Apologies on the hiatus for this post. Honestly, I was going to write this piece right after the US-Slovenia match, but something distracted me. The distraction from Jurgen Klinsmann's tactics will always be Joachim Löw. Löw took Germany into two meaningless matches this month, just like Jurgen Klinsmann. The second match he played his typical system and demolished the Netherlands confirming as much to me that they are the world's best team at the moment. Yet it's the first match that gave everyone pause; he played a completely different system against an inferior opponent either to test it out or just for kicks.
Germany use one friendly to thrash a rival, the other to experiment with a new formation | Zonal Marking
More interesting than the precise nature of the shape was the question of why Loew tried to play that way. He regarded it primarily as an experiment, and admitted that the players had hardly worked on the system in training.
Can you imagine Klinsmann saying something like that? Even granting Löw his excellent run with the German team, that is an incredibly ballsy thing to do and say, even in a friendly. Our coach experimented in the matches as well, but no more than most coaches playing single striker and dual striker systems. Let's go over the system Klinsmann has employed and more specifically how the players seem to fit into it as of now, and I'll get back to Löw's decision.
4-5-1 is preferred system
Klinsmann has been playing a 4-5-1 system primarily. The personnel he has put on the field dictate how that system has been implemented. Ideally, the system becomes a 4-3-3 in attack similar to Sporting KC's attack with the wingers or Dempsey pressing forward, but we've yet to see the United States fluidly attack as a unit yet. They've been succeeding or failing on individual efforts or at most three players playing together.
Brek Shea has played traditionally as a winger, but when Timothy Chandler has come forward he has moved inward, and when Chandler made runs inside he pulled outside again. Before Shea faded last month, this was the most exciting part of the United States attack. Ideally, it would be matched from the opposite side by Donovan and Cherundolo doing much of the same, but Donovan's absence led to less-traditional replacements. Bradley was more comfortable moving inside as Donovan does, so this aspect returned against Slovenia.
Dempsey has sat behind Altidore, not as a traditional number 10, but more like the withdrawn role Wayne Rooney employs for Manchester United and England. I don't think Dempsey's creativity is necessarily generous enough for the entire offense to run through him, which may explain some of Altidore's troubles despite all evidence pointing towards him being in the best form of his life.
This leaves the problems of the back two midfielders. I don't know how to explain their roles. Beckerman is the stopper, but he is also be asked to facilitate the offense and he won't be mistaken for Sergio Busquets anytime soon. Now, if the other CDM is being asked to hold alongside more like the Dutch did in 2010 with De Jong and van Bommel, then we could expect the United States to be solid defensively, but less attacking which indeed has been the case in this formation. Occasionally, that defense breaks down either due to Beckerman and Edu's lack of passing skill or their positioning isn't cohesive leaving angles to pass through and attack the defenders.
Slovenia: Switches to 4-4-2 (4-1-2-1-1)
Now, in the Slovenia match he switched to a 4-4-2 with a diamond in the midfield. The formation was not as telling as was the pressing. The first goal was created by high pressure, Altidore pressing the goalie to make a short pass to his center back who Dempsey immediately pressed into a turnover. Edson Buddle, playing as the second striker was still high up the field to take the turnover and convert from long range. The problem with this is that direct play kills the United States, because of the lack of speed in the back four. Or even worse, the organization is poor and they let an easy pass kill them. On the first Slovenia goal once Bocanegra presses up on the ball, the entire back line should move their line up to put Matavz offside, Chandler fails and they let him in on goal easily.
Chandler had a rough week defending, but when he pressed forward it gave the United States a different dynamic. Instead of overlapping as many fullbacks do, Chandler would press forward and Fabian Johnson would push up into almost a third striker. This occurs both on the first shot of the game and the penalty drawn by Johnson. Ideally, Beckerman would drop centrally and Bocanegra could cover for Chandler given a turnover in this position, but only Mexico with Rafa Marquez playing in the midfield has seemed to master the three man defense when the fullbacks press forward. His adventuring helps the United States greatly, but it leaves them incredibly vulnerable if they commit a bad turnover.
The second half was defined by the lack of organization and speed in the back four/five with Beckerman. Poor marking, poor judgements on aerial challenges, and they were just being outran by Slovenia. Contrast that to the calm atmosphere in South Africa for the Confederation's Cup when Spain attacked them in the same manner. Despite the bombardment, there was no concern against Spain, this back four should have conceded three in the second half's first fifteen minutes to Slovenia. The importance of Oguchi Onyewu cannot be overstated at this point, because when fit, no US central defender is near his quality at clearing crosses and last ditch defending.
The best benefit of this seems to be that Klinsmann has found a way to shift his team when he is forced to add an extra striker to chase the game. I don't think he will go away from the 4-5-1, but this looked much less clunky than the play after Buddle was added to the France game.
Finally, I love that Zonal Marking article on Germany because it shows a system that not many teams are keen to use (a 3-4-2-1) but traditionally is built to the United States strengths, tough defending and counter attacking. Napoli is most famously employing this lineup, but they no longer can be considered underdogs like the US. It favors quick counter-attacking, and Napoli does it with brutal efficiency. While it is listed as a 3-4-2-1, that mostly pertains to offense, since in defense the wings become wing-backs and make a five man back line essentially. While this does not favor the United States at the moment who currently lack quality depth at CB, it works well for teams with adventurous fullbacks and strong center backs.
So thinking way in advance to the next World Cup cycle:
I just grasped at straws for central defense, because I'm pretty unsure of how our defense will look after Bocanegra and Onyewu are gone. Yet if these three defenders continue to get better (or in Ream's case stop regressing and figure it out), it would be interesting to see an experimental coach try this lineup. (Yes, I am the only guy who plays FIFA to play with formations as a coach.)
Just a thought for everyone to consider, while waiting out the cold winter months for more American soccer.