Talking Tactics

USMNT Hex Loss: Breaking Down the Breakdowns

ASN tactician Liviu Bird analyzes each of the three goals scored in the United States in its 2-1 loss to Honduras, as well as Jurgen Klinsmann's formation and adjustments.
BY Liviu Bird Posted
February 07, 2013
1:02 PM

It was a disappointing result. It was an unacceptable result. But the United States’ 2-1 loss to Honduras on Wednesday was anything but tactically dull.

Individual mistakes cost the team in San Pedro Sula—and it was the same individual both times. Center back Omar González’s inexperience on the national team level showed, as he failed to close down Victor Bernardez on the first goal conceded, and he didn’t check his back shoulder on Jerry Bengtson’s winner.

Those two errors negated the wonderful opening goal from the U.S., created by a good—if slow—combination through the midfield, a sublime chipped through ball from Jermaine Jones and a calm finish from Clint Dempsey.

Formations: 4-4-2 vs. 4-3-3 Hybrid

Questions surrounding the American lineup did not subside after Jurgen Klinsmann announced his official team. With no true wingers in the starting XI, the only sure thing was that the outside backs would be relied upon heavily for width.

What resulted was a hybrid 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1 formation with Jones pulling to the wide right from a holding spot and Eddie Johnson advancing forward from a slightly withdrawn left-sided position.

However, this alignment also gave Mario Martínez and Juan Carlos García space to work on Honduras’ left flank, which they used effectively. Both were above 85 percent in pass completion, and Timmy Chandler looked exhausted from an early stage from pulling double duty on offense and defense.

Martínez was able to stay relatively high, and Oscar Boniek García did the same on the opposite side, giving the Honduran 4-4-2 almost a 4-2-4 appearance at times.

Defensive Midfield Triangle

To counter Honduras’ ability to throw numbers forward quickly, the U.S. deployed a tightly clustered triangle of holding midfielders. Danny Williams sat deepest of the three, rarely venturing forward, while Jones and Michael Bradley had a bit more freedom to attack.

Jones ended up being the frequent attacking player in the alternating one-man press, joining attacks late from behind Dempsey’s withdrawn central position. It allowed Jones to be on the ball quite often, but he was too inconsistent to be a reliable wheelman, with only 66 percent pass completion.

However, he did reward Klinsmann’s loyalty with an assist on the American goal.

Quick on the Counter

It was when Jones, Dempsey, and Bradley all got caught forward that Honduras was the most dangerous. The Catrachos’ quick counter-attack through the midfield ran through Luis Garrido and Roger Espinoza, who looked to get the ball wide or give to a checking forward early.

The pattern was simple—either a quick dribble or pass that bypassed several U.S. players at once and left the defensive line on the back foot. From there, Martínez and Boniek García could penetrate on the dribble, or the central midfielders could thread the ball through to forwards Jerry Bengtson and Carlo Costly.

As he had to be, Tim Howard was alert to most of the through ball attempts and came off his line to smother most chances before they became serious—except one.

Dempsey Does It Again

A little against the run of play, the U.S. scored first through Jones and Dempsey. The ball swung slowly through the middle of the field, players using two touches where one would have done just as easily, before Jones turned to find a run through.

At this point, both Dempsey and Eddie Johnson went to make the same run (green arrows), which would normally kill one another’s space. However, because of the flatness of Honduras’ back line (yellow line), they got away with it.

Recognizing the play as it developed, Fabian Johnson smartly stopped his run (red line), as he would have dragged Arnold Peralta, his closest defender, right into the empty space Dempsey and Eddie Johnson exploited.

At that point, after the exquisite chip from Jones, all Dempsey had to do was call Eddie Johnson off the ball and dink in a world-class finish over goalkeeper Noel Valladares.

Second Ball From a Corner

Four minutes later, Omar González made the first of his two goal-creating mistakes, although his teammate could have bailed him out on the first one. It was another spectacular finish on that goal, as Juan Carlos García slammed in a bicycle kick, but the ball should never have gotten to him.

As the ball was cleared from the initial cross on the corner kick, Victor Bernardez went to track it down. González was closest to him, but instead of following him wide to apply immediate pressure, he left Fabian Johnson to trot out to Bernardez.

Not only did Johnson not close down quickly enough because he was too far away, he stopped short and halfheartedly jumped with his back turned as the cross came in.

Halftime Adjustments

As the teams ran onto the field for the second half, Klinsmann adjusted his formation. It looked more like a traditional 4-4-2, but with two holding midfielders, which left a gaping hole in the middle of the six attacking players.

The idea here was to have players check into the space, find the ball, and pass to another attacking player elsewhere. In a perfect world, this would have drawn defenders out of position to allow for overlapping runs and players to move off the initial run into empty spaces.

It ends up looking something like a wheel when diagrammed, except Williams held the defensive position rather than making runs in. That shouldn’t have been a problem with five others to make runs and fill the space.

The new formation also incorporated two forwards instead of just one target, so getting numbers forward shouldn’t have been a problem. However, the U.S. had less offense and a much more vulnerable defense when it moved to this new formation.

Bradley, Jones and Williams were no longer shielding González and Geoff Cameron and preventing the Honduran forwards from finding the ball while facing the U.S. goal.

The Final Breakdown

That proved to be costly in the end, as Jerry Bengtson ran in behind González to score the late winner.

A couple things went awry on this play: Cameron and Howard had a misunderstanding about who was taking the through ball, and González failed to recognize the second runner on his back shoulder.

It’s not as if Gonzalez didn’t know Bengtson was there; he was marking him well at the start of the sequence, when Maynor Figueroa played the ball through to Boniek García.

Howard came off his line quickly enough that all Boniek García could do was square the ball, although Cameron could have easily cleared it out for a throw. Cameron stopped short as if he heard Howard calling for the ball.

That was when Gonzalez got caught ball watching. He was facing his own goal, unaware of where his man went. In the end, it was a straightforward run from Bengtson to get in behind and an even simpler finish to cap the game off.

Gonzalez struggled in his first World Cup qualifier, but he had to be given his chance eventually. The untested U.S. back line against Honduras may be the one that ends up starting in Brazil next year. But that doesn’t help right now, during qualifying, when questions about the shaky American back line have been answered unsatisfactorily.

Liviu Bird is a freelance journalist based in Seattle who contributes to the New York Times Goal Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @liviubird.

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