The U.S. national team has started out in the 4-4-2 diamond midfield in each of its past two matches. Here is a closer look at why that trend won't, and shouldn't, continue.
At least it would seem to be after a second straight match featuring the U.S. national team’s deployment of the 4-4-2 diamond formation. The jury is still out on whether Jurgen Klinsmann’s new tactical toy has a future at the World Cup.
We have seen the U.S. diamond dazzle, and also sputter. We have seen it generate chances, but we have also watched it struggle for answers. Tuesday’s win against Azerbaijan didn’t exactly sell the the system as a Group of Death solution, assuming that’s even what Klinsmann has in mind for it.
A more reasonable explanation for why Klinsmann has suddenly become enamored with the 4-4-2 variation after two years of largely reducing the 4-4-2 to a second-half afterthought is his attempt to develop the diamond as an option for matches when the team needs a goal.
That would make more sense than actually believing Klinsmann is making the 4-4-2 diamond midfield his system of choice. When run properly, the system can be effective and beautiful to watch, but it isn’t a system that can be adopted overnight, or even after a few matches. It most certainly can’t be adopted without the proper personnel, and the jury is still out on whether Klinsmann’s group has the pieces to pull it off.
The U.S. looked sharp in the 4-4-2 in the first half of the April friendly against Mexico, with Michael Bradley shining in the playmaker role, and Kyle Beckerman anchoring the diamond just as well as he does for his club team, Real Salt Lake.
The only problem is Mexico isn’t exactly a team with the sort of midfield quality the Americans are going to see at the World Cup. Ghana, Portugal and Germany all boast serious quality in central midfield, and asking just two U.S. midfielders to try and win or even draw the battle in the middle of the park might be asking too much.
Then there is the question of just who would be best equipped to man the system. By all accounts, Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley are expected to start for Klinsmann in whatever system he chooses, but the Jones-Bradley tandem has always struggled against better competition in large part because of a struggle to maintain a positional balance between them.
Bradley is widely regarded as the better attacker, and therefore the central midfielder who should spend more time surging forward into the attack. That still hasn’t stopped Jones from freelancing and joining Bradley in the attacking half at times when he should be anchoring the area in front of the defense.
In the 4-4-2, the roles are much more clearly defined for that tandem than in a 4-2-3-1, but it also means less manpower in the middle of the field, and a bigger gap between Bradley and Jones when they are deployed in the diamond.
To his credit, Jones played relatively well there on Tuesday, handling his defensive responsibilities and maintaining his position. If there was an issue with the spacing between the two on Tuesday, it was with Bradley dropping deep to receive the ball and creating an imbalance in the 4-4-2, and leaving the midfield disconnected from Jozy Altidore at times.
One aspect of the Mexico match that received much play was how well Beckerman played in the match, something which Bradley pointed out in great detail. Beckerman did play extremely well, but the reality is Beckerman would be facing a significantly tougher challenge from any of the World Cup Group G midfields than he did from Mexico that day.
Simply put, the Americans need three players working in the midfield engine room if they are going to be able to stand toe-to-toe with Ghana's or Portugal’s midfields. Whether it’s a central trio of Clint Dempsey-Bradley-Jones, or even a possible Bradley-Jones-Beckerman group, a 4-2-3-1 just makes more sense for the Americans to use in Brazil.
A midfield trio of Bradley playing in front of a Jones-Beckerman tandem just might provide the balance the U.S. midfield needs, but it would also mean moving Dempsey to either a wide midfield role, where Klinsmann hasn't used him, or up top, where Jozy Altidore is starting. If Altidore is faltering, Klinsmann may have no choice but to consider playing Dempsey as the lead forward if it means being able to field a strong central midfield triangle.
We will find out of Klinsmann agrees that a 4-2-3-1 still makes more sense, or if he’s actually sold on the diamond, in the upcoming matches against Turkey and Nigeria. Two teams with tougher midfields than they have faced. Midfields that will offer a much better prep for the World Cup than Mexico or Azerbaijan did.
If we continue to see the U.S. play the 4-4-2 diamond, Turkey and Nigeria will let us and Klinsmann know pretty clearly whether that is actually a viable option, or something Klinsmann might want to reconsider before boarding that plane to Brazil.