"Ronaldo plus 10." That's the common knock on the Portuguese side in major competitions, and it's part of the reason why the country that boasts the best player on the planet over the last two years has never been seen as a legitimate contender to win the 2014 World Cup.
One game in, and suddenly a loss in either of the next two matches could see Portugal fail to even make the knockout round. Cristiano Ronaldo is going to do everything in his power to make sure that does not happen, and it's up to the United States to find a way to stop him. (If you thought watching the U.S. stop Ghana was gut-wrenching, just wait for Sunday.)
In truth, Portugal is much more than just Ronaldo, but with the suspension of Pepe after a mindless headbutt on Thomas Mueller and the injuries to Fabio Coentrao and Hugo Almeida, they are much less than they should be heading into a World Cup matchup with the United States. Having said that, Ronaldo plus any 10 still has Ronaldo.
"For us it's a great start, a very difficult start against a great Ghana team and now we have to work harder to show Portugal who we are," Jurgen Klinsmann told the media after his first World Cup win as U.S. soccer manager. "This is a very dangerous game, more dangerous than before because you get that 4-0 result from Germany, now you're going to come into Manaus pretty angry.
"I don't know how Cristiano Ronaldo behaves when he's angry," Klinsmann continued, "but we expect a very difficult game. We are looking forward to it."
The question for U.S. fans leading into Sunday's match isn't if Klinsmann's troops can beat Portugal, but how they will do it. The secret to stopping Portugal is stopping Ronaldo. The secret to stopping Ronaldo may be in the attack.
Trust me, that sounds as crazy to me as it does to you. How can the United States use its attack to thwart the best counter-attacking player on the planet? Wouldn't that be playing right into the game plan for Portugal?
In a way it would, and if Portugal were at full strength it most certainly would be a concern for the United States to be overly offensive against them. Yet with all the talent up and down the Portuguese side, the loss of Coentrao may hurt them more than the loss of Pepe or even—in a larger World Cup context—the loss to Germany.
Portugal need to win, while the United States can smartly play for a draw, protect in the defensive third, pick spots to get up the field with their own counter-attacking play and attack from the outside in. That's where the loss of Coentrao will hurt Portugal the most and where the United States may have the players to take advantage of his absence.
Neither team looked very good in the first set of Group G matches, but the United States were able to fight against Ghana for the win despite getting outplayed for much of the match, while Portugal were summarily overmatched by Germany both on the field and on the scoreboard.
Clint Dempsey, the United States captain, admitted Thursday that his first-minute goal against Ghana put the Yanks back on their heels too much, and the strength and pace of the Ghanaians down the flanks gave the USMNT fits in terms of controlling the ball and working for transition opportunities.
"I think emotions got a little bit the best of us in that game," Dempsey told ESPN's Jeremy Schaap at team training. "Getting the early goal, and I think we kind of went to a little bit of a defensive shape."
The United States somehow lost their entire identity after the early goal, with Michael Bradley playing an uncharacteristically poor game by his recent standards, especially in transition from defense to offense. That has to be better against Portugal for the U.S. to have any chance to survive, and the plan should include getting the ball out wide.
When Jozy Altidore went down early in the first half against Ghana with a hamstring injury that will keep him out against Portugal and perhaps longer, the team lost their outlet valve up the middle, having no plan to give the defense relief.
"It's difficult for us to keep possession when we're not confident on the ball and making sure we do the simple things right," Dempsey added in his interview with Schaap. "[We have to do] a better job, also, when you're on the ball, keep it simple and being confident because we have the quality that we can play a good style of soccer."
Keeping it simple should mean getting the ball to those who can possess and distribute, and while that means Bradley is going to have to control more of the middle of the field than he was able to do against Ghana, it also means players like Fabian Johnson are going to have to take more chances up the wings, control the width of the field and get into more attacking spaces.
If you look at the formation the United States settled into against Ghana, there was absolutely no width in the midfield. Even when the U.S. compacted the diamond formation to a more defensive posture, it didn't make the outside midfielders play any wider on the field, so when Bradley or one of the defenders—and yes, for all logical reasons we can consider Kyle Beckerman a defender against Ghana—got the ball, there was nowhere to go but up the middle, playing right into Ghana's hands, a situation exacerbated by the loss of Altidore.
That plan will only be worse against Portugal.
How can the U.S. stop Ronaldo?
It's hard to get a sense of Portugal's true formation after Pepe was sent off, because the move—and the scoreline at halftime—had the Iberian side moving everyone around the field in hopes of getting more space for Ronaldo. Nani, for example, usually bangs up and down the right flank but moved to the left side underneath Ronaldo for the second half, something the United States probably should not expect to see, especially if DaMarcus Beasley is still starting at left-back.
Nani should look to exploit the lack of pace Beasley has at this point in his career, hoping to whip balls into the middle for Ronaldo and whoever starts up front with him, be it Eder or Helder Postiga in Almeida's absence.
On the right side of the field, the pressure on the United States back line should come from either Nani or Joao Pereira making overlapping runs from his right-back position. It's worth noting that per FIFA.com, 53 percent of Portugal's attack against Germany originated from the right side, to just 19 percent from the left. That means Beasley is going to have to stay home much of the match and would greatly benefit from the assistance of Jermaine Jones to secure the left side of the defense.
On the other side of the field for Portugal, the service almost always comes from Coentrao, either playing short passes to Ronaldo on the edge of the area or whipping in a cross after a run down the flank.
With Coentrao gone, Portugal may have to reconsider their tactics, potentially freeing up the option for Johnson, Alejandro Bedoya or Graham Zusi to use the open space down that side to the United States' advantage.
If there is one thing we know about Ronaldo, it's that he is not coming back to help on defense. At all. Part of the reason Ronaldo is so adept at the counter-attack is that he stays up so high when the ball is in his defensive third, using his pace to blow past defenders like they aren't even there. This will be a true test for the United States center backs, for sure.
And while the starting formation for each team will suggest that Ronaldo's regular installation on the left side might force Johnson to stay home at right back like he did for much of the match against Ghana, the truth is Ronaldo rarely stays out wide, allowing Johnson the chance to move up the field if the proper cover is provided inside for Ronaldo.
Not as easy as it sounds, I know. Geoff Cameron and Beckerman may have to combine to essentially double-team Ronaldo any time Johnson moves up the field, a proposition most U.S. fans are already having nightmares just thinking about.
The thing is, unlike against Ghana—which everyone agrees was a victory on the scoreboard but not entirely the way anyone wants the U.S. to play ever again—Johnson wasn't able to push forward until Zusi was subbed in for Bedoya, giving the United States a little bit more possession and control. Of course, the combination of Zusi, Johnson and Cameron were also responsible for the lack of defending on Ghana's only goal, which should be of equal concern on that end as it could be a positive for the attack.
So…what then? Is there a way to stop Ronaldo while still focusing on possession and attack on the flanks?
Sure. Sort of. If the U.S. go into the match playing what amounts to essentially a box-and-one in basketball, but put the box around Ronaldo, they might be able to contain him.
Because of that, installing a five-man midfield may be Klinsmann's best option, especially with Altidore out for the match. In a way, not having Altidore could help Klinsmann in terms of installing more dynamic, free-flowing tactics. When Altidore and Dempsey are both healthy, it's hard for Klinsmann not to start both in their established roles. With one out of the lineup, the options are more plentiful.
First, Klinsmann could leave Dempsey up top by himself and start a more defensive-minded 4-2-3-1 lineup of Beckerman and Jones both in front of the defenders, with Bradley patrolling the middle of the park against the tight Portugal triangle midfield. Then both Bedoya and Zusi—or perhaps Brad Davis on the left instead of one of them—would have more room to roam, with the right midfielder tucking more inside when Johnson makes his runs.
Starting with a more defensive-minded midfield allows some combination of Mix Diskerud or one of the strikers, Aron Johannsson or Chris Wondolowski, to come in later in the match if the U.S. need more creativity up top.
Another option would be to keep the same formation as above, but install Dempsey in a "midfield" role, putting Wondolowski or Johannsson up top with the U.S. captain just behind them. This would essentially be a 4-2-2-1-1 that is similar to what the Americans played against Ghana, but with more theoretical width than the diamond midfield provided. Either way, six players are almost always parked behind the ball, with at least three keeping an eye on Ronaldo at any time.
The United States will have to hope that's enough to stop him.
Yet again, without Coentrao flying down the left side for Portugal—likely replaced again by young 23-year-old Andre Almeida—the U.S. should attack the right side to make sure the Portuguese defender has to stay home. The best way to do that would be to let Johnson loose down the flank, hoping that his attacking pressure will eliminate the chance for a counter-attack on that side of the field.
With no true attack down the left, Ronaldo will have to find other ways to get the ball at his feet. Which he will, because he's the best player on the planet right now. There is no way for the U.S. to stop him, but if they can limit the ways he may get the ball, Klinsmann's defense can also limit the number of people needed to try to stop him.
It may not work for the U.S., but it's better than sitting back and taking punches for 85 minutes like they did against Ghana. It's better than leaving Johnson and Beasley both flat in the back without either pressing up into the attack.
If Beckerman, Jones and the other midfielders can stay home a little, tuck in and help Cameron and Matt Besler control the middle of the field, there's an off chance Ronaldo can be relatively neutralized. Yes, it might take five or six players to neutralize one man, but if doing that frees up Johnson to get more involved in the attack, it might just be worth it.
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