After much ado was made about United States men's national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's apparent fundamentalist conversion to the good ol' 4-4-2 formation, the baker's son from Botnang tried a new recipe against the Nigerians in the final World Cup tune-up for the Nats.
Nominally listed as a 4-2-3-1, the formation featured two holding midfielders not named Michael Bradley—Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman. Klinsmann left his libero, Bradley, in the center attacking midfield position and listed Clint Dempsey as the left attacking midfielder.
U.S. fans are familiar with past attempts to use Dempsey out on the wing and the mixed results from those attempts. Dempsey is simply a better player when he's free to roam the pitch and use his creativity to crack open a defense.
While the formation seemed to solve one set of problems—how to get Bradley's ball-handling skills in forward positions without leaving the back line exposed—it also seemed to leave the U.S. back in the conundrum of how to free up Dempsey from a winger's responsibilities.
As I reported last August, the formations published by U.S. Soccer are little more than media candy. On Friday Klinsmann reiterated that point, telling reporters that all of the talk about formations is anachronistic.
Furthering the angst of Nats supporters is the apparent inability of American soccer observers to imagine putting players on the field in a way that isn't "balanced," with each line of the formation neatly dividing the field into specific areas of responsibility.
Why do we insist on perceiving it that way?
In the other football, teams routinely unbalance their formations by overloading one side of the field. In basketball, particularly the NBA, unbalanced offensive sets are frequently used to create favorable matchups on one side of the court. Even the most static formation sport of them all, baseball, occasionally overloads one side of the field to defend against pull hitters.
Yet, for some reason, we expect soccer formations to look like a "diamond" or a "Christmas tree," perfectly symmetrical with each player having specific areas of responsibility.
ProSoccerTalk's Kyle Bonn, reporting on that Friday press conference, credited Klinsmann with giving American sports reporters a lesson in modern soccer tactics by explaining that soccer tactics are really more about how the players conduct the game than where they are supposed to position themselves on the field.
Sure enough, if we look at the activity of the Nats starting XI against Nigeria, we see that Klinsmann actually played without a "true" left winger. In the chart below from MLSsoccer.com's chalkboard, Dempsey played the high left-hand channel when the U.S. dropped into defense, but going forward, he popped up all over the field with a majority of his offensive touches coming on the right-hand side of the pitch.
How can that be? Wouldn't that leave a void on the left side of the U.S. formation? Not if another player moves into the space normally occupied by the left wing.
In this chart we can see where the holding midfielder, Jones, moved when the Nats went forward. On defense Jones stays at home, shielding the left side of the back four, and then moves into the void on the left hand side to control that side of the midfield as the team builds the attack through the midfield.
InsidetheFilmRoom.com surmised that the U.S. was really in a diamond midfield formation, which is more or less true as the Nats moved through the middle third. But Jones, like Dempsey, did not play as a true winger. He fell back in line with Beckerman as a central holding midfield pair in front of the back line when the U.S. was in its own half. Also notice how Jones never drove deep to the end line where wingers traditionally attack from.
Instead, it was the left full-back, DaMarcus Beasley, who made penetrating forays deep into the Nigerians' right flank (the Nats' left). The chart below only shows Beasley's actual touches, but if you review the game video, you will see that he was frequently present in that deep attacking space.
What are the benefits of playing an unbalanced formation without a true winger? Foremost is the difficulty a defense will have in coping with a void that can be filled instantly by four or five different attacking players.
With a positional winger, the defense can assign a defender to cover that man, while in an unbalanced formation that defender has no idea where the next attacking player will come from. The strength of this tactic can easily be seen in Jozy Altidore's second goal where the Nigerian defender finds himself isolated against the American striker.
Soccer defenses usually try to keep each of the opponent's strikers covered by at least two defenders. Here, the unbalanced formation functions much like an isolation play in basketball, or to borrow terminology from the other football, the formation creates single coverage and a mismatch for the Americans' big, physical wide receiver to go deep.
Unbalanced formations are not new to soccer; ZonalMarking.com often diagrams the different ways that teams use unbalanced formations to create offensive mismatches or to provide extra defensive cover against an opponent's strength.
Nobody seems to give Klinsmann and his team of proud-to-be underdogs much of a chance in the world's biggest tournament. But if they continue to execute flexible tactics like this unbalanced formation, this team will be a tough out in Brazil.