The U.S. Men's National Team fielded a 4-4-2 starting formation Friday against the Jamaicans in Kansas City. Fortunately for the Nats' chances in next summer's World Cup, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's team demonstrated why the 4-4-2 formation is a tar-pit dinosaur and the 4-2-3-1 is the evolution of feathers.
Former USMNT members, or at least the talking heads on ESPN's World Cup coverage, who lived in the age of the long-ball-to-two-forwards are forever going on about the glories of the 4-4-2 system. Here is what Alexi Lalas had to say from the live pregame "studio" set:
Absolutely fascinating tonight what Jurgen Klinsmann is doing, a much more attacking type of lineup. Yes, it's a 4-4-2, but its a 4-4-2 with Jermaine Jones playing right in front of that back four, and then Mix Diskerud being the man right up there...Right now this is a 4-4-2 and we've seen the U.S. in the past, in the middle of a game or at halftime, change to a 4-4-2 and be much more attacking. We'll see how it goes right from the beginning of the whistle.
Two claims, two perfect examples of confirmation bias.
The studio bobble heads were correct that the U.S. did indeed line up and deploy in a classic 4-4-2 for the first 70 minutes against the Jamaicans. After that ham-footed 70 minutes, perhaps we can now drive a stake in the heart of this bizarre fascination with Klinsmann using the 4-4-2.
When Is Two Not More Than One?
In the classic 4-4-2 system, including the diamond-midfield variant adopted by the U.S, the two forwards are supposed to receive the ball and work in tandem to generate offense. Perhaps people assume that the 4-4-2 is "more attacking" than the 4-2-3-1 because it labels two forwards instead of one.
The 4-4-2 system fails, however, if the forwards do not receive quality service so they can be a dynamic attacking duo. The most accurate method of delivery is short passing through the midfield, followed by crosses from the wide areas, and finally hopeful long balls from the back.
So, what happens when the two central midfielders in the 4-4-2 find themselves outnumbered by their opponent's three central midfielders? At best, the two can play their opponents to a stand-off and force their opposite three outside. At worst, the two are overrun on defense and are unable to play effectively through the middle on offense.
Jermaine Jones and Mix Diskerud were, fortunately, not overrun by the three central Reggae Boyz, but for 70 minutes they were unable to play the ball through the midfield to Jozy Altidore and Aron Johannsson up top.
In fact, during the first 70 minutes the only time the U.S. made dangerous penetrations into the attacking third through central midfield was either when Johannsson dropped deep into the midfield or the outside midfielders pinched inside to give the U.S. a third central player.
Switch to Plan B, then: Send the wingers bombing up the sides to deliver crosses to the two forwards. But wait, what wingers?
The outside midfielders were cheating inside, Landon Donovan on the left more than Alejandro Bedoya on the right, to cover for the narrow vertical deployment of the central midfielders.
Okay then, sound the charge and send in the full-backs!
Just be careful with that flanking maneuver. With just a single holding midfielder to cover the two centerbacks, only one full-back can leave the back line at a time. With the Jamaicans lined up with three true strikers, committing even one full-back to the attack was a risky proposition.
A'ight then, Plan C, bombs away! Yes, the Americans' bread and butter, the go-to tactic when your forwards are bigger, stronger and more athletic than their opponents. Okay, so what do we do if they are not bigger, stronger and more athletic than their opponents?
Um, go back to Plan A?
This is how Klinsmann's "4-4-2 diamond" was neutralized by the last-place team in the Hex, and it is a perfect illustration for why the 4-4-2 is favored only by those who were once forced to play it.
Back to the Future
Klinsmann and his staff could no doubt deduce that the 4-4-2 wasn't working, but the question was how to use their three subs to get back into their base 4-2-3-1 system with players who could effect the outcome of the game.
Graham Zusi is not more talented than Landon Donovan, but he is a winger by trade whereas Donovan was only playing one on TV, and it showed. The first sub at halftime got a natural winger into the game and, perhaps most importantly, inserted a player with a huge motor playing just miles from his home.
Where Donovan looked indifferent and out of sorts, Zusi was a dynamo, zipping inside and out and finally finding the Americans' first goal with a pinpoint shot through traffic.
Sub No. 2 was like-for-like, Edgar Castillo for DaMarcus Beasley. Except that Beasley is not actually a left full-back and Castillo is. With orders to push forward and support Zusi in attack, Castillo was the danger man in the final 20 minutes notching an assist and nearly scoring.
But the U.S. couldn't commit a full-back to the attack without defensive cover. Sub No. 3, Sacha Kljestan for forward Aron Johannsson, at first appeared to be a defensive switch.
With Kljestan's insertion, the U.S. assumed its familiar 4-2-3-1 shape with Kljestan joining Jones as a holding midfielder.
People assume this is a more defensive "shape," because two holding midfielders is more than one.
In fact, it is a more dynamic system that allows both full-backs to go forward as one of the holding mids drops into the back line with the other providing the connection between the back line and the front line.
This system is really lively when the two holding midfielders pivot off each other, with either one going forward while the other covers the back line. The defense never knows from where the deep run will come, and the shape adapts to the game conditions. Instead of a static formation, you have a dynamic system.
The extra midfielder also means the team is not outnumbered in the central midfield and the wings can play with more creativity, rather than committing to aiding the central midfield.
By adding a holding midfielder, Klinsmann was able to commit six players to the attack, get effective width in the final third and, as we all saw, generate offense.
This was clearly illustrated in the second goal as Castillo, a full-back, got around the corner and found Altidore, the lone forward, wide open in front of the goal.
What is the best formation for the USMNT?
The players who came in to the game deserve much of the credit for their skill and effort in breaking the deadlock. But it was Klinsmann scrapping the 4-4-2 for the dynamic 4-2-3-1 that allowed the U.S. to play run-and-shoot for the final 20 minutes.
Hopefully, we can finally bury, deep in a Nevada salt cave, any ideas about the 4-4-2 and whether or not it is the "best formation" for the World Cup Finals.