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.
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.