USA a good side, but need tactical tweaks

June 8, 2010

The US 4-4-2 line-up

United States fans seem to go into every World Cup thinking that the rest of the world is underestimating them – which has traditionally been fair.

This time, however, ranked 14th in the world and widely expected to qualify from their group, it’s a different challenge for the US – everyone expects them to be a good side.

Firstly, a nod to a great article that analyses the USA’s tactics in greater detail than this piece shall, at the Shin Guardian. It breaks down the game against Turkey in excellent detail, examining the difference between the first-half and second-half shape, and summarising what Bob Bradley should do at the World Cup.

For those uninitiated, Bradley has played various shapes over the past two years, but appears to have settled upon his favoured 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2 system for the World Cup. The basic shape of the team is this – a normal back four where the two full-backs have plenty of license to get forward, two deep-lying central midfield players, very attack-minded wide midfielders / wingers, and two strikers.

The attackers

The use of four out-and-out attacking players means the US are able to do what they are good at – attacking, and attacking at speed. The expected front four is Landon Donovan on the right, DaMarcus Beasley on the left, and Clint Dempsey dropping off the main striker, Jozy Altidore. Dempsey and Donovan are certainly first-rate players, whilst there are question marks about the other two.

But the positive is that Beasley and Altidore both perform specific roles, and therefore side is well-structured in attack – Altidore holds the ball up (although he does like to turn and go towards goal), Beasley offers natural width, leaving Dempsey and Donovan space to create.

The US' 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2 depicted (thanks to TheShinGuardian for permission)

The question Bradley is facing is how to play Dempsey. In the pre-tournament friendlies, he seemed to form a traditional strike partnership with Altidore, but at the World Cup he may play a deeper, more cultured game. Against England, he’ll need to drop back and help out the midfield, or England’s central midfielders will be afforded too much time on the ball. Against Slovenia, a committed 4-4-2 side, he’ll find time and space between the lines – and the same thing applies against Algeria if they play 4-4-2 – or, if they switch to their 3-5-2, Dempsey and Altidore will find themselves outnumbered if they play too close together – two out-and-out strikers effectively plays into the hands of a three-man defence.

Against Turkey, the two forwards (pink) and the two central midfielders (yellow) played on the same axis, making the US quite easy to play against

Put simply, in no situation will it be beneficial for Dempsey to be playing right alongside Altidore, which pretty much summarises why two-striker systems have become so unpopular in recent years. As Sir Alex Ferguson has said, “If you play with two strikers, you only have one point of attack, whereas if you have one guy dropping off, you have two points of attack”. The danger would be Dempsey dropping too deep and leaving the fairly limited Altidore up against two centre-backs, but the US must look to stretch the opposition defences.

Further back

The obvious shield for four such attack-minded players is a defensive central midfield partnership of Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark, both of whom perform fairly unspectacular jobs in the middle of the park, and cover for the attacking runs of the full-backs. Clark appears to be the weak link in midfield, getting drawn to the ball too easily and leaving space in behind, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see him replaced with Jose Torres.

The full-backs have a lot of license to get forward – perhaps too much, considering the limitations (and fitness concerns) of the centre-backs, Onguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit. Jonathan Spector has been caught out more than once in the recent friendlies, and may now be replaced by Steve Cherundolo.

Two central midfielders playing on the same axis can leave a big gap in front of the US defence

This can draw a centre-back out of the backline (red arrow), forcing the full-backs to tuck in centrally to cover (blue arrows), leaving the opposition wingers in a huge amount of space, ready for an easy ball (purple)


The US are clearly the second strongest team in their group, although the schedule of matches may be slightly unkind (see the conclusion of the Slovenia article).

Bradley needs to show his tactical ability to vary the side for each individual match, reacting to the different shapes of his three opponents. The key is bringing the best out of Dempsey and Donovan. This side can’t rely on a great defence, so goals will be needed, and those two players will be the best players on the pitch for the Algeria and Slovenia games.

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