Mike Lantry, 1972
USA vs Algeria: Wednesday 9:30 AM , ESPN.
But don't tell them that because they'll cut you.
Brady2Terrell has a clear and comprehensive breakdown of what the US needs in a message board post. To make it even more concise: a win means the US is in. A loss means the US is out. A draw and the US is waiting on the result of the other match. In that case, England winning puts us out. Basically anything else and the US is through. Draws in which England scores three more goals than the US does—very unlikely—put England through instead. Draws in which England scores two more lead to a decision based on card accumulation, in which the sides are tied.
Those things are maybe 1% probable. Slovenia goes through with a draw and is very experienced at bunkering; England's offense has been impotent thus far in the tourney.
Ignoring that, your rooting interests:
- Do not lose
- If tie, hope England does not win.
Since both games will happen at the same time this promises many tense moments unless the US goes up two (raise your hand if you think that's likely, and if you've raised your hand please relocate yourself to a national team that apparently does not exist). Wednesday will be knee-buckling.
Algeria is a strange team. Every time Nadir Belhadj (above) makes a darting run forward I am literally angry that Algeria can pump out a left back like that and we're left with Jonathan Bornstein and a centerback gamely playing out of position. Rangers manly-man Madjid Bougherra would probably be the USA's first-choice centerback with Onyewu's injury and lack of form. Abdelkader Ghezzal may not score a lot in Serie A, but he's actually in Serie A. Serie A would laugh at the entire US forward corps, then consider them again just to laugh some more. If you were to pick a starting eleven from the combined rosters of the same team, the position at which Algeria would win they would win by a country mile.
But… that's kind of it as far as obvious Algeria wins goes. Their goalkeeper, described as "very, very dodgy" by Zonal Marking even before the tournament started, was replaced after giving up a game-winning goal to Slovenia that was almost but not quite as bad as Robert Green's nation-horrifying mistake. His replacement got his first international start against England, making a couple of good saves while looking equally dodgy on balls played in from the edges. He plays in the Bulgarian league. Knock on wood, but the chances he gives up a game-changing mistake are much greater than Tim Howard's.
Tactically, Algeria is extremely variable. They shifted from a three-man backline in the African Cup of Nations to a 4-4-2 in their pre-WC friendlies, then went with a 3-5-2 that was closer to a five-man backline against England.
With Ghezzal available—he was suspended for the England match after picking up two yellows in just over twenty minutes as a second half sub against Slovenia—and Algeria needing to win by two goals to guarantee advancement, the Desert Foxes will probably adopt a more attacking posture against the US. This will see Nader Yahia move back to right back after being drawn inside to play centrally against England, with the rest of the midfield adopting more aggressive attacking positions.
Left: Algeria (white) against Slovenia. Right: Algeria (green) against England. While the England formation looks more aggressive, in reality the two wing-backs operated mostly as defenders.
The two central midfielders were described by Zonal Marking as "simple defensive-minded midfielders" before the tournament and have lived up to that reputation. What attacking the Algerians manage is usually through Belhadj and Wolfsburg attacking midfielder Karim Ziani, easily recognizable as the douchiest looking guy in the tournament thanks to his blond dye-job. (Algeria, as a group, look like Aqua.)
The attack broke down in the final third against England when Matmour, normally a midfielder, provided no threat:
Algeria dominated possession for periods of the game, as you would expect for a side essentially fielding six midfielders. Indeed, you can stretch that to seven – because Matmour is plainly not a forward, let alone a lone striker. His movement was decent but he offered no threat in behind, which is the obvious way to catch out a defensive partnership of John Terry and Jamie Carragher.
Threats in behind are also an obvious way to catch out the defensive partnership of DeMerit and Onyewu, so it's nice that Algeria doesn't have a consistent way to generate any. Ghezzal is a strapping 6'1" guy who shouldn't be a huge matchup problem for Onyewu and Demerit.
ZM sums up their first two games as "dogged" but says they've "offered nothing in an attacking sense" thus far. Whether that will hold true against a leaky USA defense is another section.
The Nats are in an unusual and advantageous situation. Algeria has a shot to advance but absolutely must win. They will be forced to attack against a team they might have bunkered against if they'd faced them in one of the first two group matches. This should play into the USMNT's hands. They're an excellent counter-attacking team even against world class sides like Spain and Brazil, and Algeria's defense has a tendency towards Michigan 2009 errors. Marauding fullbacks and erratic passing will yield plenty of opportunities for the US to strike back.
So… this is a situation in which a ball-winning central midfielder next to Bradley is a priority. I haven't been a fan of Clark, but Edu's second-half performance against Slovenia wasn't much more impressive. Either would be fine as a starter; Torres is set to be a second-half sub if the US needs a goal.
As far as the forwards go, take your pick between putting Buddle in the starting lineup and thrusting Dempsey up top and putting Holden into the fray. With Algeria's games to date proving Belhadj the Algerians' most effective attacker, I vote Holden plus Dempsey. Holden is a young, pacey, work-rate-heavy winger capable of tracking Belhadj's runs better than Dempsey, and tasking Holden with the most important defensive responsibilities frees Donovan to be Donovan*. Holden is the only US player who gives the team any width, and his ability to get deep and cross should be an effective way to test any of Algeria's flappy goalkeepers.
The seemingly odd substitution of England winger Aaron Lennon (generally regarded as by far their best wide option) for national whipping-boy Shawn Wright-Phillips was because Lennon kept cutting inside:
Aaron Lennon constantly came inside rather than getting down the touchline. He needed to be braver and give Nadir Belhadj more of a problem by staying wide and high when Algeria got the ball – this would have either pushed Belhadj backwards to pick up Lennon, and therefore take him out of the equation, or forced one of the three centre-backs to come across to the left-back position, which would have removed Algeria’s luxury of a free man at the back.
Tracking Belhadj and threatening him with an actual winger will go a long way towards shutting down the Algerians' main attacking threat. This could be a game where Beasley makes sense as a second-half sub, possibly for a ragged Holden.
The United State has another huge advantage in the game: set pieces. The US was consistently dangerous on them in the first two games because of Landon Donovan's excellent service, and Algeria was often disorganized in their first two games. It's easy to envision the US pumping in a goal or two from dead-ball situations, another reason to focus on wide play—and the resulting corners that come from it.
(SIDE NOTE: why has Donovan been so excellent in a tournament in which every well-hit cross sees four or five fly wildly out of control? One: he's good. Two: MLS is our secret weapon. Many observers are convinced that a lot of the crappy play in this World Cup (goalie errors, wack crosses, zero free-kick goals) stems from the Jabulani ball, and that the Germans' proficiency with it is traceable to the Bundesliga's adoption of the thing six months ago. Guess who else is using it?
On a domestic front, the Jabulani has made an appearance in Portugal’s league, Argentina’s league, America’s MLS, the Dutch league, the French Cup and the Swiss league.
So there you go.)
As long as the game remains tied, the advantage is to the US. With the sketchy central defense and the situation they can adopt their usual slightly defensive 4-2-2-2 and wait for the opportunities that will surely come.
D: Cherundolo, Onyewu, Demerit, Bocanegra
M: Donovan, Clark, Bradley, Holden
F: Altidore, Dempsey
*("Landycakes" is dead. You hear me? Dead.)
The Important Thing
Do not go down a goal in the first fifteen minutes. Algeria probably couldn't go in a shell at that point—they need to win by two to guarantee they go through—but they would pull back somewhat, waiting for information from the Slovenia-England game. The longer Algeria's kept off the board, the more they'll have to press and the more vulnerable they'll be.
This section is totally obvious and useless, I know.
Some other important things:
- Play wide and quickly to exploit the space left by the attacking Algeria fullbacks.
- If Dempsey is up front consider dropping back into a 4-5-1 that would give Donovan and Holden more license to press high, potentially taking Belhadj and others out of the offense.
- Keep the wing players outside and allow Demerit and Onyewu to do what they do best: clear crosses.
- Pick up as many set pieces as possible.
6/18/2010 – USA 2, Slovenia 2 – 0-0-2, 3 GF 3 GA, in with a chance
Since college football happens on Saturday and people read the internet at work, I usually have the luxury of taking a day or two to compose my thoughts on an emotionally wrenching event before pouring them out into this space. No such luxury after a 10 AM game on Friday.
It doesn't matter in this case since I won't know how to feel until the US plays Algeria. Go through, and the second half was Yes We Can We Are Amurrica It Is Morning And Let's Roll Up Our Sleeves And Get Out Of This Recession. Fall short and it's time to bomb Mali. That would be unfortunate since some 13 years ago I was sitting on the internet playing checkers at 3 AM after a night of Jedi Knight and my opponent said "hello from Mali." We had a nice conversation. I explained what "doh!" meant and he told me he was using the only computer in his village of 300 to play checkers at 10 AM. Erroll77 is now 29. If I was him I would find a TV and root like hell for the USA against Algeria. The USA didn't bomb Germany after that mad dentist conjured a penalty out of nothing in the Ghana game, but they're in NATO. We do what we must.
I digress. What just happened is Schrödinger's Cat: World Cup Edition. At halftime I left the noisy bar and thought dark thoughts about how the US has largely moved away from MLS players but remains addicted to MLS managers. Jose Torres was brought on and the first half was spent seeing Slovenia cover passing lanes until one of the center-backs aimlessly booted a ball upfield that Robbie Findley might run onto, for whatever good that might do. The US had conceded a goal built from sheer lazy marking from Bocanegra, who allowed Walter Birsa to tuck inside totally unmarked and launch a shot Howard, off his line, had no chance at. The second goal was a World Cup-crushing gut punch that followed a sequence in which the US was one wrong touch or Donovan sliding tackle away from equalizing.
Then something decayed. At halftime I was busy composing a rant about how the loss had nothing to do with the USA's inability to play above the level of their competition and everything to do with their inability to do anything except on the counter and the unfamiliarity with defending it. The US then got a couple goals off hoofed long balls and managed to avoid further crippling goals on the counter. Why is unclear.
It wasn't the substitutions, neither of whom had anything to do with either US goal allowed to stand. Before he got on the end of the Donovan service Edu was frankly bad, and Feilhaber's contribution was limited to a couple of ambitious passes that didn't come off. It wasn't the run of play, which was the same as it was in the first half, with the teams splitting possession and the US having slightly more edge in the final third. It just went differently for no immediately understandable reason. It just happened.
They're still in it, though, and since I'm at a loss as to what, exactly, to think I will default to my mode of operation in 2002, when I was in a Galway pub and Niall Quinn knocked down a header for Robbie Keane to blast past Oliver Khan:
The situation then is creepily close to what the USA just faced down. Ireland had drawn their first game 1-1. The last game of the group was against a team from the Arab world widely regarded a minnow (in their case, Saudi Arabia), and a draw was required if they were going to have a chance to advance. The goal is a carbon-copy.
Keane scored deep into stoppage time, so Ireland didn't have time to punch in the winner and see it set on fire. The country decided to take the rest of the day off and drink by the river. I've still got to watch the England game, but in many things the Irish approach to life is the wise course. For now, a stirring comeback that leaves the USA's fate almost entirely in their hands, and a reason to keep faith even when the weight of history tells you to go home and sulk.
While it's up:
But first! The Run of Play wins twitter in the aftermath. Read from the bottom:
- Jozy's finest game in the US uniform and not even close. Consistently dangerous, drawing a bunch of free kicks around the area, one of which resulted in the Edu goal-type substance, and knocked down the long ball perfectly for Bradley. Had a couple of those thrilling runs that are becoming a regular occurrence, too.
- Torres didn't do much and got pulled at halftime, but I'm not sure how much was even his fault since there didn't seem to be any passing lanes available.
- In retrospect, the horrendous Edu call was coming. In the first minute of the game Dempsey should have gotten yellow for an elbow to the head, then Findley got a yellow for handling the ball with his face. Other than Jorge Larrionda (surprise!) making a hash of whichever game he did a couple days ago, we haven't seen that many bad calls in a game, let alone a half.
- Speaking of Findley: anyone else actually happy he has to sit for the Algeria game? Pace is nice but it's almost sad to see Findley run a ball down. What's he going to do with it? Boot it directly out of bounds? Ah, yes.
- Feilhaber instead of Holden was weird, right? I guess the former might be more likely to spring a guy with a throughball through a crowded defense.
- The US had to make the balls-out switch to Gomez but, man, having Edu in the back in a World Cup game was terrifying.
- It's too bad the US doesn't have a true destroyer they can rely on because allowing Bradley to go box-to-box makes the US attack considerably more dynamic. His late runs into the box find him open all the time. This time, unlike Australia, he shot.
- The outcome of the Algeria-England game does not matter much for the US. As discussed in the preview, the only way an Algeria win does not put the US through is if 1) the ENG-SLV game is a draw, 2) that draw sees Slovenia score two more goals than the US does against Algeria. That's a highly unlikely outcome. Anything other than an England win means the US just goes through if it wins, so root for Algeria, but it's not likely to matter either way.
- Germany outcome removes any incentive to finish first. You'd like to avoid the Germans since they only lost because of a questionable red card to Klose (like Eddie Pope's sending off in 2006 the first yellow was a "huh" moment), a saved penalty, and some heroic goalkeeping by the opposition even after Germany went down to ten. But you have no idea where they will finish in the group.
There are varying opinions on whether the Slovenia game is a must-win or must-tie; I'm in the tie camp. If the US ties and England beats Algeria as expected, the final matchday will see Slovenia and England enter with four points and the US two. The US would go through if they win against Algeria and…
- England wins
- Slovenia wins
- there's a draw and the US wins by two
- there's a draw and either Slovenia or England scores fewer total goals than the US.
That is almost all possibilities that include a win over Algeria. So they can't lose. But a tie is far from tragic.
On the other hand, a win gives them more leeway against Algeria and could see them escape the knockout game against Germany everyone would dearly like to after the machine mistook Australia for Austria and acquired plenty of lebensraum. Winning is good.
Unfortunately, the US is not going to have a couple of pieces of key information before they go into Friday's matchup against Slovenia: what happened in the England-Algeria game, and if Germany as terrifying as it seemed or if Australia just a team that can give up four goals to anyone. If they knew these key bits of information they would know whether they should attempt to win by a lot or just win.
Without that information and given the situation in the group, the right answer appears to be "just win." This, I'm sad to say, may see Ricardo Clark start again.
Slovenia, as you might expect given their population is approximately equivalent to Iowa, is a boring defensive team. They do have a few talented attacking players but their overall lack of talent sees them play a traditional 4-4-2 that you could call a 4-4-1-1- if you wanted, or a 4-2-2-2, or… well, a lot of different things. A 4-4-1-1 plays pretty similarly to what England does with Rooney and Heskey—Rooney comes deep for the ball, Heskey presses up the pitch—and so you could see some situations similar to the ugly breakdown that led to the England goal, hopefully minus the ugly breakdowns.
Here's my Torres pitch: I think this actually is an argument for Dollar Store Xavi. Torres operates best as a deep-lying playmaker who does not get dragged up the pitch much. Though he's not exactly spectacular in the tackle, the Slovenia attack is not athletic enough to punish him the way he would have been against England and his presence at the back will be more consistent than Clark—who tends to get dragged out of position—and Bradley—who also tends to get dragged out of position, but at least with him there's usually a point. The US defense is less likely to get pulled out of shape when he's around and more likely to spring quick attacks that bypass the Slovenian's compact discipline as much as that is possible. Clark's positioning has been erratic at best over the last month.
SI's Jonathan Wilson describes the Slovenes as essentially identical to the US, with their best and most creative players operating as tucked-in wingers:
Slovenia's only real creativity comes from the wide midfielders, Valter Birsa and Andraz Kirm. Both tend to tuck in when Slovenia is out of possession, pulling wider when the ball is won, while still looking to cut in on the diagonal -- just as Donovan and Dempsey do. They also tend to switch during games, occasionally playing as orthodox wide men and looking to swing in crosses, but more usually playing as inside-out wingers.
The back four and the two central midfielders are defensive players first, and the central defenders are good but not great. With Slovenia set to sit back and look for the counter themselves, opportunities to break will be minimal and this might be a game for Edson Buddle and his recent run of finishing instead of a Robbie Findley more likely to waste possession and biff open nets. Buddle's also a much greater threat in the air. With a lot of the USA's offense likely to come from overlapping fullback crosses, aerial power seems preferable to speed. Also, if you're bringing in Torres you might want a little more size elsewhere for set pieces for and against.
Slovenia's goalie, unfortunately, is damn good.
I've already brought this up in the previous sections: if I was Bob Bradley I'd swap Torres for Clark and Buddle for Findley, expecting that Torres would be sufficient defensively against a side lacking the sort of middle-of-the-park power England has and more likely to hold possession and unlock the Slovenian defense. Buddle, meanwhile, is more likely to get on the end of a cross or set piece and more likely to finish any opportunity that happens to come his way.
Will Bradley actually do this? I don't know. I think you might see Clark or Edu in the first half with Torres a halftime sub if the US needs a goal. Findley… well, I reviewed the England game and he was a much better hold-up forward than Altidore, consistently bringing down long balls and getting the midfield involved in pressure situations. That more than his speed was his contribution. Against a very different opponent I'd rather have a guy to get on the end of things.
The other option is bringing on Holden, which would probably see Dempsey move up top. That's an attractive option too since Slovenia is set up to give up space on the wings and Holden is probably the USA's best winger. The USA as set up against England is exceptionally unlikely to get in a good cross. This game seems to call for more width, and Holden's about the only guy who provides that unless you want to pretend it's 2006 and DaMarcus Beasley is a good option.
Everyone except Clark and Findley is a sure starter. Those nine plus tactical whateva should be enough to get a result, but Spain-Switzerland and whatnot, and we are not Spain.
Result. A point from the first match is fantastic, especially since the Slovenia-Algeria game was a crime against soccer. If the US wins against Slovenia, which they should, they are basically through. A tie is probably good enough going into a final game against a shambolic(!) and likely eliminated Algeria squad.
Timmah! Was where he needed to be, made the saves he could make, and did not spill a harmless ball into the net. He was fortunate that a number of English shots were directly at him, but he saved a couple sledgehammers without offering up a rebound that Rooney could have poached.
Steve Cherundolo. Essentially shut down the right side of the English attack and, as a bonus, drew two dangerous fouls on Milner, forcing Capello to take him off just a half-hour in. He coped with the speed of Wright-Phillips and Cole for most of the game; given Spector's recent troubles it's easy to envision the US conceding another goal or two if Cherundolo isn't on the field.
Dempsey & Donovan. Neither had a spectacular game. Both were still the USA's best and most dangerous players. Donovan set up most of the USA's dangerous chances and provided his usual quality set piece service; Dempsey obviously scored. Even if it was a howler by the goalie, score == good.
Jozy Altidore. Par for the course: one brilliant piece of individual skill and not a whole lot else. Created a golden opportunity that Green and the post conspired to deny. Also whiffed on Donovan's dangerous
Robbie Findley. Josh Wolff 2.0. Took some long balls down well and helped with possession. Still wasteful when he does get the ball in a dangerous position; even got caught on his breakaway because of sloppy footwork with the ball.
Michael Bradley. I'm not really sure. I'm just putting him here because I don't recall much good or bad from Bradley.
Central defense. Onyewu did get pulled out of position on the quick Gerrard goal but since as the game wore on it became clear that the game plan for dealing with Rooney was to have the central defense immediately step out on him no matter where he was, he can hardly be blamed for following the gameplan. Zonal Marking has a bunch of stills showing the various ways in which this strategy exposed various parts of the field to be exploited. Here's Onyewu stepping out on Rooney, getting beaten, sucking Bocanegra in, and setting up Lennon for a dangerous cross:
ZM sees this as Onyewu repeatedly committing errors, but from my perspective the US decided that Rooney would not beat them and they'd take their chances with Heskey and others, especially since the absence of Barry forced the ineffective deployment of Milner/SWP and the Nats' tucked in attacking midfielders largely neutralized the England fullbacks. The focus on Rooney put Heskey in for England's best chance of the second half. His shot went directly at Howard.
For the rest of the game, the central D pairing kept England out. Demerit was especially good at harrying Rooney, who had a minimal impact until late when everyone got tired and England finally started attempting to exploit the still-awkward Onyewu in some one-on-one situations.
The downside for the central D: both Heskey and Crouch had their way aerially, with Heskey knocking down ball after ball for his teammates and Crouch having some scary moments in the box. That's somewhat unavoidable—Heskey is a beast and Crouch is 6'7"—but a fully healthy Onyewu may have competed better.
Carlos Bocanegra. This was definitely going to happen, but it did: Aaron Lennon was too much for Bocanegra, providing most of the England offense in the second half. He'll cope better against less blazing wingers.
Ricardo Clark. The writing was on the wall when Clark went 90 against Australia, but why a guy with two appearances for his club since the end of the last MLS season got the nod over a comparable player with a lot more recent playing time under his belt (Edu) is still unclear. Clark let Gerrard loose less than five minutes into the game, and that's especially egregious since it was obvious that center-backs stepping out was part of the gameplan and that Clark is supposed to be the most defensive-minded player on the pitch other than Onyewu and Demerit.
I haven't reviewed the game yet but the first serious rewatch posts are rolling in and Clark does not do well in them:
There is one camera angle on ESPN3 and I caught at least four other opportunities to the early gaffe by Clark of ball watching–or clipping his nails–or whatever he was doing rather than getting on the play. (19, 25, 34, 84 minutes)
Defensive awareness is about the only thing Clark is supposed to bring to a game, and he's not really doing that after missing six months injured.
I'm with the rest of the internet: I expect we'll see Torres the next two matches as the US adopts a more aggressive posture based on possession.
Also South Africa. Vuvuzelas, incredible swathes of empty seats—I'm watching Japan-Cameroon and it looks like Crisler when Michigan plays Arkansas Pine-Bluff—a bunch of money spent on sports in an area of the world that has serious problems… way to go FIFA.
With the draw against England, I'm with Braves and Birds:
The weekend's results create a new goal for the Nats. Coming into the tournament, we all wanted them to make it out of the group my any means necessary. Now, with a draw against England and Germany looking like the best team in the tournament, there should be motivation for the Nats to do their best to win the group to avoid the Germans in the round of sixteen.
If the US and England both win on Friday, the final matchday will be a race to avoid Germany. Big if, though, against a Slovenia side that rarely concedes goals.
The Run of Play on the game.