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Tactical Analysis

Cold in Cleveland: The U.S. Struggles Against Belgium

ASN tactician Liviu Bird takes a look at what we learned from the United States’ 4-2 loss against Belgium. Short answer: not much. Many of the same problems continue to plague Jurgen Klinsmann's team.
BY Liviu Bird Posted
May 30, 2013
2:14 PM
The United States’ 4-2 loss to Belgium on Wednesday showed what happens when a team struggling to play positive soccer meets a team that has it down to a choreographed art. The U.S. played much more rigidly than Belgium’s free-flowing set-up. Player movements on the American side were often listless and lacked conviction; their opponents moved fluidly within their structure.

Especially contrasting the middle five players on each team, Belgium’s had a more effective interchange that opened up spaces despite the clustered U.S. back line. The Americans, meanwhile, could not seem to find available passing lanes for teammates on the ball.

For Jurgen Klinsmann’s men, it was nothing new—just another example of the problems they have had under the third-year head coach.

Within the first 20 minutes of the game, the U.S. fell back into a highly defensive posture reminiscent of recent matches where Klinsmann started multiple defensive-minded midfielders. This time, instead of a bank of holding midfielders, both central and both wide players dropped on top of the back line.

This stranded the two highest players, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, because wingers Brad Davis and Graham Zusi dropped back too far. The U.S. had no outlet through which to attack quickly after it won the ball, with the team overly concerned about getting numbers behind the ball instead of getting forward.

In the instance above, even Dempsey dropped back, giving the U.S. nine defensive players to Belgium’s four attacking threats. When the U.S. won the ball, the wide midfielders were too withdrawn and too slow to pull wide, and Altidore had no support even when he found the ball, which was nowhere near often enough.

Belgium, meanwhile, showed what proper defensive shape looks like, with each player matched up against his each individual area of responsibility. In most defensive systems (including Belgium’s, based on the image above), marking goes a little something like this: center backs mark forwards, outside backs mark wingers, holding midfielders mark attacking midfielders, attacking midfielders mark trailing midfielders, and wingers push to the outside backs.

Belgium has all its bases covered, and when it wins the ball, it has outlets to possess instead of too many players on top of each other. The U.S. fell back so far that it could not pressure the ball effectively in midfield, which led directly to Belgium’s final goal. Steven Defour had all the time in the world to pick out Christian Benteke’s excellently timed run because nobody stepped up to press him.

Dempsey had to do far too much to find the ball for the U.S. He drifted left and right as well as checking back nearly to the center backs. The American attack ended up suffering because Dempsey was exerting time and energy trying to compensate for the shortcomings of his midfielders rather than awaiting service in and around the Belgian goal.

Neither of the two holding midfielders provided enough attacking support. Jermaine Jones was always going to hold deeper and aim to mainly disrupt the Belgian attack, which he did effectively enough (OPTA credited him with three interceptions and 14 recoveries). But that meant Sacha Kljestan would have to step up. This is often the role Michael Bradley plays, holding in front of the center backs and advancing at the right moments to fill in the space under the attacking midfielder or shadow striker.

Kljestan did not fill that space effectively. In the image above, Jones is holding as usual, but Kljestan is hiding behind a defender instead of trying to find the ball and connect the defensive and attacking lines. Dempsey drops back in his place, leaving Kljestan in an awkward middle ground that, again, takes numbers out of the attack.

On the other end, Belgium’s holding midfielders do not shy away from possession. Both Mousa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini move into passing lanes and try to jumpstart the attack.

Around them, notice each player providing support for ball movement. Nobody hides behind defenders—everybody finds a spot that makes him a useful option. This leads to Belgium’s simple, short-pass method of possession in the middle third of the field.

DaMarcus Beasley earned his 100th cap for the U.S. in Cleveland, playing left back. The decision to play him in that position may turn out to be one of the best personnel decisions of Klinsmann's U.S. career. Beasley was the best American defender on Wednesday, reprising his Man of the Match role from the snowy game against Costa Rica.

He covered Belgium’s attacking players effectively, most notably coming through on top in a tussle with Romelu Lukaku in the 53rd minute. Lukaku could not muscle Beasley off the ball, and Beasley stood his ground as Lukaku tried to get around him, eventually blocking his cross. In the 75th minute, he backtracked well to knock a ball out for a corner. Three minutes later, he took on three players to begin the play that led to the U.S. penalty kick.

Beasley often pressed high to win the ball in Belgium’s half, including in this example from at the one-hour mark. Eddie Johnson does well to cut the field in half, making Toby Alderweireld’s next pass predictable and preventing Belgium from going out the other side and away from pressure. Beasley reads the pass, intended for Kevin Mirallas, and wins a throw-in off him.

If he wins the ball cleanly, look at the numbers the U.S. has to go forward. Beasley has at least three options to pass, and they in turn have dangerous choices as well. In the end, Beasley’s decision was basic enough—he was pressuring the winger, which is the outside back’s usual defensive role—but it is still difficult for most defenders to step into the attacking half without the ball.

In the modern game, defenders are charged with more than simply hoofing a ball out of play every time it comes near them. They must be able to spring attacks out of their defensive posture, and winning the ball as high as possible up the field affords a team the quickest route to goal.

It does not get any easier from here for the Americans. A matchup against a strong German side, regardless of whether it is the “A” or “B” team, looms on Sunday, followed by three important and winnable World Cup qualifiers in quick succession. Losing two friendlies just before that stretch, even if the exhibitions are against top opposition, could have an adverse psychological effect on the team. Or it could provide motivation.

At the very least, the U.S. must look to play positively in Washington against the Germans. Losing is perfectly acceptable, but another stale performance where the Americans appear scared to go forward and unwilling to make mistakes is not. After all, the game is supposed to be a centennial celebration, not a nightmare.

It would be nice to see the U.S. players express themselves and break out of their shell.

Do you expect big changes on Sunday, or more of the same? Give us your thoughts in the comments section below

Liviu Bird is the Cascadia regional editor for SoccerWire.com and an ASN contributor. Follow him on Twitter.

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