with the strenghts and weaknesses inherent in their pool of players. The current batch, offers nothing in the way of a solution for them to adopt a 4-2-2-2 sytem of play.

    Second, if the U.S. is to progress beyond its adolescent stage, it must begin to develop and identify more technically proficientand tactically saavy players than the crop of robiots it always seems to adorn the field with. Seriously, name me one…just one…american player who is enjoying world class success abroad!? Everytime the U.S. flexes its muscles, it throws out the names of Landon Donovan, Josemir Altidore, et al….what of it? These are still by all true standards, second or even third level players, the world is inundated with players of this caliber . Accept the fact, that the great machinery of american propaganda and well wishers for pronounced american success in soccer are pushing for these results…but they are not here yet, and won’t arrive for a while to come. Players are not being developed in american the way they are in Europe or South America. In the U.S. the general populous are still concerned more about winning…the great american tradition! players are more concerned at the youth level in trophies, awards, championships and records. High school soccer is accorded legendary status when all they do is corrupt the seasoned travel player who aspires to represent his school for an absurd 25 game schedule within a two month period and without an iota of training! Players are pawned into 12 tournaments a year,so that the inflated ego of pseudo coaches, can grow even larger. The players are mistrteated, misunderstood and emotionally, physiologically and mentally “abused” by egocentric, diploma garnering “coaches” who haven’t an idea of how to properly hydrate a player or how to even gauge their necessary recovery periods. Then we look upon their lifetime acheivements, amassing hundreds of victories, and we crown them the ‘chosen” ones to uphold and develop the future of a game that still is infant and heading in no concerted direction!

    I am so exhausted with the incessant wave of the “expert” opinions that journalists, fellow coaches and television personalities dispense around, as if the U.S. has arrived and deserves serious consideration at the world stage. The U.S. is not there, and has made very little strides – true inroads, in defining its soccer personality and soccer culture. With all due respect to the overwhelming flood of brits coaching soccer in America, but you have set back the U.S. for decades or at the very least, you have dwarfed its potential and stymied its growth. The U.S. has almost unabashedly crowned the mother country, the best model of soccer on which to base its future. They forget that since 1966, nothing has transpired there. The U.S. is flooded by these ‘”xperts”, who sound so intelligent, but have done nothing but detain the growth of soccer in America, and determined, that from a pool of talent unlike few in the world, the U.S. can and should only seek out players of a certain, height, speed and mindset – a G.I. joe assembly line if you will. How original! The truth is that this narrow-minded mentality is stunting its growth. The game is both being “under” taught and over “coached”. Bring in a new wave of teachers and see this nation develop and progress. Otherwise, entertain yourselves with TV journalists who purport to have all the answers and cannot even be understood, coaches that know nothing about teaching and developing players, and a mindset that believes that soccer in America should follow like everything before…an assembly line like that of the Model-T. What a novel concept!! Maybe new blood, new ideas, and an allowance for creativity and a less-structured, less goal oriented youth soccer environment may provide the answers everyone seeks. The relevance given this mindset is at the forefront of the failure…its the American way. Win at all costs, if not there is no measurable success! How tragic a mentality! Everywhere else in the world, the team which loses in the final is adjudicated the title of “Sub Champion”, a well deserved accolade for such success. Here it is called 2nd place or by youth standards and by their own vocalization, it is the “losers” positioin and the medals are worthless, as even demonstrated by U.S. players from the MNT, upon losing the final top Brasilin the Confederations Cup. What a wonderful display of sportsmanship! Pathetic!

    In the mean time, Tsar Bradley would do well to read his basic trainign manual of Soccer 101, and develop a tactical alignment suited to the type of players he possesses, and not the other way around! Arrogance will be his eventual downfall. defiance as well…furthermore, his offspring should not be playing for the MNT, it reaks of paternalism and nepotism…and truthfully, there are vastly superior players who should be playing in his place…!

  12. Stick by your team through thick and thin, despite the wins and losses.
    ‘The teams, the broadcast contract and our showcase games this
    year are going to generate tremendous excitement about this League
    and the great seasons to come. In a very short time he built a very, very thorough roster that can beat you in a
    number of ways.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *