he grew a beard
|WHAT||Michigan vs Utah Utes Of Utah (We're From Utah!)|
Ann Arbor MI
September 20th, 2014
|THE LINE||M –4|
|TICKETS||From 23 bucks for a real game? Wow.|
|WEATHER||Muggy, high 70s
70% chance of rain
We know very little about what Utah might be like this year; they opened the season against I-AA Idaho State (what's up Matt Gutierrez) and a hilariously incompetent version of Fresno State. Remember how Nebraska was in a dogfight with McNeese State? Yeah, they just blew the pants off of Fresno. The Bulldogs have three games under their belt and have given up over 50 points in each, and neither Nebraska nor USC has exactly covered themselves in glory in their other games.
So: I dunno man.
Run Offense vs Utah
Utah's DL is a bit wee
Utah may be tractable here. While hilariously incompetent Fresno State couldn't go anywhere, Idaho State moved the ball on the ground efficiently. Their top two backs combined for 34 carries and nearly 200 yards; they averaged 5.7 yards a pop. (It was ISU's horrendous passing game that prevented them from doing much: 4 yards an attempt.)
The Ute DL is undersized, rolling out a 5'11", 285 pound nose tackle and 3-4-ish DEs that run 266 and 276; it's unknown how they'll respond to a 2TE offense but their slot corner is 5'8", 178 so just folding him inside is going to be a bad idea. They either went with six guys when Fresno put two guys in the backfield or rolled a safety down.
Against the spreads they've faced so far Utah runs a lot of the 3-man-front-with-standup-DE I've been calling "30 slide" in the UFRs; that standup guy is 255, so when they slide down to a four-man front their SDE and three-tech both weigh less than Frank Clark.
Meanwhile, almost all of these guys are new: only two front-seven starters are back from last year's in-fact-excellent rush D, which finished 17th in the nation at 3.5 yards a pop. (This obscures some roller coaster action: one week after giving up 300 rushing yards to Arizona, Utah held USC's entire team to poor-damn-Toussaint output: 30 yards on 30 carries… in a game they lost by 16!)
Ace noted that even when they were stuffing hilariously incompetent Fresno State those guys weren't holding up too well:
Utah's undersized DTs can get pushed around quite a bit—on a play that stood as a testament to Fresno's inability to do anything right even when doing something right, they pancaked both DTs on an inside run, but failed to account for a single linebacker, managing just two yards even though both tackles were on the dang ground.
The best things these guys have going for them are the legitimately disruptive Nate Orchard (who's from the same high school Sione Houma and Bryan Mone are) and their nose tackle's spectacular name: Viliseni Faounuku.
You never know about mostly new football defenses but the overall picture here is encouraging.
On the winged side of the ball, Michigan is gradually working out the kinks in its zone-heavy scheme. Last week Michigan had a lot of success after some early stumbles and blasted out over six yards a carry. It was against a horrible opponent, but it still represented progress. Michigan's tailbacks hit some of the large holes this time out. Tiny flags were waved in response. Michigan mashed an undersized Miami line off the ball for the most part.
Presented with an opportunity to do something similar against the Utes Michigan is likely to take it. Those kinks will linger—expect Derrick Green to cut to the backside when he's got a promising hole at least once; it actually seems like Michigan can expect success against a Power 5 school.
Key Matchup: Michigan tailbacks versus RUN THERE WHY DON'T YOU RUN THERE. Improved in the last game; there should be similar opportunities in this one.
[Hit THE JUMP for the terrifying tower of tempo.]
Michigan vs Miami
(Not That Miami)
Ann Arbor MI
September 13th, 2014
|THE LINE||M –33.5|
|TICKETS||Slightly cheaper than last week: 20 bucks|
Partly cloudy, 60
0% chance of rain
Tip of the hat there.
This is not a good scoreline.
This isn't Bo's Miami. The EDSBS commentariat's preferred term to distinguish this Miami from the other one is "puntin' Miami," and it's not like the other Miami has been Oregon this last little bit. Miami is bad. Miami is coming off losses to Marshall and Eastern Kentucky. They've already suffered 21 penalties. Miami is probably about as good as Appalachian State (not THAT Appalachian State).
So this is a good opponent for right now.
Run Offense vs Miami (Not That Miami)
guys chasing guys
Marshall was a very good run offense a year ago and picked up where they left off in their opener, with Devon Johnson ripping off a 55-yarder and acquiring 151 on just 19 carries. This continues a theme for the Redhawks from last year, when Miami was gashed for a whopping 5.1 yards a carry en route to a rush defense that was statistically worse than Michigan's rush offense last year. Think about that.
Miami ceded 223 rushing yards in an average outing last year; they were a MAC version of Purdue. While they did choke out I-AA EKU, if Michigan has any intention to prevent people on ledges across the Michigan diaspora from jumping they will have to mash this defense.
Survey says… probably! Both DEs check in at 245 and neither DT hits 290; their "OLB" is ND (sigh) transfer Lo Wood, who you may remember is a cornerback. They were very bad last year and seem pretty bad this year. Possibly the most interesting matchup will be DE Bryson Albright, who hit double digit TFLs a year ago, against either of Michigan's noob tackles.
This will be a test of what Michigan wants to do for the rest of the year. This is a game where you'd think they might be able to manball up and manball it down the opponent's throat with a series of 1970s formations. And they may well do that: Appalachian State featured a lot more under center stuff than the ND game did.
Is the rest of the year going to be a passing spread-ish lineup? If it is against Miami, yes. If it's not… well probably yes. Something to keep an eye on.
Key Matchup: Michigan tailbacks versus their blocking allergy. Blocking allergies affect millions of Americans. Stop blocking allergies.
[Hit THE JUMP for Not That Notre Dame Quarterback.]
|WHAT||Michigan vs Notre Dame|
|WHERE||Notre Dame Stadium
South Bend, IN
September 6th, 2014
|THE LINE||ND –3.5|
PBP: Not Tom Hammond : (
Analyst: Mike Mayock
|TICKETS||Starting at a whopping $316|
0% chance of rain
Via NDMSPaint, obviously.
right: RIP Chesterton Lep
Well, here it is. Thanks to the shortsightedness of mankind, this is the last Michigan-Notre Dame game for the foreseeable future. It is only appropriate that the winner of this game, then, will lead the all time winning percentage battle. Michigan has the opportunity to send the Irish off having lost 5 of 6, with multiple stabbing-chest-wound finishes. They have the opportunity to send 'em off right, that is.
Note: we are assuming at this point that ND will be without their five suspended players. Those guys are WR Davaris Daniels, CB KeiVarae Russell, LB Luke Moore, DE Ishaq Williams, and S Eliar Hardy.
Run Offense vs Notre Dame
Sheldon Day is in our base
This figures to be the most pillow-fight-y section of the game, with Michigan's noob-laden offensive line taking on an Irish front seven that's Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, and five question marks.
Actually, six: in addition to the five non Day/Smith starters, new DC Brian Van Gorder installed a 4-3 after Bob Diaco and his preferred 3-4 left to run UConn. As Brian Stouffer mentioned this morning, this does actually seem a better fit for their personnel—Day excels at getting penetration and DT running mate Jarron Jones is a 6'5, 315 pound guy. That's big, but it's not the right shape to be a 3-4 NT.
Even so, it does make for some uncertainty. Sophomore Isaac Rochell is an awkward fit for 4-3 DE at 6'3", 287; Rice starter Romeo Okwara is about right at 260, but nobody really fits the rangy edge speedster role the 4-3 requires at DE.
Notre Dame did keep a 4-3 on the field against Rice's spread, with converted WR(!) James Onwualu split over the slot and Smith and walk-on Joe Schmidt on the interior. Onwualu looks shockingly thin for someone who purports to be a linebacker, and Schmidt is limited athletically. He is very instinctive in the run game, though, and that's what this section is about.
And now we have to talk about Day. Day is a problem. If you pull the guy over him he will be in your base. If you leave him for a trap blocker he will be in your base. If you try to block him straight up there is a decent chance he will be in your base. And while Rice handled him pretty well in pass protection, last year he whipped Kyle Kalis and was in Michigan's base on play after play. Oh and here he is kind of successfully covering a wheel route, via Ace:
Rice scraped out a bleah 3.5 yards a carry with a long of 19, that from their quarterback, though. Normally I would say that Michigan should be able to improve on that production. Now is not that time. It does seem that runs should generally go forward unless Day is getting involved, and if Michigan can start grinding on the Irish they could experience a positive feedback loop: ND's backups are mostly freshmen, and they looked pretty shaky when they got in.
As for Michigan, this is a chance to be competent against a defense that gives you that chance. Get Day blocked and no one else is a dynamic player. Smith is good but I haven't seen him become the ninja panther everyone expects just yet. That's no surprise: linebacking is hard. Even guys who end up terrific struggle early, and it's still early for him.
Against App State Michigan was an inside zone offense that mixed in OZ and power and generally executed their assignments against a team that could not fit a run play to save its life. Their tailbacks looked better, but still average-ish in a world where they have to make cuts and stuff before they get 60 yards; I'm not expecting great things. Mediocre ones would be nice.
Key Matchup: Interior line, all of 'em, against Sheldon Day, especially on stunts. ND loves to take advantage of Day's quickness by looping him around the guys next to him. A young OL needs to ID and deal with these because if they don't, Day will be in their base.
[Hit THE JUMP for secondary holes, no pass rush, an actual running game, and the Golson factor.]
As is MGoTradition, I'm writing the preview for the opener instead of Brian, who's probably
cackling with glee that he won't be blamed for any potential jinx in recovery from crippling carpal tunnel after typing up tens of thousands of words previewing this season. We'll be on our normal schedule, with Brian taking care of the preview, next week.
|WHAT||Michigan vs Appalachian State|
Ann Arbor, MI
August 30th, 2014
|THE LINE||M –34.5|
PBP: Beth Mowins
Analyst: Joey Galloway
|TICKETS||Still available for the low, low price of $27|
|WEATHER||mid to high 80s, windy, possible T-storms, 80% chance of rain|
Right: Appalachian State's new alternate logo is very, uh, Appalachian? Also very MS Paint. Also named Victory Yosef, which is just wonderful.
This is not a vintage Jerry Moore, FCS-title-contending Appalachian State squad, for a couple reasons. The legendary Moore is no longer ASU's coach—he retired after the 2012 season and was replaced by former Mountaineer quarterback Scott Satterfield. More importantly, ASU just wasn't very good in 2013, going 4-8 (4-4 Southern Conference) as a member of the FCS and losing 45-6 to a Georgia squad that had lost much of their offensive weaponry.
Now they've joined the Sun Belt, moving up to FBS play, and their radio announcer is looking for them to be competitive... in 2015:
App State announcer David Jackson on U-M radio show said 2015 is the year the Mountaineers should compete in all weeks in FBS level.
— Mark Snyder (@Mark__Snyder) August 27, 2014
Cripes, I'm deathly afraid to say anything here. You sure you don't want to take this one, Brian? No? Well, here goes nothing...
Run Offense vs ASU
Starting at nose tackle, a small bear.
ASU transitioned to a 3-4 defense last season, and the results weren't pretty up front. The Mountaineers ceded over 220 rushing yards per game at an even 5.0 YPC—and they actually fared marginally better against Georgia (127 yards on 4.2 YPC) than they did against their FCS brethren. Heading into this season they have to replace their most disruptive run defender, DE Adam Scott (NTAS), who led the team with 8.5 TFLs in 2013.
Only two players among the starting front seven on this year's depth chart finished the 2013 season as a starter—DE Deuce Robinson and ILB John Law—and ASU's two leading tacklers are gone. After injuries forced their hand, 330-pound behemoth Tyson Fernandez (pictured above) made a late-season switch from guard to nose tackle, started two of the final four games there, and now sits atop the two-deep (apologies, two-deep).
In addition to lacking experience and production, the front seven is quite undersized for a team running a 3-4 defense. Here are their listed starters up front:
- DE Deuce Robinson: 6'5", 260 lbs.
- NT Tyson Fernandez: 6'2", 330 (the obvious exception here)
- DE Ronald Blair: 6'4", 275
- OLB Kennan Gilchrist: 6'2", 210
- ILB John Law: 6'2", 235
- ILB Brandon McGowan: 6'2", 235
- OLB Kevin Walton: 6'0" 185 OR OLB Rashaad Townes (6'2", 205)
That is not a large group, especially on the edges—Walton is actually a converted safety. Simply put, if Michigan has trouble establishing the run against these guys, it will be a long season.
Key Matchup: Center Jack Miller vs. Fernandez. While Miller's had his issues executing his assignment, what's held him back most in his college career has been his size/strength. If he can hold up against a 330-pounder, that would ease some concerns about his ability to hold that job once Graham Glasgow returns to action.
[Hit THE JUMP for a totally reasonable prediction accompanied by totally reasonable, paralyzing fear.]
|WHAT||USA vs Belgium|
|LINE||Si Se Puede|
WIN OR DIE. Image via a "spritegirl".
THE THEM: IT CAME FROM GERMINAL BEERSCHOT
Belgium is ludicrously talented for a nation with about the same population as Michigan, especially since this is not a country like Holland that has a rich history in the game. The Flyin' Waffles haven't so much as made either the World Cup or the European Championships since 2002. This has not stopped them from growing a generation of talent that has seen them rocket up the FIFA rankings and the bookies' odds. Pre-tourney, Belgium was fifth-favorites.
This is because the team is full of club-level stars. If you took each World Cup team and sold them on the transfer market right now, only Brazil would cost more.
Part of that is because Belgium is so danged young. The other part is because they are good.
This hasn't really shown in the group stages. The Waffles haven't scored before the 70th minute of any of their games despite fielding an all-star team in a group that was kindling waiting for a match.
There are two main reasons for this. One is the absence of striker Christian Benteke, who was injured just before the World Cup. Romelu Lukaku, his replacement, is a big name himself, but for whatever reason the team seems to lack je ne sais quoi when he's the main guy. The second is Belgium's lack of outside backs. Without overlapping runs from them, teams have been free to double up on Belgium's talented wingers.
There hasn't been a whole lot to learn about Belgium in two of their three games. They faced an Algeria team that was parking the bus virtually the whole time, and in the group finale against South Korea they played a heavily rotated lineup against what may have been the worst team in Brazil.
The Russia match is the closest thing to what will transpire against the US. Russia had half the possession and matched the Belgians in shots, finally ceding a goal in the 88th minute as the defenders on Eden Hazard faltered.
And then there was the friendly about a year ago in which Belgium thrashed the USA backline to a 4-2 win. The US started a back four of Beasley-Goodson-Gonzalez-Cameron in that one and Christian Benteke, who is out of this World Cup, was around to harrass the USA… but if they play anything like they did in that friendly it's going to be ugly.
GOALIE: Thibaut Courtois has spent the last three years as Atletico Madrid's goalie, during which time Madrid's stingy defense saw them win La Liga, shockingly. He's a strength.
Kompany and Vermalen (background) are doubtful, apparently
DEFENSE: Health issues abound. Anthony Vanden Borre, the Zangeif-lookin' mofo you may have noticed menacing his way around the field against South Korea, is out with an injury. While he was not a likely starter he may have been called on as a substitute if Belgium found themselves trailing; as a natural outside back he offers more going forward than their other options there.
That's because the rest of those options are center-backs. Like Germany, Belgium have entered this tournament determined to play a back four entirely consisting of naturally central players. In Belgium's case it's because they have a pile of excellent CBs and no fullbacks.
The first-choice central defenders are supposed to be Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermalen, but both of them are nursing injuries. Kompany has a groin issue, Vermalen a hamstring problem. Kompany missed the South Korea game, for whatever that means. It does sound like he's having issues that might make him a risk his coach may not want to take:
"Now we wait for the reaction, the training and the development day by day, but you saw the last game too – he tried hard in the last training session and had to stop after half an hour"
If one of those guys can't go, expect 36-year-old Daniel Van Buyten to get a start. Van Buyten has played all of Belgium's games so far; at 6'6" he is obviously a force in the air, but he may be susceptible to getting outrun. He is a backup at Bayern Munich who's gotten about a dozen appearances per year for the last three. If both are out Zenit's Nicolas Lombaerts is likely to draw in. He's is a downgrade but only because Kompany has a claim to be the world's best central defender. He actually scored against the USA in 2011, but that USA lineup had Howard and Dempsey and no one else who will play tomorrow.
As previously mentioned, the outside backs are a bit of a weak point. Toby Alderwereld is the right back; he's a backup center back for Atletico Madrid. The left back could be Vermalen but is more likely to be Jan Vertonghen. Vertonghen had an up and down group stage, giving up the penalty that put Algeria up and scoring the lone goal against South Korea.
These guys aren't hoofers or anything…
these are talented technical footballers who impress at centre-back because of their ability to bring the ball out of defence, so they certainly aren’t useless clodhoppers. Amazingly, Alderweireld, Vermaelen and Vertonghan had almost identical footballing educations, raised at Germinal Beerschot before moving across the border to Ajax, where they were encouraged to play proactively in a high defensive line, and bring the ball out of defence intelligently.
…but while they can help the team get it out of the back, overlapping is not in the cards. Against Russia they barely approached the final third.
Belgium outside backs versus Russia
Belgian outside backs did get a bit more forward in the other games. If the US gets trapped in their own end with 30% of the possession or just flat sucks, fullbacks popping up on offense will be a symptom, not a cause.
MIDFIELD: Belgium is likely to field Alex Witsel in their version of the Beckerman role. Insert the usual "except he's paid a bucket of money by a major Euro club" here. In this case it's oil-gorged Russian outfit Zenit St Petersburg. Witsel as described by Zonal Marking:
The primary holder is Axel Witsel, a strong, reliable and commanding midfielder that doesn’t advance into attack, but can move up the pitch to shut down opponents and leave space between the lines – as mentioned, the centre-backs deal with anyone in that zone.
The primary attacking midfielder will be Kevin De Bruyne, who shredded the US with through balls in that friendly and has easily been Belgium's most dangerous offensive player aside when allowed to play in the center of the field behind the striker. (He was anonymous as a right sided midfielder for about 60 minutes against Algeria, then became a huge threat as soon as substitutions shoved him into the middle.)
The third midfielder is in question. Marouane Fellaini made a major impact in the Algeria game as an out-and-out striker looking to pound things in with his head. He also scored a thundering header against the US a year ago. He was deployed against Russia in Belgium's most important group game, so it seems like he'd be the obvious pick. But then there's a calf injury that forced him off the field early yesterday. That would open the door for Mousa Dembele, except he's suffering from basically the same injury. The Ghana witch doctor may be on our side now.
Anyway, pick between these gentlemen:
They’re very different options – Fellaini is a physical destroyer who lacks guile on the ball, and Dembele is a peculiar, converted forward who is excellent at dribbling forward and evading challenges, but offers surprisingly little end product, preferring to keep his passing simple.
Fellaini's ability to hit things hard with his head gives him the edge, health being equal.
De Bruyne (left) and Lukaku (right) haven't been able to hook up so far
FORWARD: Belgium's been looking for something more impressive than what 21-year-old Chelsea forward Romelu Lukaku's been able to offer so far, but they don't have great options. Kevin Mirallas is not a physical presence at 5'10" and Divock Origi is promising but just 19.
The wingers will be problems. Dries Mertens has consistently gotten into dangerous areas coming in from the right.
Mertens vs Russia
The area just inside the box towards the end line that Mertens got to repeatedly is assist central.
Premier League assist density, last three years
Mertens could not find the final ball against Russia, or his strikers weren't in a spot to run on to it. Mertens may just be a guy who isn't too good at making goals right now.
Even so the US will be playing with fire if they allow anything similar—Russia finally got bit when Eden Hazard, the left winger, got into that spot on the other side of the box and set up Origi for an easy slam home. Hazard is the most expensive and highest-regarded of any of Belgium's players—he was just named Chelsea's player of the year at the ripe old age of 23—but he hasn't had much impact with the national team. He's scored just six times in 47 caps and for much of the tournament he's been anonymous. That's where Belgium's lack of full-backs really shows. Defenses can overplay him and take him away. Expect the same from the US, with a defensive mid shaded to him.
Facing down another 4-3-3 with super dangerous wingers and question marks at outside back, expect a reprise of the Portugal game plan: a 4-5-1 with defensive responsibility on the flanks and Johnson bombing forward in an effort to exploit the lack of defense provided by the 4-3-3.
DEFENSE: Beasley, Besler, Cameron, Johnson.
Beasley and Besler are locks if healthy; Johnson is going to start. There is a faint chance that he gets moved up into the midfield, allowing Yedlin or Chandler to start. Faint, though.
While Gonzalez had his best game for the US in a long time against Germany, Cameron is likely to return to the lineup. He provides more ability with the ball at his feet and the USA is going to need more possession than they did against Germany in a game they actually have to win. Also, his mobility will be a major asset against Hazard.
The US has a little bit of a luxury here, as they can afford to give their outside backs cover since Belgium won't be overlapping much. Job one for the US outside backs and midfielders is to keep Belgium's wingers out of the danger zone. If they cross, they cross. The US has decided to live and die with crosses by jamming the middle, and with Fellaini in question all the more reason to double down.
time for meep meep?
MIDFIELD: Beckerman, Jones, Bedoya, Bradley, Yedlin
Beckerman, Jones, Bradley are locks. Jones has been the USA's player of the tournament so far. This is the game Bradley's touch returns, I promise. Beckerman is going to be absolutely critical as he strives to prevent De Bruyne from playing Belgians in on Howard's goal. If he can quiet the Belgian #10 as the US reaches the quarters hell have cemented an unlikely place in USMNT lore.
The wing spots are in doubt. Davis was invisible and lifted early. Zusi's touch has been off and his service poor aside from the winner against Ghana; Bedoya seems like he's about ready to fall over and expire on the regular. Given what we've seen so far, Bedoya makes sense. He's the only guy who's given you two-way play on the left this tourney, and he's relatively fresh.
Aaand… this could be a spot where Klinsmann does something wacky like start Yedlin. It's easy to see Yedlin zooming past the Belgians' left back, whoever it is, into the assist zone he got to for the second against Portugal. Yedlin's speed will also help the US cover on Hazard. Meanwhile any individual defensive issues he has are not likely to come into play.
Zusi is of course a possibility.
What about Jozy? There have been reports he's doing some running, and Klinsmann has said he's "very optimistic" again:
‘‘We are very optimistic,” said US coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “Every day is a big step forward with Jozy. It’s 11 days now and it’s looking better every day, so we are optimistic we have him being a part of the Belgium game.’’
"A part" is one thing. A start that might go 120 minutes with a still-lingering muscle injury is unlikely.
SUBS: If the US finds itself down they'll have to go for it, so expect some sort of midfielder-for-striker swap with Beckerman the most likely to go out since he offers the least going forward. This is a recording.
In a tie game pushing towards extra-time, the US might lift one of the wingers for Wondolowski, and then if things get very deep Dempsey will probably be cashed out, allowing Johannsson to enter.
If the US is fortunate enough to be protecting a lead, bringing in Gonzalez will make sense. Fellaini is truly terrifying in the air, and Belgium's response to Algeria suggests they will go 4-4-2 with Fellaini up front if they need to. Whether that's a straight swap for Cameron or something else I don't know, but whatever it is it should not be Gonzalez as some sort of ostrich defensive mid.
Algerian Djamel Haimoudi has drawn the game. He did the most recent African Cup of Nations final and a Confed Cup semi; so far in this tournament he's done the Costa Rica-England and Holland-Australia games.
The latter featured a pretty ridiculous PK call for Australia when a Holland defender's arm hit a cross that came from about two feet away and seemed an obvious case of ball-to-hand. On the other hand, Haumoudi has a number of opportunities to bite on dives in the box and passed.
I'd mention cards but at this point it's clear that the refs have been instructed to be very lenient with yellows. That's no doubt an attempt to keep suspensions down since yellows now clear after the quarters instead of the group stage.
KEYS OTHER THAN SCORING MORE GOALPOINTS
Good goddamn Bradley. This is not the Michael Bradley I know. The above is. Bradley's history with the US when allowed to forward is one of constant activity, through balls that come off, and late runs into the box that are a danger few outfits are adequately prepared for.
He hasn't exactly been terrible in this tournament, but he has not provided the attacking edge he has for the last four years. It's probably just bad luck and bad form at the wrong time, but it's unlikely the US wins this game without Bradley having a hand in a USA goal.
Fitness will be tested… again. The US got an extra day of rest compared to Germany, but unfortunately they are going up against a team that rested a bunch of guys in their final group match.
However, the tests will go both ways. Belgium has a number of guys in various states of injury. If Kompany or Vermalen or Fellaini play there's a chance that one of them has to use up a substitution early, and as the US learned four years ago you really do not want to have to use early substitutes in a game that can go 120 minutes.
Keep the ball, have the ball, keep and have the ball. The US has gotten boxed in by two of its three opponents so far, and while the situations they found themselves in (up a goal thirty seconds in and soon without Jozy; playing Germany needing to not lose by lots) lent themselves to that kind of cagey play, now it's win or die time.
This means keeping the dang ball and playing Belgium like an equal. The good news is that Belgium is not particularly good at pressing. Algeria and South Korea abandoned any idea of possession pre-game, but a not particularly technical Russian side had exactly as much of the game as Belgium did, with relatively few Aimless Upfield Punts.
Center backs and goalie unsuccessful passes, Russia vs Belgium
The Shin Guardian's take on Belgium's panini game:
Defensively, Belgium claim to be a pressing team but that’s a dangerous description for it. They’ll occasionally go through spells when they’ll press high when commanding the run of play; but, if not, they’ll usually just retreat behind the halfway line and attempt to loosely swarm the ball. <– i.e. not pressing defense. Sampaoli would be mortified.
The first pass or two out of the back will be crucial, especially without Jozy. Bradley should be dropping deep to provide an outlet on the regular.
Fullback offense. The US fullbacks didn't have much impact on the Germany game aside from a couple of slaloming Beasley runs on which Run DMB seemed a decade younger, but this was largely because the US couldn't hold the ball long enough for them to get upfield. Once the US clears Belgium's pressure, the best offense they'll have is their speedy wing backs against the Belgium flanks.
WIN THE GAME. #winthegame
SECTION WHERE I PREDICT THE SAME THING KENPOM DOES
|WHAT||USA vs Germany|
It's simple for the US: tie or possibly go home. Things get complicated if they're losing. So let's not do that.
THE THEM: DIE MANNSCHAFT SOUNDS LIKE A JOKE BUT IS ACTUALLY WHAT THEY'RE CALLED AND WHY NOT
From 1,000 feet, the German national team is the US national team: great goalkeepers, hard-working, tall, disciplined, organized, relentless, not given over to the kind of petulance that affects quite a lot of people after they've been running around for 70 minutes and think they might collapse at any moment.
The problem comes when you zoom in, and all the American stuff about German holds true and then they happen to be smarter, faster in spots, and just generally better. The hypothetical endpoint of USA soccer is Germany. Teams like Italy and Holland occasionally crash out in the group stage. Germany never does. Michael Ballack summed it up best when the final bit of the Group Of Death fell into place during the World Cup draw: as America panicked and set its pets on fire, Ballack monosyllabically droned "we. don't. care."
They don't care because they'll win anyway. Imagine Michigan, 1989. That's Germany.
GOALIE: Manuel Neuer is generally regarded as the best in the world right now. He's done nothing to give anyone a different impression so far.
more like Per Mertesoccer amirite
DEFENSE: The usual collection of giant robots direct from that Pixar-y Nike commercial. Central defenders Per Mertesacker and Mats Hummels are 6'6" and 6'4", respectively, and while Mertesacker can be exposed by speed somewhat, Hummels is usually able to compensate. They're in the running for the best pairing in the tournament.
The problem, such as it is, comes on the outside. Phillip Lahm has been drafted as a defensive midfielder, leaving Germany a collection of outside backs who are generally deployed on the interior at their clubs. This was a major issue in Germany's 2-2 draw with Ghana, as Christian Atsu was able to fire in shots and crosses considerably more dangerous than the ones he got off against DaMarcus Beasley; Andre Ayew was able to score on a back-post header and Ghana fired in a ton of crosses.
Ghana chances largely came from the German left
The left back, Benedikt Howedes, is a right-footed central defender by trade. The right back, whether it's Jerome Boateng or Shkodran Mustafi, is a slightly less awkward fit since they're on their natural foot. But only slightly; both are central defenders at club level. As a result the German outside backs rarely venture beyond the edge of the final third.
Howedes, Boateng, and Mustafi against Portugal (left) and Ghana (right)
That Portugal chart is pretty remarkable what with Portugal's wingers so uninterested defensively and the team playing narrowly after the Pepe red card.
As a unit, these guys are large, organized, and reasonably fast enough. Outside back, though, is a place where the US does seem to have an advantage.
MIDFIELD: Lahm, Sami Khedira, and Toni Kroos are the backbone of the entire side, and will give the USA problems. The US has a couple of guys who are a physical match for the burly Khedira, and Beckerman may be the tactical equivalent of the heady Lahm, but really it comes down to Bradley being Bradley and not the off-brand version we've seen so far.
That's because Kroos is Bradley minus doubts. Jonathan Wilson:
Kroos is dynamic and hardworking. He can play at the back of midfield or at the front, in the centre or on the flank. He could almost certainly play as a box-to-box midfielder in a 4-4-2 if he ever were asked to do something so archaic. He is creative without being flash, breaks up play without being violent. He is physically robust without being a monster and astute in possession without over-reaching. He has an understated efficiency that means he probably isn't appreciated as much as he ought to be.
Wilson does seem to think more of Kroos than many people. Not a ton more—dude is a starter on Germany, after all.
Meanwhile, if Kroos is German Bradley, Khedira is German Beckerman:
Khedira is in many ways Löw's key player. In a team characterised by outstanding attacking prowess he holds the defensive midfield together and is very much a player out of the "coach's favourite" mould: a good reader of the game, disciplined and perfect at implementing his respective manager's instructions. No wonder, then, that his coaches at Real Madrid, José Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, also value Khedira's style of play. In the midst of a host of artists he plays the unpretentious conductor and with the German national side not having a Pirlo or a Xavi, it needs at least a Khedira.
Because he's German Beckerman he's like Beckerman except a super elite athlete.
Lahm is a fixture with Germany and Bayern Munich, generally at outside back. Last year he was moved to defensive mid by his club, though, and he has taken up the same position for Germany. He had issues against Ghana's high press—he was involved in the sloppy German build-up to the Ghana pirate schooner of a goal. That was an aberration for Lahm's career and recent form.
FORWARD: You can look at a tactical thing that says Mehmet Ozil is here and Muller is here and on average they'll be right-ish, but everyone goes everywhere. Ozil in particular roams across the width of the field just in front of the opposition defense, offering outlets to any German who happens to have the ball and playing in guys from anywhere.
Ozil vs Ghana
He has virtually no defensive responsibility.
Mario Gotze is a very similar player, a natural #10 who roams around looking for the ball. With Ozil on the field he functions a bit like a winger and a bit like a withdrawn striker. Thomas Muller is the most striker-y of Germany's dedicated attackers, at least in this tournament. Normally one of the three attacking mids in a 4-2-3-1, an injury has forced him into the striker spot. He relies on intelligent movement more than raw power to get his goals; all three attacking players interchange constantly.
The overall effect is odd. None of Germany's attackers are physically overwhelming or even particularly deft on the ball—no Messis or Ronaldos here—but because of collective understanding and anticipation they rain in goals.
If Germany's chasing the game, ancient Miroslav Klose will likely enter. Klose is a combo target forward/poacher who just tied the all-time World Cup scoring record; he's done so without scoring a goal from outside the box.
ALTERNATIVES: Germany has many of them.
Without Altidore, the US switched to the 4-2-3-1 they'd gone with through most of qualifying. Dempsey was the lone forward with Bradley the attacking mid; Beckerman and Jones were D-mids behind. I felt some foreboding about it and not entirely without reason, as neither Zusi or Bedoya had much impact on the game until Zusi's cross off a scramble gave the US their second.
But situations being what they are, it makes sense to reprise that formation. Jozy is still out and the US get through with a draw. Given the roster, the question is who replaces Jozy: Zusi/Bedoya or Johannsson/Wondolowski? The answer against a 4-3-3 was a midfielder; the answer against what's pretty much a 4-3-3 is likely to be a midfielder.
DEFENSE: Beasley, Besler, Cameron, Johnson.
Any thought that the US should switch things up because Cameron had a bad couple plays needs to compete with the fact that apparently it would be Omar Gonzalez replacing him. Even if Gonzalez was supposed to be playing some sort of defensive mid spot late against Portugal, he has been shaky for the US in his last half-dozen appearances.
On a down to down basis, Cameron offers more. He has not provided many moments of worry except the terribly bad one to Nani—I buy Jesse Marsch's explanation of the Portugal equalizer that spreads blame throughout a bunch of players*. Focus on the consistency instead of the accidental severity of mistakes and Cameron is obvious.
As discussed in the Germany D section, this is a spot where the US should have a tactical advantage. Johnson can bomb forward without worrying that his opposite number will catch him on the break. As long as the US has cover, and with Cameron and Beckerman they do, the outside backs should be the freest guys on the field.
*[Marsch points out that Varela is Fabian Johnson's mark and that Cameron has two guys slowing up at the edge of the box in front of him that he is looking at. By the time Cameron sees the cross he's got little chance of getting to it, because it is perfect.]
MIDFIELD: Beckerman, Jones, Bedoya, Bradley, Diskerud
The three defensive-ish mids are locks. Bedoya is highly probable.
Then the fourth guy is in question. Zusi had a bad game outside the assist, constantly losing possession thanks to a wooden first touch. Davis is probably not in the cards since crossing won't be at a premium against Germany and Davis was absolutely miserable defensively against Turkey. The US will want guys who at least try.
Diskerud is a strong possibility. He is the most possession-y option in game in which the US would like to grab the ball and thunk it around quite a bit. The Germany wings are threatening, but not quite in the same way that Ronaldo and Nani are; the German fullbacks do not provide a whole lot of threat. A centrally-oriented possession midfielder makes sense given the situation and opponent. Diskerud is that, and he's fresh. Also his hair is amazing.
Dempsey did a credible imitation of a target forward against a couple of burly but not particularly agile center backs and he's got a version of that again in this game. Hummels in particular is a step above anything Portugal has to offer, but given the situation it makes sense to play things conservatively and add attacking verve if the situation demands it.
SUBS: If the US needs a goal, lifting Zusi or Bedoya for Wondolowski or Johannsson, makes sense, possibly both if you want to drop Dempsey into an attacking midfield role. If the US is shepherding a win or draw to the finish line, Yedlin should reprise his speed merchant role from the Portugal game.
Ravshan Irmatov is from Uzbekistan, but he's not one of the randoms from tiny countries included to disallow Maurice Edu goals. He's a veteran of many high-profile matches with few complaints lodged against him. He did the 2010 World Cup opener and a semifinal.
The most controversial thing on his profile was an incident where he whistled for a penalty kick the moment before a goal was scored and decided to allow the goal.
KEYS OTHER THAN SCORING MORE GOALPOINTS
is a tired Jones even possible?
Fitness will be tested. I'm not entirely sure I buy the game-after-Manaus-is-doom meme being tossed around. Yeah, England lost to Uruguay and Italy lost to Costa Rica, but after the crapfest they put up in their final matches it's possible those teams just suck. And a look deeper than the score indicates that most teams coming off a game in the jungle weren't exactly overrun:
- England vs Uruguay: England outshoots 12-8, has 63% possession, almost scores about five goals, gives up derf derf goal to Suarez to lose.
- Italy vs Costa Rica: Shots tied, Italy with 61% possession and about 200 extra passes.
- Croatia vs Mexico: 11-10 shot edge for Mexico, Croatia with 55% of possession.
Cameroon—possibly the worst team in the competition—was always going to get ripped by Brazil. So there's only one game in which the Manaus effect really looks like much of anything. That's Mexico-Croatia. Is that a Manaus effect or just the obvious effect of putting a bunch of Mexican dudes up against people who think 75 is time to flip on the AC?
That said, the US has had their defensive midfielders run their ass off for full 90s and has one fewer day of rest. If they're pressing for a goal, things are going to get seriously stretched.
Touchline crosses and "underlapping" runs. The aerial doom provided by the German defensive Luftwaffe makes trying to head in goals a difficult proposition. Setting up against a set defense and trying to put it on Dempsey's head is a wasted possession.
Despite this, the US has a couple of speedy outside backs that can and should have an impact. This can come either by beating the slower German outside backs to the endline, where crosses can be fired in low and hard, or diving inside when the USA's wingers provide them room by stretching Germany horizontally. See: Yedlin versus Portugal, Johnson versus Turkey, etc.
Low tempo, high possession. With fitness a concern and a draw good enough, the US should be content to dawdle on the ball if not presented with a clear chance to break. This may not be a wink-wink draw but neither is it going to be a wide-open attacking goal fest.
It'll be interesting to see how much pressing either team does. Germany certainly has the ability to do so, but they're also vulnerable, what with a number of defensively-oriented guys in awkward positions. Sulley Muntari's tackle in Germany's defensive third led to a trademark goal from Gyan.
An eye on the other game. Depending on how the other game goes, the US may not need to react if they go down a goal. If Portugal is leading the other game they can take a 1-0 defeat and get through. If Portugal-Ghana is 0-0 in the 80th they're feeling pretty good.
But Ghana already in the lead against the Portuguese or even 1-1 would mean the US would have to go all out for a goal even if that left them exposed to counterattacks from Germany. The best way to avoid all this is to not go down, of course. But… yeah.
A lot of people are predicting that Portugal falls over and dies. That is a possibility. But Ronaldo is highly concerned with his legacy and has zero goals in this World Cup as Neymar and Messi pound 'em in. He's going up against a shaky, disorganized backline. Pepe should return with an eye on redemption, as well. They'll at least give their all for 45; hope for an early Portugal goal and then they'll be energized to hang on.
TIE THE GAME. #tiethegame
SECTION WHERE I PREDICT THE SAME THING KENPOM DOES