Alexi Lalas argued on ESPN yesterday that the U.S. should “keep it simple” and play a straight 4-4-2 in the friendly against Turkey. He then spelled out the exact American weaknesses a 4-4-2 exacerbates. Bradley has played a 4-4-2 almost exclusively as U.S. coach. However, without Charlie Davies, the formation does not suit his players. Facing much tougher opposition in the World Cup, it is time for Bradley to make a radical change, to a five-man midfield.
There are advantages to 4-4-2. It’s simple. It’s balanced. Teams can attack different ways and counterattack quickly. There are also weaknesses to 4-4-2. Against a five-man midfield, the central midfielders are outnumbered. Without the right players, it’s hard to hold possession and even harder to get the ball back.
The 4-4-2 requires dynamic midfielders who can defend, create and cover ground. The U.S does not have them. Saddled with too many responsibilities, Clark and Bradley crumbled in midfield. They could not contain Turkey. They could not provide anything going forward.
Playing a 4-4-2 also requires wingers willing to track back and defend, making Donovan a liability. He wanders forward and into the middle. He does not track back. When Spector made runs forward, no one covered for him. Turkey had free reign and should have scored two or three goals. The defenders were criticized, not without some merit, but they were left unguarded by a collapsed midfield.
In a 4-4-2, the U.S. has to choose between Edu and Torres with Michael Bradley. Edu gives them the athleticism and defense of a 4-4-2 midfielder. Torres gives them the necessary playmaking and the ability to hold possession. Neither choice is entirely satisfactory. Why not play both?
A 4-2-3-1 would reduce the strain on Edu and Bradley. They would not be outnumbered. They could focus on covering the back four and killing attacks before they start. You don’t try to stop Wayne Rooney. You stop the England midfield from getting him the ball. Playing both in a straight holding role would solidify the back line.
The U.S. could field three attacking midfielders, Torres as a playmaker in the middle flanked by Donovan and Dempsey. They also have Holden and Feilhaber. They could bomb forward with minimal defensive liability, interchange positions and dart in from a number of different angles. The Americans would hold more possession. They would be more versatile, less predictable and harder to defend. Potentially, they could threaten on more than set pieces and counter attacks.
The U.S. does not have the players to play 4-4-2 effectively. They have tried unsuccessfully to shoehorn someone into Davies’ striker role. They have not found an authoritative midfield combination.
Bob Bradley has the players to play an effective 4-2-3-1. It would minimize what they do poorly and maximize what they do well. The USMNT would be more stalwart at the back and inventive at the front. Bradley leaned toward this with the 4-4-1-1 he started against Turkey. It’s time to plunge into the deep end. The 4-2-3-1 is hardly untested, as nearly every country in South Africa will field some variation of it. If the American players really need the tactics “dumbed down,” it is time to develop better players.