Inside Opta: Johnson plays second fiddle as Nagbe thrives in U.S. midfield

Isaiah J. Downing
Both players have gotten a new lease on life with the national team under Bruce Arena, but only one of them is reaping the rewards

When Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure as U.S. national team coach ended in November, numerous players seemed poised to enjoy a new lease on life under Bruce Arena.

For some, that's exactly what has happened (welcome to the mix, Jorge Villafana, Dax McCarty and Matt Hedges). For others, Arena has not yet offered the fresh start they would've hoped for (sorry Benny Feilhaber and Eric Lichaj).

Then there's Darlington Nagbe and Fabian Johnson. Those two players had been regular squad members under Klinsmann, of course — but their roles presented topics for debate.

Takeaways from the USA's win over T&T

While Nagbe debuted for the U.S. in November 2015, shortly after earning his citizenship, the Portland Timbers midfielder never made a start over his 10 caps under Klinsmann. Although Johnson was a staple of the first XI, he typically played as a fullback instead of the wide midfield role he fills regularly for Borussia Monchengladbach.

Arena quickly moved to remedy those players' qualms. Nagbe has started five of six matches this year, bringing technical quality and slick movement to the flank. After sitting out March's World Cup qualifiers with a hamstring injury, Johnson got the start in midfield for the Americans' 1-1 friendly draw with Venezuela last weekend and the 2-0 qualifying win over Trinidad & Tobago on Thursday.

USA average formation vs. T&T

The USA's average formation versus Trinidad & Tobago. Note the position of Fabian Johnson (23) and Darlington Nagbe (15).

Fabian Johnson touches vs. T&TDarlington Nagbe touches vs. T&T

Touches taken by Johnson (left) and Nagbe (right) against Trinidad & Tobago.

Yet only Nagbe seems to be truly reaping the rewards of Arena's fresh thinking. As a static U.S. side struggled to break down Trinidad & Tobago, it was the 26-year-old who created Christian Pulisic's 52nd-minute opener with pace, control and an eye for combination play.

Nagbe finished the match with five dribbles completed — more than any other player in the three Hexagonal matches Thursday. Nagbe also led the Hex with nine duels won, as he showed a knack for tracking back and making timely interventions. When an opponent like Trinidad & Tobago manages to settle in defensively, a player like Nagbe — who can win balls in good spots and keep an opponent scrambling — is crucial.

On a night Nagbe completed 49 of 56 passes, Johnson was far less active — connecting on just 14 of 21 passes before coming off in the 74th minute. Although Johnson is a real threat attacking open space as a fullback, he's always been less effective creating danger for the U.S. when positioned farther up the field. His two-way work rate is admirable, and he knows how to put himself in good spots, but he's not a natural creator.

In Johnson's defense, the narrow midfield used in his only two caps under Arena is better suited to Nagbe's skill set. Perhaps we'll see Johnson reach his potential as a winger when Arena turns to a more traditional 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1.

But for all of the criticism Klinsmann received for using players out of position, he just may have been right about Johnson's best spot on the field.

Could Arena turn to the 3-5-2?

USA 3-5-2 vs. Venezuela

The USA's average formation in the second half against Venezuela.

If you were to cite one miscalculation as the primary catalyst for Jurgen Klinsmann's dismissal, his use of a 3-5-2 formation in November's 2-1 loss to Mexico would be it. But could Bruce Arena use the same alignment in Sunday's trip to face El Tri at Estadio Azteca?

The U.S. personnel actually is well suited to that formation, which would provide additional defensive stability on the road. The likes of Fabian Johnson, DeAndre Yedlin, Jorge Villafana, Paul Arriola and DaMarcus Beasley are natural fits as wing backs, and there's appeal to any formation that frees up Christian Pulisic to take on a No. 10 role with two forwards to pick out in front of him.

Pulisic makes case as the USA's leader

While Klinsmann abruptly thrust the formation on his players in November, Arena auditioned the 3-5-2 for most of the second half against Venezuela. The U.S. looked plenty comfortable, with Matt Hedges flanked by Tim Ream and Omar Gonzalez in a three-man back line.

One key aspect: This formation typically requires a defensive anchor who is comfortable distributing out of the back and stepping into midfield. Hedges fit the bill last weekend, and Geoff Cameron would be a natural for the role as well.

Quick kicks

Jozy Altidore again made an impact through his clever passing in the final third Thursday. After quietly helping facilitate three goals in March's 6-0 thrashing of Honduras, Altidore slipped in Christian Pulisic with a perfectly weighted through ball on the second tally against Trinidad & Tobago. No player in CONCACAF has created more scoring chances than Altidore's 19 this cycle. ...

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Christian Pulisic has only started six of the Americans' 11 qualifiers this cycle, but that hasn't stopped him from leading CONCACAF with five assists and 18 dribbles completed. If you haven't heard, the kid is special. ...

The U.S. got stellar attacking play out of fullbacks DeAndre Yedlin and Jorge Villafana against Trinidad & Tobago. They combined to connect on 92 of 97 passes, Yedlin teed up Pulisic's opener, and Villafana led all players in the Hex on Thursday with nine crosses from open play. There were some iffy defensive moments as fatigue set in after halftime, but U.S. fans have to like what they're seeing.