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.”