There is an ongoing debate here at Bleacher Report regarding the “formations” deployed by USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Featured Columnists and our contributors all have a lot to say on the subject, yet we seem no closer to resolving the issue.
So I decided to go straight to the mouth of the goal and contact U.S. Soccer about the source of the team formations published prior to every game. I was put in touch with Neil Buethe, Senior Manager of Communications for U.S. Soccer, who graciously agreed to speak with me on the phone and answer our questions.
Let’s begin with a bit of vocabulary. U.S. Soccer publishes a “lineup” before every game. This is the official lineup that goes down on paper and is turned in to the sanctioning body 90 minutes prior to the start of the game and released to the public 60 minutes before kickoff. No positions are listed or implied by this official lineup.
The “formation” describes the basic starting position on the field of every player in the lineup. Formations are known by the common number system (e.g. 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, and so on.)
According to Buethe, this information comes straight from the coaching staff. It is released after the lineups, about an hour before kickoff. The formation is not required by the sanctioning body and is produced solely for consumption by the fans and media.
This answers one of the questions from our discussion: Where do those published lineups and formations come from?
But a second point of contention is just what those published formations tell us. Do they reveal the coach’s game tactics? If there are changes from a previous game, do they reveal a change in overall strategy or just a shift in tactics for that particular game? Are the formations illustrative of how the team actually deploys?
Buethe told me that the formations do reflect, at least to some extent, the specific game tactics the coaching staff has worked up for the game. The choice of formation can depend upon several factors: the opponent, the size and quality of the field, and the types of players available.
The published formations, however, are not always 100 percent accurate. In some cases the formations are intentionally missing subtle information as the coach tries to hide his surprise tactics until the last possible minute.
Formations can also be confounding because a team's shape morphs quickly during the course of a game. A team’s formation changes shape as soon as they gain or loses possession, if there is an injury or if the game strategy calls for pushing forward or defending deep.
All of the focus on starting formations is something that is fun to play with for the fans and media but doesn't always tell the entire picture
Our media are obviously very interested in the formation as it is an important tactical element in the match. Saying that, since the formation can change depending on various situations, at times, it can be given too much credence compared to the coach's overall tactical approach.
The published formations thus reveal a little bit about the coach’s tactics, but not too much. And if you really want to know about the team’s tactics and overall strategies, then you should look at how they actually deploy on the field during the game.
On the Field
So how does the USMNT deploy on the field during games and what might this tell us about Klinsmann’s tactics and overall strategy? To answer this question, we’ll look at nine of the 10 games from The Streak—the longest winning streak ever by a U.S. Men’s National Team. The German and Guatemala friendlies are dropped because the large number of substitutions affects the reliability of the data.
This span of games covers opponents of varying strength, different field conditions, different player personnel for the U.S. and different competitive goals—from away World Cup qualifiers where a draw is sometimes considered a victory to knock-out tournament games.
We’ll look at the “average position” for each player on the team as an indicator of where the coaches deployed the players during the game as conditions changed. Each of the following screenshots comes from ESPNFC.com’s Gamecast under “tactical formation.”
Let’s begin with The Streak’s first game, an away World Cup qualifier against Jamaica, who beat the U.S. 2-1 at home in the semifinal round of qualifying. This time the tables were turned and the U.S. walked away with the 2-1 victory. The published tactical formation was a 4-2-3-1.
I’ve drawn yellow lines connecting the two holding midfielders (Michael Bradley No. 4 and Jermaine Jones No. 13) with the attacking midfielder (Clint Dempsey No. 8), and an orange circle around the forward Jozy Altidore (No. 17). Notice the tight grouping of the three central midfielders and Altidore’s advanced position.
Note, too, the advanced positioning of Graham Zusi (No. 19) as well as the fullbacks Brad Evans (No. 6) and DaMarcus Beasley (No. 7). In the following formations, this tendency is consistent, no matter the makeshift fullbacks du jour, suggesting that it is the product of a system.
Now compare the Jamaican game to the average positions of the players for the Panama game, a 2-0 home victory. The coaches again announced a 4-2-3-1 formation, but it was missing Jermaine Jones due to yellow card accumulation and Geoff Cameron (No. 20) takes Jones’ place next to Bradley.
Cameron and Jones appear to be interchanging with each other much as Bradley and Jones did previously, with neither player having an assigned side or attacker/defender assignment. Dempsey, however, is much further up the pitch (yellow line) and considerably closer to Altidore (orange circle).
The two wings, Eddie and Fabian Johson, are still out wide but still inside of the fullbacks.
In the final qualifier for the nominal “A-side,” a 1-0 revenge home win against Honduras. Klinsmann’s staff again announced a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Bradley and Jones still appear to be interchanging with each other rather than having more specific assignments. Dempsey is playing high up the pitch (yellow line) and his average position forms a central cluster with the striker Altidore as well as Zusi who was listed as right wing and Eddie Johnson (No. 18) who was listed on the left. These attackers also seemed to be interchanging while focusing their attacks on the center of the Panamanian defense.
The next competitive game for the U.S. came in the Gold Cup with an almost completely different player roster. Of the starters from the World Cup qualifiers, only Beasley stuck around for the Gold Cup. Of course the Gold Cup also marked the return of prodigal son Landon Donovan to the national team. The Gold Cup roster was also comprised of more attack-minded central midfielders—Mix Diskerud, Stuart Holden, Joe Corona and Jose Torres—with only one true holding midfielder in Kyle Beckerman.
The Americans prevailed easily, 6-1, against an overmatched Belize side. The announced formation was shaped 4-1-2-1-2, which is the same as a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield. Donovan is listed up top as a “right forward” with Chris Wondolowski at “left forward,” Beckerman as the holding mid, Diskerud as attacking mid and Torres and Corona listed as outside midfielders.
Notice that even though the announced starting formation had Mix in an attacking role, on average he didn’t stray too far vertically from Beckerman (orange circle). Also note the apparent interchange that took place between Wondo and Donovan (yellow circle) as their average position is central rather than left and right as listed on the announced formation.
The next game against Cuba was tied 1-1 at halftime after Cuba took the lead in the 36th minute, but the Nats prevailed 4-1 with a second half flourish. The announced formation was again a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield. Stuart Holden replaced Mix at attacking mid, Brek Shea came in on the left side and Herculez Gomez (left forward) got the start up top with Donovan (right forward).
Once again we see the two central midfielders playing much the same vertically with both players getting forward and tracking back (yellow circle). Donovan is again central though Gonzalez and his substitute Wondolowski seem to favor the right side on which they were listed in the announced formation (orange circle).
The final game in the group stage pitted the U.S. against a stronger CONCACAF side in Costa Rica. The U.S. coaching staff announced a 4-2-3-1 formation with Mix and Holden as the holding midfielders, Torres and Alejandro Bedoya out wide and Donovan listed in the role of attacking midfielder and Wondolowski as the lone striker. The Americans found it hard to break down the Costa Ricans defense but got a second half goal to prevail 1-0.
Looking at the average positions we see that the two holding midfielders interchanged with no assigned sides or attacking/defending assignment (orange circle). Donovan and Wondo’s average position suggests a similar freedom to interchange (yellow circle). These average positions are more similar to Dempsey and Altidore in the last two qualifiers which was the last time the coaches announced a 4-2-3-1, yet different from the Jamaica qualifier where Dempsey dropped deeper.
On to the knockout round and a comprehensive 5-1 thrashing of El Salvador. The U.S. is now back in an announced 4-4-2 diamond formation with Beckerman listed as the lone holding midfielder and Mix as the attacking mid. Donovan and Wondo are again listed at left and right forwards, respectively.
We see a little bit of vertical separation between the holding mid Beckerman and the attacking mid Diskerud (orange circle), but perhaps not as much as one might expect given the announced formation. We also need to take into account the amount of time the U.S. spent on the attack in this game as they held 70 percent of possession. It is a wonder that Diskerud isn’t playing even farther up the pitch.
Check out Donovan and his strike partner Wondolowski along with his sub Eddie Johnson (yellow lines). Donovan ran centrally, very high up field, while both Wondo and EJ drop in behind him, almost as if they were assigned a withdrawn striker role.
The vertical separation between the forwards is much greater than the vertical separation between the two central midfielders, even though the announced formation had the forwards on the same line and the two central midfielders stacked vertically. The formation on the fields, at least centrally, was almost the exact opposite of the announced formation.
The U.S. put together a marvelous game in the semifinals, a 3-1 win over Honduras. The announced formation was a 4-4-2 with a flat midfield of Beckerman at right-center and Holden on the left. Johnson is designated the “left forward” with Donovan on the right.
Yet again, we see very little vertical separation between the two central midfielders, even when Mix comes into the game in the 67th minute (orange circle). These average positions again suggests an interchange tactic between the two central midfielders as opposed to specific left/right or front/back assignments. Donovan is still up high and running all over the field with his striker partner tucked just a little behind him (yellow circle).
The U.S. expected its toughest game yet against Panama in the final, a 1-0 win and Gold Cup Championship. The announced formation was a 4-4-1-1, with Beckerman and Holden listed as central midfielders, Landon Donovan as the withdrawn striker and Eddie Johnson up top.
In the actual run of play, however, Donovan and Johnson interchange liberally both vertically and horizontally. Donovan is not playing as a withdrawn striker. Beckerman and Holden are nearly indistinguishable vertically, though Mix does press forward a little bit more when he comes in for Holden after his 23rd-minute injury.
Even though the USMNT coaching staff announced four different formations during the streak—4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 diamond, 4-4-2 flat and 4-4-1-1—there appears to be very little difference across the games in terms of how the Americans actually deployed on the field.
- There is very little vertical separation between the central midfielders. Watch the game replays and you’ll see that both central midfielders will drop in to pick up the ball from the back four and start the attack. Both center mids go forward if the circumstances warrant and both drop back into a two man screen in front of the back four on defense.
- With the exception of the Jamaica qualifier, the attacking mid in the 4-2-3-1 is positioned as high up the pitch as the designated striker. With Altidore up top Dempsey stayed a little bit deeper, but with Donovan on the roster the No. 10 stayed as high upfield as the No. 9, regardless of his announced position. With the two wings shading into the middle, what we see from the attacking four is a great deal of interchange as the four players work in concert to generate offense.
- Note how high up the field the two fullbacks are relative to the two central midfielders. There is almost nothing to distinguish these four players vertically. It’s almost like the U.S. shifts into a 2-4-4 in the attacking third, though in reality one of the holding mids drops into the back line to give more defensive cover when the attack is fully unfolded. Really more of a 3-4-4 in the attacking third of the pitch.
So, even though Klinsmann’s coaching staff announced several different formations, there seem to be some very consistent tactics, a strategy if you will, that plays out in remarkably consistent ways. This seems to suggest that the Nats are playing according to a system, more than a formation, when they actually deploy on the field.
This should not be surprising since we know that announced starting formations may have little to do with the actual game, but how a team deploys in the game should tell us something about the individual game tactics and, looking across multiple games, whether or not a team has a set of general strategies and a system with which to implement those strategies.
After the friendly next week in Sarajevo, check back for a follow-up article trying to deduce Klinsmann’s system.