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Opinion

The Evolution of the USMNT's 4-3-3

Ford Bohrmann

The United States Men’s National Soccer Team traveled to Krasnodar, Russia, last night, to play the 9thKlinsmann ranked FIFA squad in the world, securing a 2-2 draw with a stoppage time goal from midfielder Mix Diskerud. More important than the fixture or the result, though, was the chance to see Jürgen Klinsmann’s first attempt to integrate the USMNT’s future with its present. Youngsters Juan Agudelo, Josh Gatt, Mix Diskerud, Terrance Boyd and Joe Gyau were all included in the squad, as was Timothy Chandler, who as already emerged as Klinsmann’s choice at right back. The trip was about the continued evolution of the midfield and understanding what the current formation will look like further down the road.

What we did not see during last night’s match was any answer to the questions surrounding the central defense and the defensive back four in general. Timothy Chandler and Fabian Johnson seem solidified in their spots at right and left back, respectively, but the center back position is still a malignant problem for this team. In the context of what Klinsmann is trying to accomplish with his new roster, however, its should be noted that while the backline continued to be suspect, the United States’ defensive lapses fell more into the lap of the evolving midfield.

The Russian players spent all night making free runs in behind the midfield trio of Jermaine Jones, Danny Williams, and Michael Bradley, leaving the defense to backpedal in the face of an onrush of three or four attackers. Poor positioning in the center midfield turned the game into a seemingly endless display of forward movement by the Russians. Individually, Williams, Jones, and Bradley played with varying degrees of quality, but as a unit there was consistently no cohesion.

While Danny Williams has been solid since moving from an outside position into the center of the field, yesterday’s match was just one of those nights where everything went sour for him. Williams will continue to be included in the starting XI and the more we see out of him, the better idea we have of what he can provide. But for now, I’m not too concerned with the big picture for him.

The biggest concern for me is the repeated inclusion of Jones. Clunky is the only word that comes to mind watching Jones play. Within the first 16 minutes of the game, he had already lost the ball three times in his own half. He has no touch in tight spaces and cannot operate in passing triangles. On occasion, when he has room to run at opposing defenders, he can actually be quite dangerous – late in the second half he operated as almost a left-winger and made two or three runs that ended with dangerous crosses into the box. At the same time, tough, he did sky the Americans’ best chance of the second half over the bar. His lack of class in the midfield outweighs his ability to occasional march forward.

Stepping aside, I need to say that the Maurice Edu Midfield Experience needs to end. Now. He played well as a centerback against Mexico and if Klinsmann wants to give him some run there then try it out. But he is too much of a liability to play another second in the midfield. He turns the ball over in extremely vulnerable areas with way too much frequency. Tim Howard can only make so many two-on-one desperation saves before they start going past him. Edu’s substitution minutes should be given to younger players who need experience.

The 4-3-3/4-2-3-1, whatever you want to call it, system can work, given the glut of speedy, creative wingers and center forwards who can hold the ball up. Playing a flat three in the midfield did not work last night, and it wont in the future, because the United States doesn’t have the personnel to play a free-form trio and roles need to be more clearly defined. Even with Zusi in for Jones, and flanked out wider; the formation is too strange for me. I’d like to see Bradley play deeper in the midfield where he can orchestrate ball movement between the backline and the midfield. Bradley and Williams complement each other in the sense that Bradley is there to move forward and Williams is there to clean up defensively. Bradley is the most important player on the team and having him as the foundation of the midfield is paramount to the United States’ success. But putting the pressure on him to be the primary playmaker in the attacking third is too much.

To ease Bradley’s responsibilities, Klinsmann needs to inject a true Number 10. Zusi most closely resembles that player, but he is more effective as a winger and does not operate as much in the center of the park. His return to the squad should see him play higher up on the right wing. As for the Number 10, unfortunately, Stuart Holden is perfect for this role. But as every day passes, it looks more and more like he will never return to his previous form after being Jonny Evans'ed a year and a half ago. It seems like distant memory now, but that season with Bolton, Holden’s name was being thrown around in the English Premier League Player of the Season discussion. With Holden essentially a pipedream at this point, some experimenting needs to be done to see who can play CAM. In the past, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey have dabbled in that role, but neither seems comfortable there. The two candidates to rise through the youth and senior ranks are Joe Corona and Mix Diskerud – the two center midfielders from the U-23 team that failed to qualify for the London.

At this point, there’s no way of knowing which of the two 22-year-olds can distinguish himself, but there has to be a way to work them into the senior squad during World Cup Qualifying. I know it is unpopular for managers to lean on young players, as it exposes them to more criticism if the youngsters underperform, but what is the upside to the continuing inclusion of an Edu or a Jones? Diskerud and Corona may not be ready just yet, but they should be given the chance to prove themselves as Ale Bedoya, Jose Francisco Torres, and Benny Feilhaber once were.

Klinsmann continues to break the mold of traditional American soccer and sever all stylistic ties from the Bob Bradley era. Even though it’s frustrating to watch at times, the work the players are putting in to adapt this new system is evident on the field. With the amount of talent at Klinsmann’s disposal, the road to the World Cup for the USMNT is looking clearer each match. 

Post by Alex Arthur. You can follow him on Twitter: @SoccerStatUSMNT

Chelsea Preseason Review

Ford Bohrmann

Chelsea were put to the first true test of their preseason tour at Yankees Stadium last night. After resoundingly defeating Seattle Sounders last Thursday, the Blues lined up against a more formidable opponent in Paris Saint-Germain. The final scoreline was a 1-1 draw, but the match was anything but evenly played throughout. The warm and windy night in the Bronx treated its spectators with a first halfYankee Stadium, pre-match of PSG dominance, followed by a second half of utter chaos.

The First Half

Chelsea opened with a 4-2-3-1 with Kevin De Bruyne out left and Eden Hazard in the middle. The two players clearly were allowed to swap at will, however Hazard stayed in the middle of the park for most of the first half. De Bruyne was effective down the line and swung a few nice balls into the box, however, Hazard looked somewhat out of position. Hazard is at his most dangerous when he is split out wide to the left and is allowed to dart inside and attack defenders with pace. He was a bit more constricted in his attacking center mid role in which he played with his back to goal and was constantly used as a wall pass for Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel. Hazard has too much pace to play with his back to net and while I’m sure he can run fast backwards, Chelsea did not fork over a reported £32 million for him to be a glorified wall.

Pardon my outward cynicism but last night filled me with much more dread than optimism for the outlook of the coming season. Scoring goals against the Seattle Sounders is one thing – scoring goals against a potential Champions League opponent is entirely something else. Romelu Lukaku proved just that. Lukaku disappeared for nearly the entire first half. While he wasn’t being fed the ball as much as he probably should have, he did not make himself easily available. If the rumors of his loan to Fulham are true, he should benefit greatly from the attention and instruction he should receive at Craven Cottage.

If anyone at Chelsea needs a loan more than Lukaku, it is Gael Kakuta. Kakuta’s play – or lack thereof – elicited groans from the Chelsea fans at his every touch. Unfortunately for Kakuta, his Chelsea career has not been worth the trouble.

The pairing of centerbacks David Luiz and Gary Cahill could simply not handle PSG’s formidable attack. It would be easy to blame Luiz for their struggles as Luiz regressed from the positional soundness he displayed against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final and was frequently caught up field. However, Luiz was unfortunately Chelsea’s most dangerous player moving forward – see; Kakuta, Gael; Lukaku, Romelu – and when Luiz and Cahill were exposed, both players were next to each other attempting to hold a line. Nene and Ezequiel Lavessi were outstanding in their 45 minutes of play as they played 1-2s around and short chips over the Chelsea backline. Nene dictated the first 30 minutes, finding Lavessi on short runs behind Cahill and Luiz frequently. Cahill’s miserable night was sealed when Javier Pastore – who has the most incredible lazy swag and is ready to take the crown from Dimitar Berbatov – dangled through three Chelsea players before nutmegging Cahill and hitting the post. The ball careened off the post into Nene’s path, which he buried into the back of the net.

The only real positive I took away from the first half was that Lampard looked comfortable in his deep-seated role alongside Obi Mikel and that a 4-2-3-1 should be the preferred formation with Juan Mata in the middle, Ramires on the right, Hazard on the left, and Fernando Torres up top.

The Second Half

Chelsea's Eden Hazard fights off a PSG playerChelsea ended up using eleven subs to field an entirely new squad, and PSG subbed ten players, leaving Javier Pastore as the only player to last the full 90’. While the first half brought a sense of directionality to the match, the second half created chaos as the rapid substitutions left both sides without cohesion. I had trouble drawing any significant conclusions from the second half but there were a few things that stood out.

Firstly, Michael Essien, whose injury sheet is a lengthy list, appears to have finally broken down from the repeated knee injuries, as his form has steadily declined since last winter. He was a shell of himself versus PSG as he mishit balls out of bounds in addition to playing passes to the feet of PSG midfielders. I can only hope there is a resurgence in the near future for a player with the most unfortunate medical record, yet who always has an ear-to-ear smile on his face.

Secondly, the pleasant surprise of the night goes to Lucas Piazon. The 18-year-old Brazilian played with great confidence and displayed his finishing ability. Piazon played a lovely 1-2 with Ramires and finished the return pass with his left foot into the side netting. With Chelsea extremely lacking depth at center forward behind Torres and Daniel Sturridge, Piazon could earn himself a spot on the roster and avoid being loaned out – barring any future transfers. 

 Moving forward, Chelsea would be best served to add one more quality strikers as well as a right back. With Lukaku headed to Fulham and Sturridge dissatisfied with the club and popping up in transfer rumors everyone, Di Matteo and Abramovich would be wise to sign one more forward. Additionally, having let Jose Bosingwa walk, and needing Ivanovic to play in the center, Chelsea desperately need a right back. Sam Hutchinson is simply not yet ready to play full time as witness last night when Javier Pastore gave him fits in the first half. 

 

- Alex Arthur @SoccerStatUSMNT

London Misdial: The Fall of the U-23 and Where the US Goes from Here

Ford Bohrmann

After a remarkably promising start to the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying matches, in which the United States U-23 team defeated Cuba 6-0, the Yanks unraveled just as remarkably in their following two matches, losing 2-0 to Canada, and drawing El Salvador 3-3. While Jaime Alas’ 95th minute long-ranged effort bouncing over the outstretched body of substitute goalkeeper Sean Johnson will be the lasting image of the US’s elimination from the 2012 Olympic games, events earlier in the game, and the squad’s performance in its loss to Canada, are even more responsible.

Freddy AduWhat makes the US’s untimely exit that much more unpalatable is the hype and excitement generated from their convincing pre-tournament 2-0 victory over Mexico and 6-0 drubbing of Cuba. The flair and murderer’s instincts they demonstrated in these victories gave fans an ephemeral taste of a brand of soccer that US supporters had been dreaming of for their senior squad. How could we have been so fleeced, and to a further extent, how did the players become so satiated after just two wins?

I don’t want to put the onus strictly on the back four and goalkeepers but where else should it lay? Cuba were down to 10 men after just 19 minutes, which created inordinate space for the midfielders to operate, and with all the possession they retained, kept the defense from ever being under duress. When the US faced a full Canadian squad, whose mission was to bottle up midfielders Mix Diskerud and Joe Corona, the backline became suspect and was exposed to attacking runs by the opponent on the US left back – a common theme in the loss to El Salvador, as well. All of this cumulated in the well-documented failures on set pieces during which goalkeeper Bill Hamid was beat for the first goal, and center back Ike Opara was as well for the second.

Against El Salvador, again the backline was exposed on another corner for the first goal. On a weird cross-cum-shot, the backline allowed Andres Flores to sneak behind, and Hamid, who was injured, failed to come out for the second goal. The third and conclusive goal summed up the US’s final two matches – Alas pressed forward with the ball, the defense did not close down, and Alas unleashed a shot that had me having ill-timed nostalgic flashbacks of Robert Green. 

The US’s failure to qualify for the Olympic games, coupled with their failure to qualify for the Under-20 World Cup this past summer marks a disturbing trend and troubled times ahead for the development of our nation’s soccer program. The U-20 World Cup and Olympic games are excellent grounds for a nation’s brightest youth to collectively mature as a single unit. Success in recent years at these two levels of play is generally indicative of future success at the senior team level. While the U-20 tournament is played every two years, the U-23 squads only get together every four, and with not much time for preparation prior to the competition. For any country, but especially the US given the complete overhaul of their footballing philosophy, this brief opportunity to drill your system with the generation of players that is most likely to determine your international fate is paramount. 

Disappointment against CanadaThe USMNT roster is currently riddled with question marks ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. And while there is ample time to try and fill in the holes, the search is already well underway. As far as players outside the U-23 pool go, we pretty much know what we have. After seeing the same cycle of players under Bradley, Klinsmann has given some players new to the USMNT their due diligence. However, I think it is safe to say that every 27+ year-old player’s talent is accounted for and there are no such players that could come out and surprise us at this point in their careers. This is most obvious in the backline. The only absolute sure thing, at this moment, is Timothy Chandler at left back. I highly doubt a 32-year-old Clarence Goodson, 35-year-old Carlos Bocanegra, and 35-year-old Steve Cherundolo will be starting in Brazil at their respective ages. The aging back four has looked shaky dating back to the US’s 4-2 loss to Mexico in the Gold Cup this past summer. The hope was that at least one center back would step up during the Olympic qualifying and demonstrate that he would be ready to step into that role for this upcoming World Cup. Ike Opara was the most likely candidate but he regressed this past weekend and looked tactically raw. He now appears to be just as much of a question mark as Tim Ream, another player whose international performances left much to be desired this past summer.

After winning their group in South Africa for the first time in the history of American soccer, hiring prestigious manager Jürgen Klinsmann, and defeating Italy, in Italy, for the first time ever, American soccer had succeeded in becoming a hot button topic in the general public. Additionally, the U-23 team convincingly defeated Mexico 2-0 in a friendly the week before qualifying began, which, at the time, further propagated the hype. 

After their elimination from the Olympics, however, we are forced to readjust our expectations for our nation ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The current senior and youth teams are steeped in talent in the midfield and at forward, while the full and center backs suffer the opposite. Additionally, both goalkeepers, Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson were slated to fight to be Tim Howard’s understudy, but looked shaky and their mistakes cost the US a spot at the Olympics. For all of the dazzling attacking players that are coming through the pipeline such as, Brek Shea, Joe Corona, Juan Agudelo, Terrence Boyd, and Joe Gyau, without a steady backline, how can we expect the US defenders to perform against the likes of Argentina, Brazil, and the European powers, if they cannot even contain lowly squads from Canada and El Salvador?

- Alex Arthur (@SoccerStatUSMNT)

The State of the USMNT

Ford Bohrmann

International soccer is currently at a particularly interesting moment in time. Senior squad players are off performing club duties while younger players fill their roles in friendlies. While there is much to look forward to in the summer – the Euro 2012 tournament and the 2012 Olympics, after the latest rounds of international friendlies, there is a brief lull. Before these friendlies, the United States senior team’s most recent important match came back in the summer when they lost to Mexico 4-2 in the finals of the Gold Cup. They subsequently played a host of international friendlies to close out the 2011 calendar year, but none held any gravitas, no matter how prestigious their opponent 

New coach Jurgen Klinsmann is 5-1-4 through his first 10 gamesThat was until February 29th when the United States ventured to Genoa and knocked off the Italians for the Americans’ first victory ever against their opponents. It has been long enough since that the match has been thoroughly dissected but just a few quick points. The significance of the victory is somewhat mitigated because neither roster was at full strength and both sides were missing key players. That being said, any time you can record an away victory in Europe should be considered a great success. 

Unfortunately for the US, this momentum will have to be put on hold, as the senior team doesn’t play again until Late May. Given this intermission, it is at this exact moment that we can examine the opening act of new head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign and look forward to what this country needs out of our programs in the near future.

 Klinsmann took over for previous coach Bob Bradley after the United States’ loss in the Gold Cup final and has produced five victories, one draw, and four losses in these matches.  No one in their right mind has challenged his average record through ten games because of his attempt to find chemistry and synergy between a variety of lineups with both veterans and new youngsters. What has struck me thus far through these experiments is the drastically different style of player the older generation is versus the newer. For the previous few decades, “American soccer” consisted of normally white, hard-working, hardheaded athletes who lacked flair and vision. That is not to say the United States Men’s National Soccer Team has not produced such players in the past, it is just that that was not our style. 

Under Klinsmann we have seen the inclusion and recruitment of a multitude of international players with American passports. German transplants such as Danny Williams, Timothy Chandler, Terrence Boyd and Alfredo Morales, and Norwegian born Mix Diskerud bring a different style of play. If our nation is the most ethnically diverse in the world, isn’t it time for our soccer team to reflect that? Just looking at the rosters of the U-23 and younger teams, you can see the Latino influence Klinsmann is looking to bring to the USMNT program. Even for casual viewers of the sport, witnessing the speed and ingenuity the Mexican players played with in their dismantling of the USMNT in the Gold Cup final made you envious of its obvious advantages.

The transition from Bradley to Klinsmann poses such a dramatic shift in style and player-type and its progressive nature is exceptional and encouraging to watch. No longer are the likes of space-clogging forwards like Connor Casey or Brian Ching patrolling the field. Casey and Ching both thrived in the MLS as goal scorers and it was clear their inclusion was an attempt to demonstrate that the MLS’ leading scorers could hang with the best internationally, but that was very visibly not the case. Right now, the MLS is not recognized internationally as an elite league. It just isn’t and United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati needs to realize this and adjust their plans. In the past, Gulati and the USSF established an autonomous control of the USMNT selection process with Bradley as a quasi-puppet figure. It was for this reason, and contractual disputes, that kept Jurgen Klinsmann from becoming the USMNT manager more than five years ago when his courtship began. 

Right now the MLS should be a developmental ground for North and Central America’s brightest young talent. I realize that isn’t sexy and doesn’t sell tickets – and goes against this country’s sense of patriotism – but that is why the inclusion of past-their-prime stars like David Beckham, Thierry Henry, and Rafa Marquez is appropriate. The recruitment of these players has seemed to satisfy the general public’s thirst for international superstars as the hype brought on by these players helps fill stadiums. I am not opining that the MLS give up and stunt its growth but if the USSF’s major priority is to make American soccer a global brand, what better way to do that than through the national team? American superstars in their prime like Landon Donovan should not be stuck playing for an MLS Cup each year but rather be overseas demonstrating their worth for a top-flight European club like Donovan briefly just brilliantly did with Everton. The world is only reminded in monthly pockets of Donovan’s brilliance – during international tournaments and the two-month stints he previously done at Everton. See: Dempsey, Clint, for an example of how Donovan could have OWNED Everton in the way Deuce has at Craven Cottage. Looking at the USMNT’s roster versus Italy, only two lineup regulars, Donovan and Brek Shea, currently play in the MLS. Next week I am going to discuss the U-23 squad in more depth ahead of their qualification matches for the 2012 Summer Olympics, but it is worth mentioning now that the team that defeated Mexico 2-0 – and looked great doing so – contained fourteen players from MLS clubs. This parallelism between MLS and European clubs and the US youth and senior teams is encouraging and a step in the right direction for the advancement of American soccer. 

-Alex Arthur (@SoccerStatUSMNT)

Soccer Statistically-New Opinion Section

Ford Bohrmann

I'm very excited to say that Soccer Statistically is adding another writer. As you can probably see, there is now a 4th tab at the top of the site called "Opinion". This will essentially be a different blog within the Soccer Statistically site. The articles won't use stats and will be opinion pieces mostly focused on the US Men's National Team. Don't worry, nothing about the normal Soccer Statistically blog will be changed, we are just adding another part of the site. The new "Opinion" tab differentiates the normal Soccer Statistically blog from the new "Opinion" blog. This current post is a part of the new opinion section of the website. 

The new writer's name is Alex Arthur, a sophomore English and Economics major at Tufts University in Boston. It turned out that Alex followed my blog, and wanted an outlet to start his own writing. He is a good friend of one of my high school friends, and I met him while staying at Tufts before the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last weekend. We talked about soccer for a while, especially the US Men's National Team, and I quickly figured out he knew a lot about soccer. I also think it's cool to keep with the theme of college aged writers.

Why the expansion? To be honest, I had never planned to add another writer or section to the site. However, I think that Alex really knows his stuff, and will provide a lot of great articles. You can read more about him on the About Us section. You can also follow him on Twitter @SoccerStatUSMNT. Alex will have some USMNT articles up soon, and hopefully they'll create some good interest and discussion.