USA: a diamond midfield
While 4-2-3-1 remains the dominant formation, there’s a decent amount of tactical variety on show at this World Cup.
The United States are expected to add to this variety by using a diamond midfield, which might be unique among the 32 teams. Jurgen Klinsmann has spent recent weeks telling the press that the formation doesn’t matter, but the switch to the diamond in April’s 2-2 friendly draw against Mexico was a significant move, and was designed to bring the best out of the USA’s outstanding player, Michael Bradley.
Klinsmann has now played that shape in the USA’s last four games, the draw against Mexico and then warm-up matches against Azerbaijan, Turkey and Nigeria, which all resulted in victories. For the first three games, the diamond seemed more of a modification upon the 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-1-1, simply bringing the wide players inside and putting Bradley further forward. But the 2-1 win over Nigeria shows the diamond had taken on a different tilt, because Klinsmann played Jermaine Jones, formerly used at the base of the midfield, on one of the sides. Although some considered it a 4-3-2-1, with Bradley alongside Clint Dempsey, in reality it was simply a diamond again.
The key is Bradley. He performed well at the previous World Cup, driving forward from a central midfield role, and improved massively during his year at Zdenak Zeman’s Roma, a side where quick vertical running was imperative. Bradley has developed technically having previously been seen as a workhorse, and while his goalscoring record at club level is underwhelming, for the national side he’s more of a threat.
In the 4-2-3-1 he started in a deep role and was constrained by the system (and the fact Jermaine Jones isn’t a pure holding midfielder, as he likes to cover more ground). Now Bradley has fewer defensive responsibilities, and three midfielders behind him instead of one, he must lead the attacking charge.
Ideally, Klinsmann would use both Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya on the sides of the diamond, but using two adventurous players would be highly risky in such a difficult group. Jones provides much more balance on one side, as a competent defensive scrapper who can also move forward on the ball, leaving Bedoya more freedom to play his natural game.
The holding midfielder could still be Jones, if Klinsmann is adventurous, but Kyle Beckerman came into the side against Nigeria, having also played there against Mexico, and is a much better fit. Playing at the base of a diamond is a specialist role, and Klinsmann is fortunate to be able to call upon Beckerman, who has been playing in that position for Real Salt Lake, where he is captain.
Beckerman’s distribution is questionable but his positioning is good, and against Nigeria he dropped into the backline a couple of times to encourage the full-backs forward and shift the side into more of a 3-4-1-2 – although, again, this relies on a solid midfielder like Jones to occupy the centre of the pitch to prevent the United States becoming disjointed.
The full-backs aren’t the strongest area of this side, but both are comfortable springing forward down the touchlines. Fabian Johnson is a versatile player who could play in various positions, but seems first-choice at right-back. He’s can make errors in possession, but covers a lot of ground and can be an attacking force. On the opposite flank, DeMarcus Beasley is a converted winger but now comfortable at left-back – he’s fast and capable of carrying the ball forward at great speed.
In the centre, Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler started just one qualifier together as Klinsmann struggled to find a consistent partnership, but they’ve played together in all three warm-up matches and seem to have a good relationship. There’s a nice left-right balance there too, although neither are likely to bring the ball out and start attacks, and the lack of passing ability from the trio of Cameron, Besler and Beckerman may cause problems if opponents prevent passes into the midfield. In goal, 100-cap Tim Howard is still first-choice and has become a more well-rounded goalkeeper, comfortable sweeping from his line, as well as shot-stopping.
The attack is led by Jozy Altidore, who has a truly terrible goalscoring record in the Premier League but plays the targetman role nicely. Usually playing in the right-hand channel, and capable of charging in behind the defence or holding the ball up and waiting for support, he simply appears to have more confidence for the national side and shouldn’t be underestimated.
Clint Dempsey buzzes around just behind, making intelligent movements into pockets of space on the edge of the box, and dropping back to help overload the midfield, although Bradley’s more advanced role means Dempsey can play a little higher up the pitch.
Klinsmann also has a variety of attacking options from the bench. Few are established at the highest level, but there’s a classic poacher (Chris Wondolowski) and a forward with good movement (Aron Johansson). There’s also Zusi’s attacking midfield and crossing threat, and the intriguing option of Julian Green, who has played just an hour of international football and two minutes of top-level football with Bayern Munich, but could act as something of a wildcard late on.
At the last World Cup, Bob Bradley kept getting his starting XI wrong before making intelligent substitutions to get back into matches, but in a group this challenging, Klinsmann will have to get things right from the outset.
The United States have been handed a very difficult draw, against three strong sides. They also have to fly further than any other side, based in Sao Paulo but making three 3,000+ mile round journeys to their three group matches. However, this isn’t unnatural to MLS players.
Tactically they might cause opponents difficulties with their diamond midfield, which could help dominate the midfield ground. However, it relies on the full-backs to get forward, and Klinsmann must be extremely careful the US aren’t exposed on the counter-attack, especially considering the quality of wingers in Group G. In another group this side would stand a great chance of reaching the knockout stage again, but they might find their opponents simply have too much quality.
Coach: Jurgen Klinsmann – third place in 2006 with Germany, has modernised the US side
Formation: It should be a midfield diamond, though 4-2-3-1 is still possible
Key player: Bradley – he’s the main beneficiary of this new shape
Strength: Physically impressive and highly professional
Weakness: Lack of technical quality from the defensive players
Key tactical question: Who players on the sides of the diamond?
USA: a diamond midfield