The United States men’s national team pulled a rabbit out of the boot with a spectacular 4-3 victory over FIFA’s 13th ranked team, the “Dragons” of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
It was the 12th consecutive win for the United States men’s national team. It was the first come-from-behind win for the Nats on European soil.
It was a coming-out party for two new Americans. It was an emphatic roar of defiance for Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.
It was ultimately a tale of two halves.
The First Half
The U.S. came out in their base 4-2-3-1 formation with Bradley and Jermaine Jones in their pivotal holding midfielder roles and Altidore the lone target forward.
They ran the basic package as Bradley and Jones took turns going forward to support attacking midfielder Mix Diskerud. Fullback Fabian Johnson provided direct offensive support for wing Eddie Johnson on the left, while Brad Evans did the same for Alejandro Bedoya on the right.
The only apparent difference from their base package in the first half was a deeper line of confrontation. The front four started their defensive pressure as soon as the Dragons entered the middle third. The back six stayed deep, inviting the Dragons to play into the high wings, where they were met with under-and-over coverage as the wings collapsed to help their fullbacks.
The intention may have been to keep a more compact shape in the back so that center backs Geoff Cameron and rookie John Brooks had more protection from the runs of superstar striker Edin Džeko.
The tactic proved to be less effective than the Americans hoped. Džeko scored the Dragons' first goal in the eighth minute, and Vedad Ibisevic later found room in the middle to head past goalie Tim Howard for a two-goal lead.
To be fair to the newlywed center backs, not many defenses have been able to contain the potent Bosnia-Herzegovinian offense.
The U.S. offense created several dangerous opportunities but could only match the Dragons’ three shots on goal. The Americans were frustrated by a physical Dragons defense that muscled Mix out of zone 14 and dared their opponents to play crosses and long balls into a well-covered lone American striker.
If the U.S. wanted to keep their winning streak alive, they would need to come up with something different in the second half.
The Second Half
Klinsmann made his first substitution at halftime, bringing on fullback Edgar Castillo for the attacking midfielder Diskerud.
At first blush, substituting a defensive player for an attacking player looks like a change to a more defensive posture.
Except that Klinsmann pushed Eddie Johnson up top with Jozy Altidore, Fabian Johnson up into the left wing and Jermaine Jones forward into the hole. This created a five-man attacking front in place of the four attacking players in the 4-2-3-1. What looked like a defensive substitution resulted in a more offensive formation.
Much ado was made about this shift into a “4-4-2.” ESPN commentator Taylor Twellman gushed, “You know I loves me some 4-4-2.”
However, a closer look at how the Americans actually deployed in the second half reveals an innovative touch by Klinsmann that is decidedly not a base 4-4-2.
The Americans' positioning at the opening second-half whistle is shown in the screenshot below. Bradley (orange) is lined up as a lone holding midfielder in front of the back four (yellow), with Jones on the front (red) line.
The next screenshot shows the U.S. 10 seconds later as the five attacking players (in yellow, except Jones in red) deploy in the first American penetration of the second half.
As play continues, Bradley (orange circle) hangs solo in the deep-lying playmaker role as the next three screenshots show. Jones stays upfield without the yo-yo action he and Bradley normally engage in.
Seven seconds before the Americans' first goal, Bradley is still lying deep and receives a ball from Brooks. He turns without pressure and finds Altidore with a 45-meter drop shot that Jozy touches over to EJ for the easy finish.
Note how far upfield Jones (red circle) still is. Note too the advanced positioning of both fullbacks (yellow), a classic pattern of the 4-2-3-1. In the standard 4-4-2, only one fullback advances at a time while the other drops into the back line.
It looks more like Klinsmann kept the base tactics of the 4-2-3-1 but decided to throw the dice by pushing one of his holding-mids completely into the attack while adding a forward. The winning formation turns out to be a 4-1-3-2 that continued to build from the back and send both fullbacks into the attack.
The U.S. did not deploy a 4-4-2 to overcome the Dragons in the second half. Instead, they adapted their base system to solve the two problems created by the Dragons' defense in the first half.
First, Klinsmann pushed his beast into the scrum inside zone 14. Jones was better able to deal with the physical play than the lighter and less experienced Diskerud. Second, since the Dragons were willing to give up crosses and balls over the top, adding a second forward gave the offense an extra target and made it harder for the Dragons' back four to cover the Americans.
Maybe the winning streak meant more to Klinsmann and his team than they publicly let on. The results certainly speak for themselves.
We Need More Cowbell
Pointing to changes in formation is an easy way to explain changes in the play of the game.
But it is the players who must compete on the field, not the manager and not the formation, so it is fair to ask if the U.S. comeback was also the result of something that changed with the players.
Altidore certainly thinks so, as he told American Soccer Now:
Personally speaking it doesn’t matter if I have someone to play up front with. But as a whole, as a team, we stepped up the tempo in the second half. That’s what made the difference. Having two strikers gives everyone the mindset to up their game. But next time we need to do it from the start.
His coach agrees (USSoccer.com):
It was wonderful to see the energy and dynamic of the whole group. We pushed and pushed, kept the tempo higher than Bosnia did and absolutely deserved the win. I think everybody here in Bosnia saw that the second half we dictated the tempo and kept the rhythm going.
The effect of the higher tempo and the energy that subs like Aron Johannsson brought into the game was evident in every U.S. goal.
The second goal came after Jones and Bradley won a midfield scrum and sent the ball back to Brooks. Brooks cut loose a tight 20-meter pass into Fabian Johnson positioned in the middle of the field (remember, he was nominally a left wing at that point). Johnson then deftly dribbled into space before finding Altidore with a nice look, for the finish.
The third goal will forever be considered a wonderful solo set-piece effort by Altidore. The free kick would never have happened, however, if not for Castillo's kamikaze run at the opponents' box.
Guess who had a key touch before Castillo received the ball? Bradley.
Bradley finally got his official assist on the final goal, finishing off a Kljestan/Johannsson combination with a deft pass to spring Altidore. While he only finished with one assist, Bradley had an important touch on the ball in the plays producing all four of the American goals.
And we cannot discount the spark that Johannsson brought to the game after replacing Eddie Johnson. He not only generated two decent shots on goal, but he applied effective high pressure and was an important component in the Americans' second-half passing game (12 for 12 passing).
While the formation put an extra attacker up front, the U.S. could not have held off the Dragons offense without the defensive energy the entire XI put in to limit Tim Howard to only one heroic save and two more conventional catches.
So, we can praise Klinsmann for adopting a more offensive second-half posture, but it was his player selection and ultimately the players themselves who decided they were not going to lose that game.