HOT. Jozy scored a scorcher, the team worked a beautiful goal, and Tim Howard was all but untroubled until Omar Gonzalez entered and the US flailed about ineptly with three central defenders. That was like the Panama game I love referencing except against a World Cup-quality outfit, the most recent African champions at nearly full strength. At the moment I'm not even mad about Landon Donovan. That's how good that was.
- The alternate universe. After a dismal performance from Brad Davis against Turkey I suggested that the alternate universe version of the USA lineup might forget all about having a nominal winger guy at left mid and just field ALL THE CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS because hey, why not. This happened, and it was terrific.
- And it had the opposite effect you might expect on the USA's width. They were able to cover the flanks much better in this game and because of that, the fullbacks—both fullbacks—were comfortable getting upfield. It's a lot easier to make that surge when you've got Beckerman and Jones looking for it and offering to cover instead of just one.
- Speaking of Jones…
Pictured: Jones, pre-Beckerman
Off the chain. Even if you don't appreciate the things Beckerman does himself, the fact that his addition lets Bradley and Jones range about the field pressuring opponents with their endurance and athleticism was a revelation and demands his inclusion going forward.
Jones felt like a wonderful player for most of this game. I have spent the last four years going "bleah" about him and demanding that he eat bench so that Bradley can be the offensive force the US needs him to be. But what if I told you Bradley was up the field and Jones was roaring around the field and it was all just fine? ESPN presents 30 for 30: Kyle Beckerman, The Man Who Didn't Move.
Jones did. Goddang he did move. There were multiple instances where he flew in at speed and removed a ball from Nigeria's possession. While his positioning as a pure holder is questionable, his defensive instincts and effort are top-notch, as he demonstrated after a dangerous Beckerman turnover when he recovered to clear a ball that would have been totally uncovered if this was the Turkey game. And then there was the 70-yard run to end a Nigeria break where Jones went from the potential target of a through ball just outside Nigeria's box to an interception on the edge of the USA's. Once you realized it was the same guy on both ends of that play it was… I be like dang.
The one-game turnaround from Davis/Chandler to Jones/Beasley was incredible. What happens on that turnover if Davis in in the game? It doesn't go out of bounds harmlessly, that's for sure.
There's a clear and large gap between Jones's ability going forward and Bradley's, but when freed up to go get the ball he was the bald eagle's equal. Two of those guys in one midfield suddenly seems tough to deal with, especially since both were going full blast 85 minutes into a friendly that had seen Nigeria wither.
Something weird: check. Poke a USA fan on the internet today and you'll get an exclamation about Jozy's second goal and then a comment about how the formation worked well. Everyone will tell you a different formation, though. MLSsoccer.com has back-to-back articles labeling it the "Christmas Tree" 1-2-3-4…
In USMNT's new "Chrismas tree" formation, Kyle Beckerman plays starring role
…and the diamond…
Three Things: USMNT commit to the diamond and it finally starts to shine
…while ESPN and various other people on the internet asserted it was Klinsmann's standard-ish 4-2-3-1. If you ask me that was… weird. Everyone's right, and everyone's wrong.
On defense the shape was generally the Christmas Tree that was briefly unpopular a couple years back: either Dempsey or Altidore was up top with the other withdrawn next to Bradley; behind that there was a line of Jones-Beckerman-Bedoya.
Except when it fell into a diamond for folks who wanted to advocate for diamondness.
Functionally, Bradley would apply high pressure while the back line of three provided shielding and covered for the backs when they advanced. The withdrawn forward very occasionally did some covering on the left, mostly when it was Jozy.
In possession it was hugely mutable and definitely asymmetric, with Bedoya ranging upfield as a winger and Bradley pulling centrally as the withdrawn forward pushed higher. Bedoya's upfield run put him in position to get the hockey assist on the first goal, with Johnson cutting inside of him. Approximate location chart in possession:
Beasley Beckerman Johnson
Jones did surge upfield from time to time anywhere on the left two-thirds of the field; generally he was more withdrawn.
Jones left, Bedoya right
So what is that? I've seen it described as just about anything; it felt like a 4-3-3*, but with one of the wingers flipped with Bradley on defense, so I guess a diamond, except not. Which is not something I've ever seen before. I will probably resort to calling it "Nigeria" in the event it lasts. Which it should, right?
*[Distinguishing characteristic of the 4-3-3: three central midfielders with one playing behind the other two.]
Spiritual formation. Forgetting the positions for a moment, the US featured:
- two offensive players with minimal defensive responsibilities, one of whom would link with the midfield
- two box to box midfielders
- one defensively-oriented right winger
- one holding mid
- a wide fullback
- an in-cutting fullback
- two central defenders
If you forced me to put a name on it I would call it an asymmetric 4-3-3. A slightly less weird version of that has historically been my preferred Football Manager formation, so obviously Klinsmann has found something here.
Rope a dope. The US soaked ineffectual pressure for about 20 minutes before finding its stride, and by ten minutes into the second half they were running rampant over an exhausted Nigerian squad. The US has twin advantages here with so many of their players based in MLS (or, in Beasley's case, Mexico): unlike Euro-based gentlemen, MLS players play in the summer, and play where it is hot. Also unlike Euro-based gentlemen they're coming off a recent opportunity to rest. Hopefully fitness will be a key advantage in the sweltering heat of Brazil.
Beas with ease. Even before the game, Klinsmann was telling reporters that "Beasley is the starter at left back" in response to questions about why Beasley over Chandler, and then that game happened. With a big assist from the relentless Jermaine Jones, here's both the key passes and crosses from the first 80 minutes (ie, until Gonzalez entered and the US lost its shape in an unfamiliar 3-5-2) mashed into one graph:
That is one pass that got to the box for a shot and one cross that even made it in, for 80 minutes. Fabian Johnson and Bedoya had a bit more trouble but only a bit—none of those crosses were completed and most of the things resembling danger were off corners.
Part of this is the fact that Nigeria's left winger, Victor Moses, is their best attacker, sure. Beasley and Jones completely shut off the US left wing of an offensively-oriented World Cup foe. Beasley's understanding with both Jones and Besler was a world apart from the acres of space Turkey was given.
Johannson T-shirt FTW.
Checking in with irritating striker confidence meme. Jozy had a great flick-on to Dempsey that passed without anyone saying anything about Altidore's confidence level. A few minutes later, he scored from two feet. A few minutes after that, he had another threatening flick-on to continue 180 straight minutes of being a handful and chance-generator up front; Twellman attributes it to the goal he just scored from two feet. Argh, argh.
Now, the second goal, that's a confidence booster, if you believe confidence has much to do with it.
Your eleven for Ghana. I wouldn't make a change. The only US player under threat is Bedoya since Zusi does have a skill set the rest of the roster does not, but Bedoya's corners were superior to a couple of weak Zusi efforts in the last game, and even though Bedoya's final ball wasn't quite there most of the day he did make a lot of correct decisions.
The problem comes if and when someone gets the hook because of card accumulation or injury. It's clear Klinsmann was not expecting to have both Beckerman and Jones on the field simulatneously; if that was the case then Maurice Edu would be on this roster. If someone does go out with injury he now seems like the most logical callup, but save chicanery and bad/good luck the US's options are like so if Beckerman goes out:
- Put Jones back on the chain.
- Move Cameron into the midfield and play either Brooks or Gonzalez on D.
Who loves those ideas? Nobody.
This doesn't really exacerbate things otherwise because Jones and Bradley are not replaceable in the pool. It does add another cog that can't get out of whack without damaging the machine.
Depth is an issue. Another Gonzalez appearance ends with the impression that if Gonzalez sees the field in the World Cup it's collar-tugging time, and that's the case around the field. Other than Zusi for Bedoya and possibly striker for tired striker, is there anywhere else a US substitution doesn't make you think "uh-oh?" Large chunks of the roster seem unplayable.
I guess I am still a little peeved about Donovan. I have no faith in Davis or Green to do anything positive if inserted, and that's one too many guys to not have confidence in. Meanwhile a couple others are awkward fits, like Diskerud. Diskerud is Bradley's injury cover, and that's necessary. Unfortunately he doesn't quite fit in any other spot on the field, so when you bring him in it's suboptimal.
Turnovers are another. The US is trying to play like a possession team and isn't quite good enough at it yet. They get caught out a bit too often. Beckerman had a couple of turnovers in bad spots, and the central defenders had issues in previous games. That looms as a potentially devastating issue. It's one the US has to risk, as they have to be able to retain possession better if they're ever going to progress to past the quarterfinal of a World Cup.
Jones is really good at putting out fires, at least.
LET'S GOOOOOOOOO. Let's go, man.
Elsewhere. The great Zonal Marking has started their tactical previews of the World Cup. Directly relevant teams haven't been posted yet, but you can get some schadenfreude from the Mexico analysis. SI on Jozy. Wahl thoughts. Analysis of Portugal-Mexico.
|WHAT||USA vs Nigeria
Send Off Series Friendly
|WHERE||Chad Henne Field
|WHEN||6 PM Eastern, Saturday|
|LINE||I don't know man|
Super Eagles! via Vanity Fair
THE THEM: TEAM THAT FINALLY HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ARMENIA
The US finally draws an opponent in the World Cup in their final open-door friendly. (They'll play Belgium in Brazil behind closed doors.) Nigeria's in group F with Argentina, Bosnia, and Iran. They're ranked 44th in the FIFA rankings and yes I hate World Cup draws, too.
Here is the part where I'd tell you where Nigeria falls in ESPN's Soccer Power Index, but it evaporated last week so I'm not entirely sure. This article ripping the World Cup draw process that I agree with so hard seems to have gotten them just before they disappeared, though, and it shows Nigeria 28th, approximately equal to the Greek squad Portugal just drew 0-0 with (albeit without Ronaldo) and in the vicinity of Costa Rica and Honduras.
In qualifying, Nigeria went 3-0-3 against a weak group of Malawi (122nd in the FIFA rankings), Kenya (102nd), and Namibia (120th) before defeating Ethiopia 4-1 (101st) in a two-legged playoff to claim their bid. In January they finished third in the African Nations Cup, losing the semifinal on penalties to Ghana after a 0-0 regulation; in recent World Cup friendlies they've drawn Mexico 0-0, Scotland 2-2, and Greece 0-0.
You may have figured out that this is a boring team that relies on its defense, and yes, yes they are. They had seven goals in their six group games despite playing some really bad teams, and you remember that USA-Scotland friendly. Nigeria omitted Seattle Sounders star Obafemi Martins in favor of unattached 32-year-olds with six caps and five goals for club over the past three years like Shola Ameobi, seemingly because the coach has a problem with him. So I guess it's not just Klinsmann.
Anyway. The Greece matchup was as dismal as you'd fear:
Defense and goalkeeping controlled the game in a 0-0 draw played in front of a largely pro-Greece crowd of 10,131 fans at the Chester stadium. Each team held the other in check throughout the game, preventing many quality scoring chances.
The teams managed just four shots on goal apiece.
But Klinsmann says Nigeria and Ghana play similar styles, so here they are.
Despite having an identical scoreline, the Mexico game was wide open and attacking:
So maybe the Greece thing is just Greece's ironhearted determination to be the least watchable football outfit on the planet.
Nigeria is threatening on the break and looks to counter; they are seemingly disorganized on set pieces, though: Mexico had four grade-A opportunities from dead balls.
While the lineup against Mexico was listed as a 4-4-2, it looked like a 4-3-3 for big chunks of the game; Liverpool-by-way-of-Chelsea forward Victor Moses is one of those striker/winger hybrids with Fenerbache's Emmanuel Emenike the main guy up top; Chelsea's John Obi Mikel is the heart of the midfield.
Like Ghana (and the US!), defense looks like it may be the Achilles' heel. A quick glance at the clubs of the players called up is enough to confirm that: the Nigerian defense includes two local players, a couple of guys in the English second tier, and just one player at anything resembling a big club: left back Eldereson Echiejile plays for French runners-up Monaco, and by "plays" I mean "mostly watches"—he had five appearances last year.
With limited exceptions, Nigeria is young and very athletic. They're likely to have one guy older than 27 start, that 33-year old captain Joseph Yobo, a central defender.
DEFENSIVE DEBACLE ON THE LEFT
Fancy soccer charting service Opta defines a "key pass" as the last pass before a shot attempt. The above is a chart of Turkish key passes against the USA. While the end point of the pass is not always the location the shot comes from*, it's a pretty good approximation when combined with your first-hand observations. The above chart amply demonstrates the debacle that combining Timmy Chandler and Brad Davis resulted in. The vast majority of chances originated on the USA's left flank; exactly one remotely threatening ball—the horizontal ball from #18 that ended up in the box—came in from the right side of the defense.
*[For instance, that super-long cross field pass from the Turkish side of midfield was the WTF ball that beat everyone and resulted in a shot from just outside the six-yard box.]
Crosses tell much the same story.
The Turks got in three crosses on the USA's right flank from the dangerous areas near the end line versus eight from the left. there were eight-ish more from moderately dangerous areas compared to three or four on the right. (The extremely deep crosses from 18 are almost harmless.) Whatever the US was doing on the left, it was not working.
While any soccer event has a thousand fathers, to my eye the chief blame was because of a mutual and profound cluelessness from both purportedly left-sided players. I noted some positional issues in the Turkey recap, where scoring chances came with Davis not even on the left half of the field; SI's Liviu Bird highlights another instance:
A taste of the U.S.'s poor defensive shape — in midfield and the back line — against Turkey. Should've been punished: pic.twitter.com/IrrGHYlzNf
— Liviu Bird (@liviubird) June 3, 2014
Bird also posted a stunning shot from just before the Chandler gift where Brooks is in fact outside of Chandler, because Chandler has once again inexplicably pulled up from the back four to no purpose.
Could this have been intentional? Is the US sliding its formation right, pretending that Turkey is Portugal and getting the ball off of Ronaldo's foot? It does not matter. Giving Portuguese right wing Nani the kind of time and space on the ball that the Turkish right was afforded in this game and Ronaldo's just raining in headers from Nani's pinpoint crosses.
So this is the thing that needs to get fixed.
GOALIE: Whoever, but I'd guess Guzan gets the start.
DEFENSE: Beasley, Besler, Cameron, Johnson/Yedlin.
Well, you know my opinion on how Chandler did. This is probably the last time I'll get to mention it, so let me just reiterate how unbelievably bad he was on the goal that he handed to the Turks: not only did he give the ball away like a six-year-old, not only did his bizarre positional error start the move, but when the guy with the ball got to the near post, Chandler ran away from him! Guzan and the Turk had a jerky dance-off, and then the guy used the epic amounts of room provided to plink one off of Cameron's hand.
And the above charts. My God man. Beasley's not perfect, but neither does he run around handing out goals. To favor Chandler over him after the last two performances from Timmah in a US shirt is pure eurosnobbery.
Brooks looked pretty good in his run-out in the last 45 minutes but made too many big errors (that last image from Bird is very much a WTF thing) to displace Besler. I would guess we see him again at some point; the two starters will keep starting in an effort to get some chemistry together.
Johnson is your starting right back; might be time to put him on the shelf to keep his legs fresh and avoid injury. If Johnson does start, Yedlin at halftime is highly likely.
MIDFIELD: Jones/Beckerman, Bradley, Bedoya, Zusi.
Bradley is the man; unlike Johnson he's still working out positional kinks and trying to find his passing boots more consistently. Meanwhile the holding mid war will likely continue in 45 minute increments.
Look for the US to adopt an approach closer to the one they deployed in the second half, with Bradley shuttling back and sometimes interchanging with the other central midfielder, then taking over when it's time to surge forward. This will allow the wingers to spread wider and hopefully prevent the same kind of exposure the left endured against the Turks.
On the wings, Bedoya and Zusi look like near-certainties. Zusi is by far the USA's best set piece option who isn't a defensive trainwreck; Bedoya has the speed and athleticism to help cover the USA's weaker flank. Even if he's not looking like much going forward, he's got to be it.
Diskerud should see more minutes as a sub, and I guess Davis.
Might they play together?
ALTERNATE UNVERSE: if the US is truly dedicated to the idea of a narrow diamond midfield, there's little need to pretend your right and left midfielders are anything that looks like a winger. Zusi remains mandatory because set pieces, but if you're going to tuck your guys in so extremely a setup featuring all three of Bradley, Beckerman, and Jones is feasible, with Jones your nominally left-sided midfielder.
That provides a ton more bite and defense on your weak flank without sacrificing much, if anything. It's clear Davis doesn't know WTF he should be doing; Jones is not going to be a downgrade there, and then his pressing, ball-winning ways come with another pure holder on the field. He can also cover for an advanced fullback reasonably well.
Squad depth then becomes a major concern, of course.
FORWARD: Altidore, Dempsey
Absent a drastic change in formation, Altidore is mandatory as the only holder. Dempsey is trying to learn how to work with him and Bradley; the US should value whatever chemistry they can acquire over the distant chance something goes awry. Johannsson and Wondo should both pop in, you'd think.
WHAT YOU'RE LOOKING FOR, OTHER THAN EVERYTHING
Diamond versus 4-2-3-1, part III. The US tried to shut up shop a bit in the second half by withdrawing Bradley, and the pace of Turkish chances did slow somewhat. Clearly something has to change lest more ruthless teams than the Turks pile up the goals. The thing that makes the most sense is to go back to more of a flat midfield four with a designated holder who allows Bradley to maraud forward. The US were forced into something similar in their qualifier against Panama last year, when Cameron was the other central mid:
That game could easily have ended 5-0. Call it a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1; either way it seems like the best balance of defense and attack available.
Do we see something weird? See above about Jones and Beckerman on the field simultaneously. If the idea in the Turkey game was to overload the Ronaldo side of the field and force the ball away from it, I can see that being workable… but obviously not with Davis. Given the holes on the roster, some outside the box thinking might be in line.
Is there a way to get Diskerud or Johannsson on the field for a start? A corollary to the "something weird" question: will Klinsmann look at either of those guys for the Donovan-shaped hole at left mid? Is it completely crazy to consider a 4-3-3 with the three holders and something like Johannsson/Altidore/Dempsey up top? Probably! Almost certainly! I will do just about anything to displace the Landon-Donovan-shaped hole!
Can Yedlin force his way into the lineup? Johnson is locked in on the right for Portugal, you'd assume. But Yedlin showed very well against the Turks and it's not going to take that much for a Johnson-LB, Yedlin-RB lineup to seem like the best option in a non-Ronaldo world. I'm still guessing that Beasley has the edge unless there's a major issue with his play against Nigeria.
Can a forward score a real goal? Not just to shut Twellman up about it, because he's not entirely wrong. But, yeah, partially.
SECTION WHERE I PREDICT THE SAME THING KENPOM DOES