At some point, Jurgen Klinsmann made the decision that the formula that churned out the USA’s best ever year in 2013 wasn’t going to be good enough at the World Cup.
When he named his 23-man squad, Klinsmann axed four of the players who started the crowning game of his tenure as manager, the 2-0 victory against Mexico in Columbus.
Against Turkey in the US’ second warmup game, Klinsmann’s backline was made up of Timmy Chandler, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler, and Fabian Johnson – otherwise known as one of the four men who played the majority of the Hexagonal.
I get it – Ghana, Portugal and Germany are different beasts than Panama and Honduras, and the idea of Brad Evans squaring up with Cristiano Ronaldo may have made Klinsmann squeal.
But what the German coach is about to do is take a major gamble.
Not only is he going into the World Cup with a backline that has barely ever seen each other – some have suggested communication may even be a problem for the German-American players – Klinsmann also changing formations, from a tried, true, and conservative 4-2-3-1 to a rollicking 4-4-2 diamond that he fell in love with in the first half of April friendly with Mexico.
This is risky. Not only does the diamond midfield provide much less cover for the American’s wobbling defense, it also begs the question of whether Michael Bradley’s best position is really as an advanced playmaker.
In qualifying, the US played with two central midfielders who both had defensive duties. Generally, either Bradley or Jermaine Jones slid back to hold while the other moved forward. While Jones’ discipline was often questioned – and rightly so – the US gave up the least goals in qualifying. In fact, they never conceded at home.
Going to a diamond pulls Bradley out of a defensive role, leaving Jones to cover.
Jones can be disciplined if he has to. But taking risks, making runs and playing aggressively is what Jones does best, and he’s totally bottled up if he doesn’t have another player beside him.
That said, this isn’t about Jones. It’s about Bradley.
The USA’s #4 did put in an intoxicating performance against Mexico. Miguel Herrera said he looked like “the best player in the world” in the first half.
But that was against Herrera’s B-team in a game that wasn’t even on an official FIFA date. Talk about the World Cup being a different animal.
Much of what makes Bradley great is his tireless work-rate, his own aggression and tenacity, and his deep passing ability.
Putting Bradley at the top of a diamond negates much of that ability.
Bradley is getting better all the time as a playmaker, but he’s not refined enough to play the #10 role as effectively as he plays the #8.
It was no surprise that Bradley had an unusually high number of giveaways against both Azerbaijan and Turkey. Even if Bradley’s best position is higher up the field, the US needs all the defensive help it can get in the World Cup. Clogging up the midfield and keeping the game tight has to be a priority.
I’m sorry, but if the US gets into a shootout with any of the teams they are facing, they are going to lose. The tempo and openness of the Turkey game would be a World Cup death sentence.
It’s no secret that Klinsmann isn’t a master tactician. That’s never been his calling card. This system plays into his personal preference for attacking football, but now is hardly the time for something new, let alone something this risky.
There are other questions with the 4-4-2. Both the US’ fullbacks – DeMarcus Beasley could start, but given Klinsmann’s recent personnel decisions, I wouldn’t bet on it.
Fabian Johnson did this to great effect against Turkey, and got a goal for his efforts. Chandler plays an attack-minded game too, but he was more noticeably caught up field against the Turks.
In the diamond formation, there is less cover for those wing players should they decide to go forward. With only one center midfielder, it’s going to be hard for the US to get numbers back against counters from the likes of their group, which has some of the best counter-attacking teams in the world.
At the other end of the pitch, is Clint Dempsey really a forward? Putting Dempsey up top with Jozy Altidore makes the most of Dempsey’s poaching ability, but it’s entirely possible that his best position would be just behind a lone forward, or perhaps at the top of the diamond in the position set up for Bradley.
Everything about Klinsmann’s formation and roster choices screams go-for-broke. Taking players like DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green are way more risky than taking Clarence Goodson or Landon Donovan would have been.
The US don’t have an impossible task in Group G. Ghana is not unbeatable. But are the US playing right into their hands?
Ghana isn’t necessarily great at creating offense in tight games. They lost against well-drilled European teams Holland and Montenegro 1-0. But when space is open, Ghana can be ruthless.
Just ask Bob Bradley about the 6-1 drilling his Egypt side took in the first leg of their World Cup playoff.
Klinsmann also has to be concerned that their midfield will be overrun by Ghana’s Sulley Muntari and Michael Essian.
I think everyone can agree that it’s fair to say the US need just about everything to go right for them to advance. Already, Klinsmann has rocked the ship with his Donovan decision, which in turns gobsmacked and enraged. But after the win against Nigeria, the US goes into the game against Ghana with a renewed confidence.