2014 World Cup

U.S. vs. Ghana: ASN's Deep-Dive Tactical Breakdown

American Soccer Now’s Blake Thomsen analyzes the U.S.’s third straight meeting against arch nemesis Ghana. Here, you’ll find tactical breakdowns, videos, and a big, fat prediction for the contest.
BY Blake Thomsen Posted
June 12, 2014
9:28 PM
WITH THE 2014 WORLD CUP officially underway today, it’s time to key in on the U.S.’s first opponent. Here is ASN’s tactical preview of round three against the African giants, complete with a bold prediction at the end of the piece.


Ghana went 1-1-0 in its two send-off matches, which consisted of a drab 1-0 defeat to the Netherlands and a 4-0 romp over South Korea. As with any team entering the World Cup, it’s important not to read too much into pre-tournament friendlies, but Ghana’s win over Korea on Monday was a loud reminder of its attacking firepower.

Ghana’s best XI is starting to come into focus, and manager Kwesi Appiah will likely go with a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 hybrid, with Kevin Prince-Boateng floating somewhere between a true No. 10 and an advanced central midfield role.

Mohammed Rabiu may replace Sulley Muntari in central midfield, and Harrison Afful has a slight change of playing right back over Daniel Opare, but other than that everything here should be pretty set, barring a surprise Michael Essien deployment at center back, which would bring Rabiu into a starting midfield role. The key wrinkle is Juventus star Kwadwo Asamoah at left back, who excelled there against South Korea. He’s one of Ghana’s most talented attackers, but reports out of Ghana suggest that he will be deployed at left back to account for the potent attacking threat of Fabian Johnson.

Ghana is somewhat of a pressing team that will look to create chances by forcing turnovers in the middle of the field and then racing forward with numbers and pace (think Ricardo Clark-gate back in 2010). This Asamoah Gyan goal from Monday’s friendly against Korea is another fine example. Between Gyan, Prince-Boateng, and the Ayew brothers, Ghana has four players who thrive on finishing off counterattacking chances. The combination of speedy attackers and turnover-forcing central midfielders can make Ghana an attacking juggernaut in the right circumstances. However, when Ghana is forced to break down a compact and well-organized defense, it often struggles to create chances.

The Netherlands friendly from early June saw Ghana manage just two shots on target against a well-drilled Dutch side that was happy to sit back after grabbing an early goal.

Given its issues breaking down defenses, Ghana often resorts to long balls over the top or into the channels towards Gyan, who is a force to be reckoned with up front. (Few will forget that a long ball over the top to Gyan knocked the U.S. out of the last World Cup.)

Defensively, Ghana will trot out an inexperienced back four that has hardly ever played together—sound familiar, U.S. national team fans? The addition of Asamoah at left back will bolster the back line, but it’s still the side's weakest link, especially in the middle. Center backs John Boye and Jonathan Mensah both endured dreadful campaigns in Ligue 1, so neither is in top form heading into the World Cup. And right back Opare is not the steadiest defender, either. There is a modicum of uncertainty about who will play goalie—Appiah has a strange affinity for the unsteady Fatau Dauda—but it will still probably be Adam Kwarasey, who was excellent against the Netherlands and had a fine season in Norway.

The Central Midfield Battle

With Jurgen Klinsmann’s new 4-3-2-1/4-3-1-2/4-mations-don’t-matter that he debuted against Nigeria, the U.S. effectively plays with four center midfielders and no natural wingers. Such a strategy has its flaws (particularly lack of wing coverage defensively), but against Ghana, it could be the perfect recipe for success.

Like Ghana, much of the U.S.’s attacking threat will come from forced turnovers in the middle of the field. And with Klinsmann’s new setup, the U.S. will actually enjoy a four-three numerical advantage in the middle, which could help the Yanks force more turnovers than their Ghanaian counterparts. Once the U.S. wins the ball, it needs to immediately find Michael Bradley, who can be nearly impossible to defend in the open field and can also pick a world-class pass—as you may recall.

If the U.S. doesn’t get the ball to Bradley quickly enough, the Ghanaians’ recovery speed will allow them to have enough defenders behind the ball to contain the threat of Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore.

Regardless of the numerical advantage, much of the midfield battle will still be decided by who makes fewer mistakes. Kyle Beckerman was especially error-prone in the first half against Nigeria, and such a performance will likely prove fatal if repeated. Meanwhile, Jermaine Jones has been relatively crisp on the ball of late, but he’s still been known to give the ball away too cheaply at times. With that in mind, it might suit the U.S. midfielders to try more long balls than usual, especially after receiving the ball from defenders. Given Ghana’s quality on the counter and tendency to press high up the field, there’s no need for the U.S. to try to play intricately through the middle. Doing so will invite unnecessary pressure, and it cost the U.S. a quarterfinal place back in South Africa.

It will be up to Dempsey and more so Altidore to be a nuisance on those long balls—the striking duo will need to fight incredibly hard to gain possession and hold the ball up when long passes are played toward them. And perhaps either or both can even nick a goal by capitalizing on a mistake from a Ghanaian central defender (Altidore especially has been in fine form in terms of causing problems for opposing center backs.) The other press-breaking option for the U.S. is to utilize DaMarcus Beasley and Johnson in possession. The two fullbacks need to be especially careful in possession, though, as a turnover in a dangerous area involving Beasley or Johnson could leave the U.S. horribly exposed.

Elsewhere, expect the U.S. to press in a slightly different way than Ghana. While the Black Stars will push deep into the U.S. defensive half, the U.S. will likely emulate its strategy against Nigeria—allow the opposition to move across midfield, then aggressively pounce. Doing so enables the U.S. to minimize the types of spacious gaps that Turkey so nearly exploited again and again back on June 1, but it still carries a considerable threat on the counter once the ball is won.

Also, staying compact and not pressing too high up will be essential in limiting Ghana’s scoring chances. As mentioned before, the Black Stars generally lack the creativity to break down well-organized teams that keep their shape well. Herein lies another reason why it may not be a bad idea for U.S. midfielders to play their fair share of long balls—even failed long passes will allow the entire back eight for the U.S. to get into its defensive shape, a shape that Ghana may not have the creativity to break down.

It’s worth noting that the limited wing coverage defensively in the new setup shouldn’t hurt the U.S. too badly, as both Ayew brothers are far more comfortable cutting inside, where Beckerman, Jones, and Alejandro Bedoya (or perhaps Graham Zusi) will be able to support Johnson and Beasley. If Ghana had natural wingers who preferred to take fullbacks on one-on-one, the Christmas tree would have more significant issues. The X-factor here in terms of providing natural width for Ghana is Asamoah, who we’ll assess in the next section.

The U.S.’s Right Flank, Ghana’s Left

Outside of the center of midfield, the U.S. attacking right side is where the game’s marquee matchup will occur. In Asamoah and Johnson, this side of the field will feature two fit, fast, and dangerous fullbacks who will get at each other all night, much in the same way that German Philipp Lahm and Portuguese Fabio Coentrao (see you soon, guys!) did in the first leg of the Champions League semifinal for Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.

Johnson is quickly becoming one of the U.S.’s most important players, and crucially, one of its biggest attacking threats.

Given his quality moving forward, Johnson will be ordered to get up the field as much as possible, even with the threat that Ghana poses on its attacking left side. The U.S. must make sure it gets two things right to make sure every Johnson attacking foray doesn’t become a scoring opportunity for Ghana:

1) Beckerman and Bedoya (and sometimes even Jones or Bradley) need to make sure Johnson’s defensive position is covered until he can make it back to his spot. The midfield unit did so admirably against Nigeria, and more of the same will be needed against Ghana.

2) Johnson needs to minimize (read: completely cut out) the loose giveaways that marred his otherwise excellent performance against Nigeria. If Johnson is making a streaking run and a long ball towards him is cut out, the U.S. should be fine defensively. But if, as often happened against Nigeria, Johnson gives the ball away cheaply in the midst of a methodical buildup in which the U.S. has numbers committed up the field, the Yanks could easily be caught out.

Provided the U.S. is able to accomplish those two tasks, Johnson will be able to threaten Ghana with his dynamic dribbling and top-class passing without also serving as a major defensive liability.

But Ghana has an answer for Johnson in Asamoah, who also happens to be the Black Stars’ best player. Asamoah plays as a wingback for Juventus, so defensive duties are not new to him, and he’s faced better attackers than Johnson in his day. Still, Asamoah is not flawless defensively. He tends to stray up field and also isn’t quite as fast as his American counterpart, so Johnson should be able to find some attacking joy. Perhaps the bigger challenge for Johnson, though, will be minimizing Asamoah’s attacking threat at the other end.

Considering Asamoah's relentlessly foul-drawing dribbling style and his ability to drive into the box, the U.S. needs to make sure it doesn't continue its recent trend of giving away penalties. It didn't hurt the team against Nigeria and Turkey, but it's unlikely that conceding penalties will be similarly unpunished in Brazil.

Like Johnson, Asamoah will be inclined to get forward whenever possible. Given the vital attacking presence of the two fullbacks, both teams are likely to work most of their wide buildup down this flank. It’s possible that at times we’ll see some outrageously end-to-end stuff on this sideline, with Johnson breaking forward when Asamoah loses the ball in the attacking third, and Asamoah doing the same on the other end when Johnson turns it over.

Don’t be surprised if this game is decided by which of the two star fullbacks performs better. Conventional wisdom would suggest Asamoah is the more likely of the bunch to steal the show, but he’s come under criticism in Ghana for historically uninspiring performances in the national team shirt. On the other hand, of course, is Johnson, who has sparkled for the U.S. in all three of its pre-tournament friendlies, and also for much of his U.S. tenure.

U.S. Central Defense

Unlike Germany and sometimes Portugal, Ghana is not the type of team that will frequently pull center backs out of position with clever passing and movement off the ball. Organization between Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler will still be important, but their most important task will be winning 50-50 challenges against Gyan. When out of ideas, Ghana will often simply hoof the ball forward toward Gyan, who is one of the world’s most dangerous strikers in terms of outmuscling and outpacing opposing center backs.

For Besler and Cameron, containing Gyan and waiting for help on balls in the channel will be key, while assertively dealing with balls played over the top will be even more essential, as Jay DeMerit and Carlos Bocanegra can attest. Besler and Cameron should benefit from a relatively deep line, which will minimize the space that Gyan can run into—it’s also important that Tim Howard is ready to be a bit of a sweeper-keeper, which he does well for Everton.

Though a highly important job, containing Gyan will be far from the only major task that Cameron and Besler will have. It’s also quite possible that the two may need to show their one-on-one defending skills if Ghana is able to get out and run on their trademark counters down the middle of the pitch. One-on-one defending is Cameron’s forte, as he’s well accustomed to facing dribblers in the open field with all of his right back experience for Stoke. Besler is a less accomplished one-on-one defender, but he’s still serviceable and will provide a stern test for any Ghanaian who breaks through the midfield. Of Ghana’s two most likely counterattacking threats, Prince-Boateng has the power and tricky dribbling skills (as seen in the golazo below), while Gyan is more of a push-and-run-past-defenders kind of guy (as seen in the above video against Korea).

The U.S. center backs’ final key task will be taking command on set pieces—the margins in this game will be tight enough that a set piece goal could easily swing the game for whoever scores it. Besler and Cameron have looked strong defensively on set pieces in recent games, but neither is a huge scoring threat, as the two have managed just one goal between them in 44 appearances for the U.S. June 16 would be an excellent time for one of them to add a second goal for the national team.


The Yanks should have learned their lesson by now about making mistakes in midfield against Ghana, so expect them to duly tighten up and eliminate the costly errors that have ruined them in the last two World Cups. Without big counterattacks, Ghana may run out of other attacking ideas, and thus the onus will fall on the U.S. to create something, which will most likely originate via either Bradley or Johnson. Expect a first half goal from Dempsey (via a Johnson cross), which will give the U.S. a lead it will take into halftime.

In the second half, Ghana will be in uncharted waters—trailing the U.S. in a World Cup. Forced to take risks, the Black Stars will leave gaps for Bradley on the counter, who will find Altidore for a crucial second goal around the 65th minute.

Gyan will get one back around the 80th, setting up a painfully nervous finish. It might take a big save from Howard to seal it, but the Yanks should have enough talent and tactical discipline to prevail, even with Ghana’s slew of dangerous subs. The scoreboard, for the third straight time, will have a familiar score. But this time around, finally, it’ll be a different team taking home all three points: U.S. 2, Ghana 1.

OK, your turn. Who is Ghana’s biggest threat? Which American most needs to step up? What will the final score be? Blake Thomsen is an ASN contributing editor and will respond to your thoughts below. And follow him on Twitter already.

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