Why the US National Team Should Not Play a 4-4-2 Formation

U.S. head coach Bob Bradley reacts during his team's Confederations Cup final soccer match against Brazil in Johannesburg in this June 28, 2009 file photo. Bradley, a studious man with a background in college soccer, was never going to generate the buzz of a big-name foreign coach but he knew the player pool well, knew the U.S. system and has now proved he knows how to get the best out of both. Qualifying for the World Cup is expected these days for the U.S. but beating European champions Spain on the way to the final of the Confederations Cup in South Africa last year was a pleasant surprise to even the country's most optimistic fans. REUTERS/Jerry Lampen/Files (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: SPORT SOCCER WORLD CUP)

Without a doubt, formations are one of the most underrated elements of the tactical game. Many countries adopt the simplistic two banks of four with two up top and that’s that. Not a whole lot of thinking goes into their formation.

The United States Men’s National Team and Coach Bob Bradley are ‘one of’ these countries who normally set up in a four-four-two formation. However, they have put their recent friendlies to good use by experimenting with different tactics and game plans. Sometimes playing Altidore and Dempsey up top or rotating them with Buddle and Gomez; I am often asking myself why? Just why does Bob Bradley insist on playing a formation that his team plays poorer in? This is in no way a pot shot at the U.S team’s ability. They are a gifted side. Nevertheless I believe they should look at other formations such as 4-4-1-1 with one in the ‘hole’ playing as the second strike and here’s why:

I believe the U.S are much better fitted for the 4-4-1-1 formation and one of the main reasons is to get the best of out their best players in their best position. Take Michael Bradley, for example. Bradley is a gifted, intelligent, energetic midfielder who does a splendid job of protecting the shakey U.S back four. However on a couple of occasions Bradley is used in a more offensive role albeit in a four man midfield, instead of a five man midfield. Consequently, Bradley is used in more of a ‘box to box midfielder’ role instead of his usual ‘sweeping up role’.

Therefore Bradley, instead of sitting deep and being more of a ‘deep lying midfielder,’ is forced to cover more ground which means come the latter stages of games and the tournament fatigue will likely set in and may hamper Bradley’s performance. If Bradley’s prime role is to rearguard his defense I fully believe he will excel in that role. This is not an uncommon tactic used by major nations. Nations such as Brazil, Spain and Italy all employ the same tactic of having a Claude Makelele type player sitting and safe-guarding their respective defences.

One other basis for my argument is that the U.S apply a very fluid philosophy when they are in possession. The likes of Donovan, Dempsey and Spector are not the most rigid of players and like to roam about the pitch and often leave gaps in their position. A prime example of this is in the friendly against Turkey where Spector could often be seen to leave gaping holes which were exploited by Adra Turan. The fluid philosophy that the United States employ is far from the problem. In fact, it allows for more creative freedom although it does come with a sense of danger. Huge holes of space in-between the defense and midfield are never a good idea and I believe that if the U.S were to go with a five man midfield this would allow them to remain as fluid as usual but they would be able to combat the potential dangerous counter attacks from teams by having a couple of players who remain in position and cover for those that have left to help out in attack.

Also, the U.S are more suited to a 4-4-1-1 formation because when having Jozy Altidore up front the U.S love to play long balls over the top of their opponents back line and allow Altidore to use his pace to frighten opposition defenders which is an intelligent game plan when there is space in behind the back four however this is not always the case. When teams face the U.S and deploy a deep defensive line this somewhat quells the threat of Altidore getting in behind the back four. Therefore, there must be a second option for the U.S to get in attacking positions. If they choose to go with 4-4-2, unless Altidore’s partner is the size of Peter Crouch or has the aerial ability of Tim Cahill, which Buddle, Gomez or Findley don’t necessarily possess, then Altidore is going to struggle to use his pace to his advantage. One option is to either make Altidore peal off down the wing and attack the full back and get to the bi-line whilst runners from midfield such as Donovan and Dempsey, who would be playing as part of a five man midfield, get into the box and cause havoc.

Another option though is to take a leaf out of Spain’s book and play short, snappy, precise passes to allow the midfield to interlock with the strikers and confuse the opposition defenders into who they are marking. We have seen glimpses of this from previous U.S games and the likes of Clark, Bradley, Donovan do possess the necessary ability to play this style of game if needed.

Simple football is often how this style of play is described and would suit the U.S down to a tee as the World Cup can be a place where the likes of Messi and Kaka try to show their individual ability but simple, concise, team football will allow the U.S to have more possession and there is no doubt that possession pays off and it will lead to attacking chances which the United States should be able to capitalise on. They’ll have to in the World Cup.

Finally, The main reason why teams start with two up front is so they have their strikers to link up. Rooney and Heskey epitomize this as they are an ideal partnership and are very similar to the little and large partnerships that many managers use to create chances for their teams. They generally have one pacey, quick, pest of a striker linking up with a big, boisterous, strong target man.

However, the U.S are in the fortunate situation to have a bit of the boisterous target man and pacey pest of a striker all rolled into one in Jozy Altidore. Therefore, there is no need to play to strikers to compliment Altidore and he compliments himself. Not only that, but, the target man that Bob Bradley chooses would have to possess some great physical talent to oust the likes of John Terry, Bostjan Cesar and Antar Yahia in a good old fashioned physical battle. Although there is one plus that comes with playing such physical defenders which is that they are less mobile than the likes of Altidore so if he can use his runs to pull the likes of Cesar out of position and then allow the runners from midfield to exploit the space left by the less mobile defenders; just as other nations have done so to the U.S to many times.

How the U.S should start versus England

After all my analysis, I believe it is rather important that the U.S do not set out in a 4-4-2 formation but instead go with the more diverse and dependable 4-4-1-1 as it will allow their players to shine on the biggest stage of the world. The likes of Bradley, Donovan, Clark and Dempsey are more suited to playing in a five man midfield. It will also allow the U.S to have more of a dominant role in midfield and to overrun teams in midfield and help them determine the outcome of the game. Once again, I’m not putting forward my C.V to be the next head coach of the United States I’m just making a few of my personal opinions heard.

What are your opinions about my tactical recommendations? Share your feedback in the comments section below.

0 thoughts on “Why the US National Team Should Not Play a 4-4-2 Formation”

  1. I think what you have said makes a lot of sense. I too am big on formations and believe that a formation should be used to get the best out of the players you have available.
    I think England will play a 4-4-2 against the U.S as Fabio will adopt a A. Fergurson type of thinking and go like for like against the opposition, basically saying we’ve got better players than you so if we play the same formation we should win.
    Man Utd do this a lot by mainly playing a 4-3-3 but changing to 4-4-2 when they come up against teams such as fulham who play a 4-4-2 formation.
    I think if the U.S is going to stand a chance they should drop the 4-4-2 against England, play 5 in midfield and 1 upfront and try to keep the ball, if they don’t, i see them getting beat quite easily.


    1. Hello,

      I agree that England will set out with a 4-4-2 formation against the U.S however I believe that’s down to Gareth Barry’s absence. On paper England do have the better players but that is why little things such as formations, tempo, philosophy, passing style and other tactics are vital. If the U.S get everything right, there’s no reason why this game won’t be a tight affair.

  2. I also liked your analysis but have to admit that I was already a fan of the 4-4-1-1 or 4-5-1. However, I am very interested in who you would play in the creative midfield role. Torres, Feilhaber?? Doesn’t seem that this role is suited to Clark or Edu.

    1. Hello short passes,

      Creativity is a must for the World Cup I’d say and you pose a good question. You are correct, Clark and Edu are much more of your bog standard, do the basics players and Torres did impress me and his young age could potential work in his favour as he may be naive to the magnitude of the World Cup. So if I had to choose I’d pick Torres but its tough. What about you?

  3. I have to admit that I am a big fan of Torres. I had heard of his rep a long time ago, then my son and I went to the T & T game in Nashville and we were both very impressed with his play. However, BB pulled him at half time. By a strange fluke of luck I sat next to Mike Sorber on my flight back to St.Louis and was very depressed when he said that Torres’ problem was that he was too small. Based on his lack of playing time I guess BB shares that opinion. Conclusion — I think Torres is the man but I am very concerned that he really hasn’t had sufficient playing time. Would I start him anyway? Hell ya !!!!!!!!!

  4. I would be very surprised if Bradley changed his midfield from the starters in the Australia game. It is likely the only difference in line-ups will be Altidore for Buddle and possibly Gooch for DeMerit.

  5. despite the score being 3-1 in the England vs Mexico game. I thought our downstairs neighbor controlled that game especially in latter stages of the game. I’m not sure what formation MEX used but short passing and creativity is what made the 3-1 scoreline look decieving.
    If you see this Mr.Craggs? What would your starting line up be for ENG vs USA game.

    1. Hello Lloyd,

      I agree, for large parts of the game Mexico outplayed England and if they had of been more clinical then it would have been a different story.

      My starting line up would be as follows:

      Spector Onyewu Goodson Bocanegra

      Donovan Bradley Clark Dempsey Torres


      I’d play this way as I think the back four Is solid and Spector is good enough with the right protection. You have Clark and Bradley protection the back four and Dempsey and Donovan running from midfield to help Altidore and when they attack Torres moves more central and acts as a deep lying play-maker and creates a solid three with Bradley and Clark but Torres shouldn’t be frightened to attack and run with the ball too.

  6. Torres won’t start. Bradley is too conservative. Besides, he is a bit small to play against the English at central midfield.

    Not sure why Ricardo Clark should start. He wasn’t all that spectacular on defense, and he was a drag on the offense. I think Bradley likes Clark because the guy only plays defense, and so son Michael gets to run up on offensive runs. Maybe that hamstring twinge we saw at the end of the Australia game will cause Bradley to start Edu, or bring in Torres.

    Torres is creative enough that he could sub for Donovan if that was ever necessary, but most likely Bradley would bring in Holden. Overall, I kind of doubt that Torres will see much action in this World Cup

  7. What about the tactical approach to this game. Back in the Sixties when an opponent had a very good player England in particular would continuously harrass that player using a different player each time. With Rooneys temper I think you could get under his skin and make him lose his cool. The U S has to be careful that they don’t just focus on Rooney though, The likes of Cole (Joe) and Wrightphillips also pose a major threat. I do believe that a five man midfield is the way to go. Control the ball and you control the game

    1. I’m not sure the US can expect to control possession in this match. I think Rooney’s frustration, as was pointed out in an excellent article in the Guardian, has more to do with his lack of getting the ball than harassment from opposing team’s players. He’s very used to getting hacked and can hang size-wise with almost anyone.

  8. Did anybody here watch the USA Turkey game? The first half Bob tried out this 4-4-1-1 and there was a reason he went back to the 4-4-2. The first half was garbage for the US. In 2006 Bruce Arenas thought the same thing, it never works for the US. Our youth systems are built around a 4-4-2, the European based US players play 4-4-2 and it’s what works for us. Landon and Edson both play a 4-5-1 for LA…under Bruce Arenas. It works against a weaker back 4, where through balls are more common but if you think the three kitties are a weak back 4….well I’m speachless

    1. Despite ESPN’s, pre match teams. Dempsey was played as more of an out and out striker than behind the striker in that game.

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