Postcard from Europe: Bradley's checklist, Part 2
AMSTERDAM – U.S. National Team boss Bob Bradley has been signed up for another World Cup cycle, which of course means it's time for another round of entirely unsolicited advice.
Though there is a great big forthcoming slate of activities before that next chance at the big stage, let's focus on what needs to happen for greater success at that next World Cup in Brazil, which represents both the culmination and crunch time pinnacle of any four-year cycle.
Last week, we offered notes on the general 4-4-2 set run by the coach. This time, we go a bit more drastic with suggestions for some tactical overhaul.
Let's just get this one out of the away. While I do feel the Nats would be best served by switching to a different base formation—at least until Charlie Davies is back to top form—the truth is, it could also be effective throwing opponents a new look on occasion.
Bradley does like to add wrinkles to his favored "empty bucket" set, but mere wrinkles only disturb lesser foes. They can throw off a Honduras just fine but don't do much against a global top-15 side.
Teams like Spain, the Netherlands or Brazil can run out the same, expected system every time because they're world beaters. The U.S. cannot. They need to be able to offer something unexpected, even if it's for as little as half a game. The quickest way to an upset is to force the favorites to adjust.
If Bradley is set on the same 4-4-2 used last cycle, fine. But there has to be at least one trick up the sleeve for big games against teams not seen regularly. Those, after all, are the ones studying up on the U.S. with volumes of film. There should be a game plan available that is not on each and every video.
The Yanks flopped out of World Cup 2006 by using the same basic tactics for three totally different foes, and this lesson was not learned.
Variety isn't just the spice of life, it's also the mark of a deep tourney run.
One only needs to look back to Confederations Cup to see what a big difference a little bit of ball retention can make.
Combining the semifinal victory over Spain and the first half of the Brazil final loss, the United States were on the short end of a possession ratio that neared 55-45. During this 135 minutes of play, they were up four goals to none.
In the second half of the final, the Samba Kings had closer to 65 percent of the ball as they rang up three unanswered goals to flip the title bout.
A 5 percent change may not seem like much, but that figure relates to four-and-a-half extra minutes of chasing the ball. Against a top team, that can mean the difference between a result you love and just another close defeat.
The fact of the matter is the "empty bucket" is not made to hold the ball against big opponents who impose their attacking will. The implied spacing simply does not lend itself to kicking it about.
The wide men are pressure valves for the back and links to the attack. If a central midfielder moves into the hole behind the forwards to help sustain offensive pressure, it becomes easier for a Brazil or Germany to slice things up on the counter.
The obvious fix is to install a formation that fields a central playmaking type. Landon Donovan surely fits this bill and a player like Benny Feilhaber could also prove useful here.
To "fill the bucket" and best utilize the player pool available, I'd suggest the 4-5-1 set used by PSV Eindhoven when DaMarcus Beasley played there under Guus Hiddink. EPL fans may better know this as the system used by Chelsea under José Mourniho.
The midfield could have a true stopper (Maurice Edu or Jermaine Jones), a two-way agitant (Michael Bradley) and a butt-busting traffic director, with wide players who can act as both possession help and attack outlets. It would also become much easier to trap and deny in the center of the park.
Sometimes, four just isn't enough to win the midfield game, which in my book is the key competition in most any underdog task.
Forget the saying about how the best defense is a good offense — that is for the Spains and Argentinas of the world. Let's just try to lessen the load on our back and conserve energy with four or five fewer minutes of ball-chasing.
Ordering the combo
Let's expand on the virtues of the "conservative 4-3-3." The U.S. player pool has plenty of quick-footed attackers, so it's no surprise they often look best when using this to their advantage.
The best way to do that is one-touch passing with good off-the-ball movement. Guys like Donovan, Feilhaber, Clint Dempsey and Beasley thrive when the play is crisp and quick in this manner.
The spacing of Bradley's 2010 cycle 4-4-2 just does not lend itself to tic-tac-toe passing against better opponents, and obviously turnovers are more likely to be punished. We saw this a few times in South Africa.
At Ajax, the church of the technical 4-3-3, they like to talk about passing triangles. It's quite simply the difference between a two-man move and a three-man move, and it equally applies to our suggested 4-5-1.
I believe getting these midfield players closer together by policy is the path to the much-discussed next level for the U.S. National Team.
No, this team isn't quite good enough to run circles around the best. They do, in my estimation, have enough skill to put a Ghana or Slovenia on their heels.
The unspoken factor
I'll keep this succinct. It's not brain surgery. A squad given the trust and responsibility of pulling off more complex, more daring game plans will feel more confident in its ability.
I can't measure this scientifically, but without naming any names, more than one 'Nat has intimated to me a hunger to see U.S. tactics evolve.
It may not seem like much reading this column, but think about it as you watch them work against a top opponent. It's quite visible to me.