Possession and Final-Third Passing Plagued U.S. Men
January 12, 2016
IF YOU LOOK PAST its 6-1 win over the tiny island nation of St. Vincent & The Grenadines, the United States men’s national team has produced just three goals in its last four games.
One—an outrageous 35-yard screamer from Danny Williams—came in September in a lopsided 4-1 loss to Brazil. The Yanks also scored a pair on October 10 against Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup: Geoff Cameron scored on a header off a set piece in the first half while Bobby Wood tallied in extra time.
But then the U.S. failed to get on the score sheet at home against Costa Rica on October 13 and again in a World Cup qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago in November.
All told: three goals in 390 minutes.
While Williams has shown he is capable of long-range heroics, Jurgen Klinsmann can’t rely on too many goals of this type or quality.
Cameron’s set piece header was great, but it relied more on athleticism and opportunism from an opponent’s mistake than creativity or consistency in the build-up during the run of play.
And Wood’s goal against El Tri came in the 108th minute on a 91-degree day in Pasadena, Calif., when both teams were dragging and the U.S. was in desperation mode as it tried to get back into a crucial game.
All three goals count, certainly, but the U.S. men need to do a much better job connecting passes from the midfield to the attacking third if they want to develop a reliable, sustainable attack. Here's an example of the United States attack giving up possession far too easily—in this case Cameron delivers a hopeful pass to two strikers who are standing next to one another, making it easy for Brazil to defend.
Similarly, against Costa Rica, below is an example of a build-up out of the midfield, this time from out wide. But due to a combination of poor spacing in the final third and the pace of the pass from Jermaine Jones, Costa Rica effortlessly recovers the ball with space to attack.
These are just two examples but a close examination of the team's most recent efforts reveal a persistent inability to make connections between the midfielders and the forwards.
And, as seen below, it is one thing to lose the ball trying to attack, but it is entirely another thing when the offensive organization leaves the team completely exposed after a turnover.
This issue does not mean the U.S. should commit fewer numbers forward. It does, however, mean the team needs to position attacking players so that they’re occupying space differently to better combat situations when possession is lost trying to enter the final third.
Below against Costa Rica, the same issue arises. Although the U.S. did not concede off this turnover, the team still has to restart its offensive possession much further from the Costa Rica goal, which of course makes it much more difficult to score.
Since the United States is forced to recover possession in its own defensive third often enough due to reasons mentioned above, the players must be sharper when transitioning from defense to offense in that part of the field in particular. Even if the team has to win the ball back near goalkeepers Tim Howard or Brad Guzan, players are still more likely to create sustainable offense with the ball than if they just give it back in such spots.
Below is an example where the ball is given back to Brazil far too easily. The players need to find better ways to retain possession after working hard to create an opportunity to start up an attack.
The Americans need to find a way to re-establish their offense when closer to their own goal as seen below. Without being able to more easily move from defense to offense in these moments, the team will continue to have no choice but to hope for extraordinary goals.
So what are the takeaways?
The team’s inability to connect a quality pass into the final third leads to the other two problems discussed above. Because the Yanks are often put on their heels in these moments, where either five or six players have mentally and positionally committed to creating an opportunity to go toward goal, the team is losing the ball when it is too exposed. This is the moment that inevitably forces the team to scramble and try to recover the ball in its own defensive third—to attempt to rebuild the attack further away from the opponent’s goal and doing so after working very hard defensively just to win the ball back in the first place.
The easiest way to prevent all of this is, of course, is simply doing a better job of making the initial pass into the attacking third. Is it a personnel issue? Does Klinsmann have the right players in the right positions who are adept at this? It's a legitimate question. Whether through roster adjustments or rigorous emphasis in training, the U.S. needs to to execute this part of the game more consistently.
We shouldn't expect these changes to come quickly. The team is too often leaving one midfielder to defend the entire width of the field after these specific passes are unsuccessful. The GIF below is more or less the same as one seen above, but seen through a different lens.
The team is attacking with numbers and width, but doing so in a way that is implicitly stranding a player and almost guaranteeing the next time the U.S. wins the ball, it will be close to its own goal.
The other solution is to not play balls into a forward's feet when he is in front of all the opposing team's defenders and when a midfielder or defender is stranded as seen above and below. In these moments, playes could instead consider playing a ball in the air or at least behind defenses. This requires incredible awareness, but is nevertheless certainly a reasonable request to make of an international-level player. The midfielders need to look for passes that won’t immediately put the U.S. forwards under pressure should possession be lost.
By fortifying the middle of the field or making sharper decisions at these moments, the U.S. should not lose much as it attempts to go forward while simultaneously preventing having to defend its own third quite as often.
It will be interesting to see what 2016 brings, and if Klinsmann can make these—or other—tactical adjustments to turn the ship around. The Iceland match on January 31 should provide an informative look at whether the U.S. attack is moving in the right direction.
Sam Polak is a soccer coach and freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter.