Maurice Edu battles Lionel Messi for control of the ball in Saturday's 1-1 draw
For more of the author's work, visit SoccReligious.
The 1-1 draw between the United States and Argentina was a fascinating experiment in tactics for the Americans.
Argentina entered the match having won 5 of 6 since the World Cup, with wins over Spain (4-1) and Brazil (1-0), most notably.
Both lineups were fairly predictable. Sergio Romero was hurt, so Mariano Andjuar took his place between the pipes for Argentina. The rest was as predicted, as Sergio Batista rolled out a free-flowing 4-3-3.
The US went with a 4-5-1 of sorts, with Jonathan Spector given the nod over Timothy Chandler at right back and Maurice Edu at the top of a midfield triangle.
The intent appeared to be 4-2-3-1, but the deep positioning of Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan made it more of a true 4-5-1. Jay DeMerit made his first appearance in the national side since the 2-1 loss to Ghana.
Is Juan Agudelo ready to be a full-time USMNT starter?
First half: Free-flowing Argentina dominate stiff Americans
As discussed in the preview, the difference in formations allowed for Javier Mascherano to have ample time on the ball. He played the same center-half role he and Sergi Busquets hold for Barcelona. When in possession, he dropped between the Argentinian centerback pairing, forming essentially a back three. Jozy Altidore was deployed as the US lone striker, meaning he had to cover Mascherano, Burdisso, and Diego Milito all by himself in efforts to win the ball back.
As a result, Argentina saw the majority of the ball, building up play steadily from the back, mostly through Busquets and alternating movements from Ever Banega and Esteban Cambiassio. This is almost exactly as Barcelona play. It requires flexible attackers and speedy fullbacks, as well as midfielders who can hold on to the ball in traffic - all of which Argentina have. The fullbacks Zanetti and Rojo provided width (Rojo, in particular, saw a lot of the ball in the opening 45 minutes, which, coupled with Jonathan Spector's lack of pace, pinned Landon Donovan deep in the defense - see Image 1).
|Image 1: Rojo is the highest player in the Argentine attack, in the "Dani Alves" wingback role. Donovan, as a result, is pinned back deep into the defensive half, behind both US "holding" mids. (Photo courtesy ESPN3.com)|
Meanwhile, the Argentine attacking trident moved fluidly and in perfect synchronization. Messi often found his way into the gap between the two U.S. holding mids (see Image 2 below). The confusion and lack of communication between Bradley and Jones led to hesitation, which Messi thrives on. He was clearly the best player in the world in the first half.
|Messi splitting Edu (covering for Jones) and Bradley to create a chance for the Argentines. (Photo courtesy ESPN3.com)|
All that said, US head coach Bob Bradley's men nearly blanked the world's fourth-best team for the half. The defense, as potent as Argentina's attack was, actually defended well. The back four stayed tight and compact, pushing most of the danger wide and forcing some shots from angles Messi and Angel DiMaria wouldn't prefer.
The midfielders all helped win the ball back, as well, though Maurice Edu was clearly uncomfortable in what evolved into almost a second striker role with the deep positioning of the American wingers. Instead, it was a lack of retention up top on the part of Altidore, and an inability to link play from Edu, that led to the barrage which finally broke the camel's back. Messi was a little more patient when pushed wide, and found space for DiMaria, whose shot forced a Tim Howard save that Esteban Cambiasso cleaned up for the 1-0 lead near the half.
Still, Argentina's first half dominance was less tactical and more technical. The US generally outnumbered the Argentines in the visitors' attacking half (see Image 3), throwing nine defenders behind the ball as opposed to the seven attacking players were Argentina. It was the superior skill and spacing of Batista's men. - coupled with an over-crowded, cluttered US defense - that gave the South Americans plenty of space to make penetrating runs into between one-touch passes. If anything, the American defense was too crowded and had no outlet to go to when recovering the ball.
|Image 3: The US outnumber the Argentines 9 to 6 in the last third of the field, but the proper spacing and intelligent movement of the visitors creates a goal-scoring change. (Photo courtesy ESPN3.com)|
Second half: Classic American result
|2nd Half formations (4-3-3 vs. 4-2-2)|
Anytime the Americans pull off a result against a superior side, there are three common elements.
First, the U.S. keeper plays excellently. This match was no exception, as Tim Howard put on the performance of a lifetime. He denied several surefire scoring chances for Argentina and was certainly the man of the match.
Second, the U.S. play 4-4-2. This isn't a coincidence. When formations are similar, as they were in the first half, the game breaks down into one-on-on matchups, in which the more skilled team comes out the victor. Adding a numerical advantage somewhere distorts that balance.
In the first half, the US often won the ball back deep in its half, but our back four (who are very good defenders, but very poor in skill) played long balls down the sidelines. Why? Because they aren't skilled enough to retain the ball when an opponent presses hard. Onyewu learned that in the fifth minute when he lost a blunder to DiMaria that could have been a goal, and for the rest of the night, he was booting clearances as far as he could.
In lone forward formations, the forward can't cover both sidelines, so that route one ball from the back line is rarely won back by the offense. In a 4-4-2, however, that ball often ends up being a good (if accidental) pass. The addition of Juan Agudelo for Jermaine Jones provided that outlet for the defenders.
It also meant the Argentine backline had more pressure on it, and the fullbacks had to drop back to provide an outlet, freeing Donovan and Dempsey to make their interior runs (See Image 4).
|Image 4: Rojo (top) and Zanetti (bottom) pushed deeper by additional pressure of Agudelo. (Photo Courtesy ESPN3.com)|
Finally, Jozy Altidore no longer had his back pinned to goal and was able to get the ball on the half turn to link up with Agudelo, or to turn out wide and free space for the wings. Michael Bradley and Edu provided a solid bottom to the empty bucket, with less confusion between the pair. Bradley, in particular, thrived in the second half, winning balls and distributing well. Edu also appeared much more comfortable moving the ball side to side instead of trying to link the play. Chandler's substitution at Spector's expense meant the US could actually establish some control of the ball in their attacking half.
The third common element of great US wins is the set piece goal. The US countered well on several occasions and won some free kicks in their half, and it only took one brilliant delivery from Donovan, one gutsy header from "Captain America" Carlos Bocanegra, and one moment of perfect timing for Agudelo to poach home the equalizer. The rest of the game played out evenly, with Argentina holding the ball but the US countering well. The South American's certainly took their foot of the pedal, still linking up beautifully but with much less fire on the final ball or penetrating run.
In the end, the first half experiment was successful in that it showed the US still have a long way to go before they are technically able to compete toe-to-toe with the world's best.
After the game, Bob Bradley mentioned the 4-5-1 experiment will continue, and honestly, I think it's the right call. Jozy Altidore isn't ready to bear the burden alone up top, but he's only 21, and most classic number 9's don't hit their stride until at least 25...just ask Giampaolo Pazzini.
4-5-1 ultimately gets the best bodies out there for the US and should work well against the rest of CONCACAF, but the emergence of Juan Agudelo as a legitimate second striker and the lack of techincally-astute defenders (calling Tim Ream) means 4-4-2 is still the best shape for the US against the best teams in the world.