The United States Men's National Team finished off Ghana in a thriller on Monday night, and they now turn their attention to their last two Group G opponents, Portugal and Germany.
The match between Portugal and Germany lasted only 37 minutes, which is when Portuguese central defender Pepe came to the conclusion that a light head-butt in full view of the referee was the correct way to respond to his opponent's histrionics. The resulting red card killed off the game and probably Portugal's chances of advancing in the tournament.
You could argue that the game was already over with Germany ahead 2-0 and performing like a test track Beamer. But from the 37th minute onward Portugal played with ten men and fought desperately to avoid being run out of Brazil before the World Cup had even begun.
The 4-0 result was the best news of the day for the USMNT, until Clint Dempsey scored the fifth-fastest goal in World Cup history to send the U.S. on its way to its own 2-1 opening game win.
The truncated contest between Portugal and Germany, however, was short on information about the Americans' next two opponents. Still, there were a few nuggets of information from the first 37 minutes of that game for head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's coaching staff to ponder.
To Press or Not to Press
Klinsmann wants his team to press hard when its opponents have the ball, to work hard and win the ball back in dangerous places. It's a good tactic, as long as the opponent is pressured into mistakes and is not able to work quick passing combinations to break the press and counterattack.
Both Portugal and Germany are capable of doing just that.
Germany took a more measured approach to its defense and set a line of confrontation near midfield. This tactic mimicked what we saw from England and Italy, who both dropped back into a half-field defense.
Mind you, this is no bunker-and-counter tactic. The defense invites the offense upfield and then applies tight pressure. The benefit is threefold:
- It shrinks the space in which the opponent can effectively run its offense, which makes the pressure action that much more effective.
- It creates space behind the opponent for a quick counter against fewer defenders.
- It reserves players' energy for later in the game.
The Italians made this tactic famous over the last few decades and many teams today will adopt it under particular conditions, like sweltering weather and a technically adept opponent.
Germany came out this way for the first 37 minutes. The Portuguese did not.
The Portuguese tried to use their front three to pressure the German back line, but Germany was having none of that. Time and again they used quick passing triangles to beat the pressure and leave the Portuguese scrambling to recover.
Lesson number one: a deeper line of confrontation worked for Germany against Portugal, and a higher line of confrontation did not work for Portugal against Germany.
How Do You Stop CR7?
You make him play defense. The Germans moved the slower Philipp Lahm into the holding midfield role and started Jerome Boateng at right-back, directly opposite Cristiano Ronaldo, with help on the inside from Sami Khedira.
In the second minute, Boateng was released down the right flank to get in an effective cross that resulted in the Germans' first of threat on the Portuguese goal. The ESPN commentator Stewart Robson remarked, "Boateng broke forward to good effect. Ronaldo certainly didn't chase him back. Could be an outlet for Germany down that right-hand side."
Ronaldo didn't chase him that first time, or the second when Boateng drove an accurate diagonal ball to switch the play. After that, Ronaldo kept his eye on Boateng and was forced to track deeper.
The attack which earned the Germans a penalty kick in the 10th minute started on the German right with Ronaldo 20 meters from the halfway line, tucked too far inside to be effective defensively. The Germans overwhelmed the left side of the Portuguese defense.
The only drawback to this tactic was that it left Ronaldo one-on-one with one of the German center-backs when Portugal countered. But the Germans stayed organized and funneled CR7 inside to the help as Boateng used his speed to recover.
Over the course of the game, FIFA.com reports that only 19% of Portugal's attacks originated from Ronaldo's (left) side of the field.
Klinsmann likely had this tactic in mind when he selected four speedy full-backs for his squad. Boateng clocked a top speed of 29.23 km/h. Ronaldo's top run was 29.95 km/h. The Nats' right-back, Fabian Johnson, topped out at 29.77 km/h. Don't be surprised to see Jermaine Jones, who timed a whopping 31.39 km/h, shift to the right to help with CR7.
The U.S. clearly has the speed to play this kind of tactic against Portugal, and given Fabian Johnson's offensive prowess he should be effective in keeping Ronaldo occupied, or make Portugal pay the price for CR7's lack of defensive help.
Lesson number two: keep Ronaldo occupied defensively, and take advantage if the Portuguese winger doesn't provide any defensive cover.
The U.S. Will Have to Up Its Passing Game
Michael Bradley was above the team's average at 75%, but every one of his misses came in Ghana's half of the field. Jones was worse with an anemic 48%. Of the Americans' starting XI, Kyle Beckerman was best with a 77% completion percentage.
The U.S. will clearly need to do better in possession—38.3% against Ghana—if the team want to keep its hopes of reaching the knockout stage alive. They were plucky and lucky against Ghana, but they dare not hope that Portugal will be as inefficient as the Black Stars.