If they stick to the flanks, the U.S. national team's drifting wingers can expose Belgium in the round of 16.In the conventional sense, Jurgen Klinsmann is anything but narrow-minded. He'll audition new players. Try out different formations. Mix and match lineups.
But literally speaking, Klinsmann's U.S. national team is quite narrow-minded — that is to say, the flanks often go neglected.
During this World Cup, the coach has grown fond of crowding the middle by deploying three natural central midfielders. The wingers' tendency to drift inside further congests the area. And it's worked, more or less.
Yet Klinsmann is likely looking to tweak his philosophy when the USA faces Belgium on Tuesday in the round of 16. If the Americans want to secure that berth in the quarterfinals, they'll need their wide midfielders to utilize the flanks in earnest — not just tuck inside and leave those channels for the fullbacks.
TOUCHES BY BRAD DAVIS (LEFT) AND GRAHAM ZUSI AGAINST GERMANY
In their 1-0 loss to Germany on Thursday, the Americans didn't see much of the ball. When they did, they offered little to challenge German fullbacks Benedikt Howedes and Jerome Boateng, who are typically center backs. Wingers Brad Davis and Graham Zusi got scarce touches out wide, and fullbacks Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley rarely joined the attack. It was an overly compact mess.
Belgium also plays four center backs, with Jan Vertonghen at left back and Toby Alderweireld on the right. Speed is not a particularly strong asset for these players, and they don't get much defensive help either. Wingers Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens tend to slide into advanced central positions, while midfielders Alex Witsel, Marouane Fellaini and Kevin De Bruyne stay in the middle.
POSITIONING FOR BELGIUM AGAINST RUSSIA AND THE USA AGAINST GERMANY
With Vertonghen and Alderweireld largely isolated, the USA's wingers Tuesday will want to stay wide and capitalize on those matchups. If they float to central areas, it'll give those Belgian fullbacks an excuse to shift inside and play to their aerial strengths.
Instead, the USA should go at them, time after time. With midfielders hugging the sideline, Johnson and Beasley can use their pace on the so-called underlap as well as the overlap, allowing them to create from more dangerous positions. These are 2-on-1 situations Belgium isn't equipped to defend.
So what personnel can achieve this? The return of the 4-4-2 could be tempting, with Chris Wondolowski, Aron Johannsson or possibly a fit Jozy Altidore joining Clint Dempsey up top. But that means moving Jermaine Jones to the flank, when a 4-5-1 featuring two of Zusi, Davis and Alejandro Bedoya is logical against Belgium's back line. The best fit could even be 20-year-old speedster DeAndre Yedlin, though his lack of experience would make that a risky choice.
Whoever lines up, the task should remain the same: Funnel the ball out wide. Attack those fullbacks. Force Hazard and Mertens to drop back. Throw off Belgium's shape.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.