The United States Men's National Team got mixed reviews in their 2-0 win over an outmatched Azerbaijan national side. As Azerbaijan is the 85th ranked team in FIFA's team rankings, many observers seemed to expect a blowout win by the United States and a mild gnashing of teeth could be heard after the final whistle.
To some extent, expectations of a blowout win were unfair because the USMNT was coming off two tough weeks of training camp, and Azerbaijan had demonstrated their mettle by managing one win and six draws in their UEFA World Cup qualifying group. The Nats also played without their leader Clint Dempsey, who was held out as a precaution when he reported discomfort with his groin muscles—an injury that can be particularly tricky.
The Americans still played with plenty of energy, even if they didn't look technically sharp, and generated many more scoring chances than their opponent (21-9 in total shots, 7-1 shots on target). Overall, a 2-0 win against any national side should not be viewed as alarming.
Of particular interest to U.S. fans was head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to trot out the 4-4-2 "diamond" formation he used against Mexico back in April. The change in formation is a big contrast compared to the 4-2-3-1 formation Klinsmann preferred in qualifying.
There are two key differences between the two formations. First, instead of playing with two holding midfielders working in tandem with one going forward and the other covering behind, in the diamond formation, Michael Bradley pushed up the field to play well ahead of his usual midfield partner Jermaine Jones, who sat deep.
The second key difference is the deployment of two dedicated forwards, as opposed to the withdrawn forward or attacking midfielder that is used behind the lone striker in the 4-2-3-1.
These adjustments should be viewed as an attempt by Klinsmann to change his tactical formation to match his players' abilities, as opposed to trying to shoehorn his players into a particular formation that may not take full advantage of their abilities.
In the midfield, the diamond formation ostensibly maximizes Michael Bradley's passing and ball possession skills, as well as Jermaine Jones' ability to play the destroyer role in front of the back four.
Jones did a good job of holding his position behind Bradley, but he also showed the danger of relying on him in the destroyer role when he committed a clumsy challenge just outside the 18 in the 11th minute. This gave Azerbaijan a free kick that will be much more dangerous coming off the foot of Christiano Ronaldo or Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Jones' penchant for those kinds of mistakes should give Klinsmann pause and open the door for Kyle Beckerman to show if he's ready for the world stage.
Bradley was finding space and the ball at the top of the diamond, but he wasn’t sharp in this game. His motor and positioning were there, as always, but he struggled to complete even non-pressured passes. No doubt Bradley will be sharper, every player has an off game now and then.
Unfortunately, the 4-2-3-1 that the U.S. will see from Portugal and Germany evolved, in part, to counter the 4-4-2 diamond formation. The two deep-lying midfielders in the 4-2-3-1 can mark a lone attacking midfielder right out of the game.
This is one reason why the tandem holding midfield pair can be more effective going forward, as the opposing defense has to be aware of either player jumping into the attack, as opposed to finding and covering a single player in the advanced attacking mid-position. Azerbiajan and Mexico may not be capable of taking Bradley out of the game at the point of the diamond, but do not count on similar defensive issues from the Nats' Group G opponents.
On the wings, the 4-4-2 diamond formation brings the outside midfielders inside a bit more, which opens up space for the outside backs to make overlapping runs. Given the number of athletic, attacking full backs that Klinsmann chose for his roster, this may be exactly what he has in mind.
The interplay between the wings will be crucial to the Americans' success in Brazil. It will take both wings to cover Germany's and Portugal's inverted winger formations and contain players like Christiano Ronaldo.
And keep this in mind, one way to contain a player like CR7 is to force him to play defense so he can't plant himself near the U.S. back line. To pull off this tactic the U.S. will need high-energy athletes who are willing to play both ways with similar verve.
The two dedicated forwards in the formation similarly complement Klinsmann's roster. The U.S. can play a traditional target forward with Jozy Altidore and run three different forwards off of him. Dempsey, Aaron Johannsson and Chris Wondolowski are all better suited to a strike partner than they are to the lone striker role.
In fact, should Altidore get hurt or show poor form, Klinsmann can pair any of the two remaining strikers up top and still generate some offense. While Klinsmann prefers the target man to win and hold balls, a nuisance forward with high energy can have a similar effect if he has a strike partner. Luis Suarez was highly effective for Liverpool in that role.
The 4-4-2 diamond has its vulnerabilities, and at least two of the Nats' World Cup opponents play a formation designed to shut down that midfield. But the formation seems to suit Klinsmann's roster and may explain some of his seemingly eccentric selections.
At the end of the day, any formation can beat any other formation, provided that the right players are in the right positions and the team executes at a high level. If Michael Bradley shows that he is really a world-class player, and Klinsmann's striker bullpen can get hot, then Klinsmann's shift to the 4-4-2 diamond formation may just be the key to his team's success in a few weeks.