Jurgen Klinsmann deployed the U.S. national team in a new system in Saturday's win over Nigeria, and he may have found his ideal World Cup game plan in the process.
After watching his team turn in the best performance of its World Cup send-off series, now we know why Klinsmann was so giddy. He had managed to cook up a plan that not only helped maximize the strengths of some of his most important players, but he did so in a matter of days.
Yes, that’s right, the system Klinsmann deployed in Saturday’s win against Nigeria hadn’t even been worked on until four days earlier, shortly after the team’s 2-1 win against Turkey. Now that system just might be what we see against Ghana in the World Cup opener.
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Rather than deploy the diamond midfield we had seen in the team’s two previous matches, Klinsmann trotted his team out in what was essentially a 4-3-2-1 – the old Christmas tree formation. Klinsmann started Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman and Michael Bradley in the same lineup for the first time since his very first match in charge of the U.S. team, nearly three years ago.
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Klinsmann didn’t deploy that trio in the same line though. He kept Bradley in an advanced role while sliding Alejandro Bedoya into the right side of the three. This allowed Bradley the freedom to focus on creating chances for his teammates while Jones and Bedoya worked tirelessly to defend as well as attack. All the while, Beckerman anchored the midfield, covering for the attacking forays of Jones, Bradley and Bedoya.
The whole thing took some time to work, as the disjointed and sloppy first 25 minutes of Saturday’s match showed. But once the U.S. lineup started clicking, the Americans took control of the match.
"We talked beforehand with Kyle sitting deep in front of the defenders, Jermaine being tilted to his left, and Alejandro tilted to his right, and I think the understanding between the three of them was very good,” Bradley said after the match. “I think we defensively were able to close space down and make it hard on them in their attacking third.
“We'll go back and look and start to take away some more little details and especially how they can relate to the game against Ghana."
The biggest beneficiaries of the system shift were Bradley and Jones, who have struggled to find the right balance as partners in central midfield together. By installing Beckerman into an anchor role in front of the defense, Klinsmann gave Jones the freedom to surge into the attack like he loves to do at times, while also allowing him to use his incredible work rate to buzz around the field without having to worry about getting caught out of position.
For Bradley, the system adjustment meant being able to stay higher up the field for longer stretches, which ultimately resulted in him creating more chances. He wasn’t stuck worrying about having to cover for Jones’ runs forward, or having to drop deep to receive the ball as often, because Jones and Bedoya could both work with Bradley to get him the ball in more advanced positions.
“Tonight, we did a really good job of when they did have some possession, they weren’t too dangerous and then we were able to win the ball at times and really break and get them exposed without some numbers,” Beckerman said. “It was what we worked on and it was good that it came to fruition tonight.”
A big key to the system’s success was Beckerman’s trademark selflessness. Long considered a rival to Jones for the defensive midfielder role in a 4-4-2, Beckerman actually helped Jones enjoy his best national team performance in some time by providing support for Jones’ forays forward, and freelancing all over the midfield.
“He’s got such a motor, he’s so powerful and he likes to drive and get into the attack,” Beckerman said of Jones. “If I’ve got to sit in there and watch his back, it’s all good, but I know he can cover a ton of ground.”
As for what he thought of playing next to Jones instead of competing with him for a starting spot, Beckerman sounded like a big fan of the idea.
“Hey, I’m all for it,” Beckerman said. “We can play together. Sounds good to me.”
The new-look system and lineup worked very well against Nigeria, and more importantly, it looked very much like a system that could work in Brazil against Ghana. The same couldn’t be said for the diamond 4-4-2 the U.S. had played in recent wins against Azerbaijan and Turkey. In those games, the flaws in the diamond were pretty clear to see, but to Klinsmann's credit, he went back to the drawing board and came up with what we saw against Nigeria.
The result was a new system that could help the U.S. survive the Group of Death.