Postcard From Europe: US Can Succeed in 4-3-3
AMSTERDAM – Just because the US national team's 45 minutes of 4-3-3 soccer against Colombia on Tuesday night was a bust, that doesn't mean the experiment was a mistake.
In science, we progress through trial and error. The same can be said for soccer, as Bob Bradley would surely tell you.
The truth is, it's high time the US boss gave this set a shot. At full strength, the Nats have all the necessary tools to replicate the often celebrated and tricky-to-emulate Dutch style.
Inspired in part by the historical need to use space advantageously, the 4-3-3 was perfected in the 1970s by Ajax and the Dutch national team. Run properly, it is extremely hard to handle, even for the best opponents.
The last time Bradley tried it also lasted 45 minutes and was a much bigger disaster: a humiliating 3-1 loss at Costa Rica last June in World Cup qualifying. Of course, that was the wrong time in the wrong place under the wrong circumstance to make this switch. Now is the right time, and the same goes for the US' next friendly in a trip back to South Africa next month.
Having spent more time than I can count watching Eredivisie and Oranje matches, and talking with current and former practitioners of note, I was eager to detect flaws during Tuesday's first-half run-out at PPL Park.
Yes, this time, the United States were actually attempting a textbook 4-3-3. It was no trick of the lineup card. Problem was, they didn't run it faithfully.
There were three glaring issues with the purr of the new motor against Colombia. One was of personnel, one of attitude and one of the most important single element when installing a brand-new 4-3-3: spacing. Let's run through these three issues across positional lines.
The back line was generally with the program. The US center backs were willing to step up for "attacking" defensive plays and they all dealt pretty well with some poor incoming passes.
Naturally, a different midfield set tends to give opponents different attacking lanes. Though the defense scrambled about a bit early on Tuesday, they all settled into good positions.
The biggest disappointment was that wingbacks Heath Pearce and Jonathan Spector didn't get down the line very far or very often. But as I'll explain, that is not so much their fault.
First, let's talk about roles. On Tuesday, nobody's was clear. This is not only a big problem, it creates others. Ideally, one wants a centrally pinned defensive stopper, a two-way midfielder shading one way and a forward-thinking playmaker set slightly to the other.
Why Benny Feilhaber (or even Alejandro Bedoya) wasn't used in this set-up is beyond me. Instead, there were three somewhat similar guys and no organized plan.
We had Jermaine Jones wandering wide, Michael Bradley dropping too deep and (as ESPN's Julie Foudy noted) Maurice Edu frantically waving his teammates all forward. With confusion reigning positionally, it's no wonder the spacing was a big problem. When the US attempted transition, one of three problems predictably arose.
Either the three midfielders were too crammed together, or they were too far apart or they were all inhabiting the same basic horizontal line. Additionally, all of them seemed allergic to the vertical pass up the middle, which is an absolute must in this formation.
Someone in the middle has to insist on moving the ball forward in a positive manner. Though not an ideal No. 10 player, Bradley is most familiar with this role. For whatever reason, he played things safe – certainly not a bad thing in and of itself.
This was nobody's fault and everyone's fault at once. With no one holding the keys, there were precious few organized ideas moving forward and far from enough patience in simply possessing the ball.
Yes, the ideal team running a 4-3-3 likes to attack, but first it likes to tire you from chasing and lull you to sleep. It likes to toy with you relentlessly, in fact. The US are accustomed to explosive bursts on the ball, and can still have those, but they need to revamp their mind set for this tactic.
Opportunism is no longer just pouncing on a stray moment; it's about forcing those moments, repeatedly, from a blueprint construction. It's about controlling the game.
Controlling the midfield is actually most essential to winning in a 4-3-3. But you get the blueprint wrong, the house always crumbles. Next time, let's see one cog with an attacking eye, Landon Donovan or Feilhaber, and then let's judge.
The major issue with this line was also quite obvious. Wingers Stuart Holden and Brek Shea didn't push high enough and spent far too much time far away from the touchline.
As David Winner describes in his existential manual to the thinking behind the Dutch 4-3-3, Brilliant Orange, the idea of spacing has many forms. Total Football is as much about creating passing lanes as it is about using them.
With Holden and Shea routinely 25 yards or more in from the sideline against Colombia, several inherent functions of the formation were practically non-existent. Not only did this eliminate their presence as an attack outlet, it changed the way the defense was able to organize.
With a 4-3-3, the idea is be compact at and coming out of the back, then spread the field in attack. The US actually made Colombia's job much easier by wandering positions when they had the ball.
The further back the wingers, the more the visitors' wide defenders could provide midfield support. With them straying so far inside, there were no overlap partners for the fullbacks and an already confused midfield became more crowded.
All this going on effectively left Jozy Altidore stranded. Combined with the midfield rejecting vertical passes and the absence of a true attacker among the three, the striker generally had to go wide to see the ball, further distorting the proper shape.
The end effect of all this? It took 26 minutes before the US even attempted a diagonal outlet from central midfield to an advanced winger. No one tried to take a defender from a wide attacking position until just after the half-hour – and that was Oguchi Onyewu.
There was no wing crossing, few wide responsibilities for Colombia's defense and I stopped counting the number of times Jones was wider and further down downfield than Shea as the US advanced at eight with half the period left.
There is a difference between daring and calamitous; the team needs to invest with confidence in this tactic or there will be no dividends.
Re-tool the midfield slightly with some smart flair, set stricter roles and down a shot of tactical confidence. Do that, and Bob Bradley may find just the right gameplan to match a squad loaded with quickness and determination.