This is a guest post by Jacques Pelham. You can find more of his soccer writing at the Football Garden.
The Klinsmann era of U.S. Soccer began in earnest Wednesday with the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team facing Mexico in a friendly match just weeks after a deserved 4-2 defeat against the Mexicans in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final. The Gold Cup was a fitting end to the Bob Bradley era, which had been marred by inconsistency and lack of progress despite achieving utilitarian results in major competitions.
Moving into the Klinsmann era of U.S. Soccer, expectations are high. There is a sense from educated observers and the emerging American soccer media that Klinsmann has the pedigree, knowledge, and savvy to progress and develop U.S. Soccer further than any of his predecessors. Of high priority to both internal and external U.S. Soccer constituents is developing a style and identity for U.S. Soccer that can be transmitted from the Men’s Senior national team down through all levels of U.S. Soccer. Klinsmann is charged with not only achieving expected results given the teams recent levels of success, but engineering an on field product that combines key elements of the modern game with an American cultural identity that values hard work, perseverance, and, above all, winning.
The key to achieving these desired results is consistency, starting with establishing and clearly communicating the philosophical underpinnings and the individual expectations and responsibilities related to the style and tactics Klinsmann seeks to adopt. Once the philosophy and style is formed and in place, it will be necessary for Klinsmann to select players with consistently high levels of technical capabilities and tactical cognition in order to produce a final product that is competitive with the best national teams in the world.
Wednesday’s game against Mexico provided the first competitive display of the on field product resulting from Klinsmann’s efforts. Given the little amount of time between his appointment and the match, Klinsmann could not be expected to implement wholesale player selection changes or fine-tune the tactical roles and responsibilities for each of the team’s players. However, several of Klinsmann’s player selections and the formation he selected for the game were departures from his predecessor Bob Bradley, evidence of the beginnings of incremental changes to the identity of the Team and a new set of ideas within the leadership of U.S. Soccer.
After the announcement of his hiring and in various pre-match interviews, Klinsmann made references to implementing an “attacking” style of play with the caveat that, against Mexico, more conservative tactics would likely be needed to achieve success. Consistent with this statement, the U.S. sat very deep in its own half without much possession throughout the first half and well into the second half doing little to influence the game. After second half substitutions, in particular the introduction of Juan Agudelo the U.S. was far more aggressive and proactive higher up the pitch. These changes were effective, leading to the Robbie Roger’s goal as well as what appeared to be a clear penalty on Landon Donovan and Torrado’s last man foul on Rogers.
Wednesday’s match was the beginning of what is hopefully a more consistent and attractive era of U.S. Soccer. Few valuable conclusions regarding Klinsmann’s tactical competence, leadership, or man management can be drawn from the 1-1 result or the on-field display put forth by the U.S. players. What can be concluded is that there is much work to be done on and off the field to form the U.S. Players into a concerted, cohesive unit that demonstrates the technical and tactical consistency necessary to compete with the best national soccer teams in the world.
Mexico is the clear reference point and rival for the U.S. in the CONCACAF region. With a mix of experienced and skilled veterans and marquee young attacking talents, Mexico has the ability to expose individual weaknesses and collective disorganization to great effect and is currently the best team in CONCACAF. Throughout Wednesday’s game, Mexico showed quality in possession and commitment to pressuring without the ball. Like in the Gold Cup final, Mexico looked to dominate possession and play the game in the U.S.’s half. Without Javier Hernandez and with Dos Santos used as a substitute, Mexico looked less dangerous in attack than it did in the Gold Cup final and failed to create consistent goal scoring opportunities. Despite the attacking absences, Mexico took the lead somewhat early and continued to dominate possession and the game until midway through the second half when it conceded a goal and was lucky to finish the game with a tie.
The U.S. With the Ball
While the U.S. initially showed a greater commitment to building from the back and keeping possession of the ball, the team was unable to break down Mexico or find players in dangerous spaces through patient build up. Simply stated, the U.S. consistently failed to demonstrate few, if any, of the qualities necessary to create attacking chances by maintaining possession against an organized and disciplined team.
The key tactical consistency issue while the U.S. was in possession was the lack of a shared understanding/commitment of where and how the ball should be played in a given situation (transition immediately after recovery, building from the back, offensive third etc…). Rather than proactively choosing the best trajectory of the pass or dribble before receiving the ball, the tendency of all the U.S. players, and particularly the central midfielders, was to receive the ball and take additional touches/hold the ball while making decisions. This allowed Mexico to pressure the player in possession aggressively and break up U.S. attacks.
The U.S.’s lack of competence in possession was exemplified by the inability of the 3 central midfield players, Kyle Beckerman,, Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley to influence the game positively or dictate the rhythm of build ups and tempo when the U.S. had the ball.
None of the 3 players seemed familiar or comfortable with the roles required to successfully keep the ball within the 4-2-3-1 system. Each player misplayed simple passes, wandered lethargically into ineffective positions without the ball, and generally took too much time to select and execute passes. These failures allowed Mexico to dominate the central midfield and possess he ball throughout most of the game despite having a numerical disadvantage in the central midfield zone (3 U.S. Players v. 2 Mexican Players).
Of the U.S. Players, Jose Francisco Torres looked most comfortable and decisive on the ball in the first half. However, his initial assigned position on the left wing and his defensive positioning affected his ability to dictate the rhythm and buildup of U.S. possession. Upon replacing Jones in the more central midfield position in the second half, Torres was comfortable on the ball when afforded space and time to receive passes but played several passes that resulted in dangerous interceptions when placed under pressure and was dispossessed at least once after failing to make a simple pass out of pressure.
The inability of the U.S. to develop consistent possession meant that Mexico enjoyed most of the ball and dominated the game, denying the U.S. of a single shot on goal until the second half (which was the result of a corner kick). Mexico were slightly unlucky to not have had more clear chances on goal and failed to convert their dominance of possession into additional goals. This proved costly for Mexico in the second half after key substitutions led to the U.S. reasserting influence over the game, scoring a goal to tie the game and creating chances.
The introduction of Juan Agudelo and the removal of Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley, led to creation of attacking chances for the U.S. Agudelo was far more active in and out of possession than Edson Buddle and the removal of Jones and Bradley corresponded with Torres and Donovan moving into central positions. While the American’s ability to keep possession after the substitutions remained mediocre, their work rate and commitment to putting Mexico under pressure during their build up increased significantly. Almost immediately, Mexico looked far less composed on the ball, and the U.S. was able to create chances out of interceptions and dispossessing Mexican players.
On the U.S. goal, Brek Shea did very well to receive a pass from Agudelo in traffic and navigate past two Mexican players before playing a nicely weighted low cross to Robbie Rogers. Apart from the Rogers goal, the U.S. was unlucky not to score after Donovan was denied what looked to be a penalty kick and Robbie Rogers was free on goal off a nicely weighted ball by Agudelo before being dragged back by Gerardo Torrado, a foul which arguably should have been punished with a red card.
The U.S. Without the Ball
During the first half and until the introduction of the substitutes in the second half, the U.S. players defensive positioning allowed for generous amounts of time and space for the Mexican defenders and midfielders. The U.S. was not aggressive in recovering possession immediately after being dispossessed and was either unable or uninterested in affecting the rhythm and effectiveness of Mexico’s passing and positioning during their build up play out of the back.
Edson Buddle and Michael Bradley were the highest U.S. players up the field and, neither did much to consistently affect the Mexican defenders/midfielders or influence the game in general. Rather than looking to anticipate and aggressively cutting off space/passing options, both players seemed generally content reacting to whichever way the ball was being played and jogging in that general direction. The U.S. improved dramatically in the second half after Buddle and Bradley were substituted.
Beckerman and Jones sat behind Bradley in the channels to Bradley’s left and right and were decent in cutting off Mexico’s vertical playing options through the center of the field. However, the understanding and communication between the three central midfielders often broke down and lead to several situations where they were positioned too close, too far, or in a flat line with one another, exposing spaces for Mexican players to move into and allowing Mexico to leisurely move the ball through the line and into a higher attacking position.
The wingers (Donovan/Torres) generally started even with Beckerman/Jones when Mexico was building and positioned themselves based on the location of the Mexican outside backs rather than attempting to influence the Mexican player (usually the center backs or Torrado) in possession. At times, this created situations where one or both of Donovan/Torres were even with the back line between the outside back and the touchline. When this occurred, the U.S. had up to six (sometimes more depending on Beckerman/Jones positioning) players flat or close to flat along a very deep back line.
Either by design or in reaction to the U.S. midfielder’s failure to close down space when Mexico was in possession, the U.S. back line remained very deep throughout the game and the central midfielders recovered to position themselves with very little space between the two bands. While this tactic allowed the Mexican players in possession to have plenty of time to receive the ball and choose their next pass, it collapsed the highly dangerous space in the center of the field in between the defenders and midfielders.
Given this dynamic, Mexico’s options were usually to keep possession under little pressure around the 18-yard box, take long shots, or attempt precise through balls to their attacking players into the limited space behind the U.S. back line. The latter approach proved the most dangerous, with Torrado in particular playing several balls into dangerous space that either the U.S. defended against effectively or were called offside against Mexico.
Despite the time and space afforded to them by the U.S., Mexico failed to create dangerous opportunities during open play although the corner kick from which they ultimately scored was the result of possessing the ball and forcing the U.S. to concede a corner. Mexico’s lack of real goal scoring opportunities despite their overall dominance allowed the U.S. to re-establish some influence and tie the game in the second half.