Much like baseball at the turn of the century, soccer is in the midst of a statistical revolution. Whether you adhere to the old RBI numbers or spend your life pouring through wRC+ tables, these stats are all measurables and make it much easier to compare Player A to Player B which is helpful if you’re a general manager handing out contracts or trying to write your way into a team’s front office.
Soccer? Sure we can measure every kick of the ball, chart the position of every foul or spew out possession stats, but applying context to these numbers proves to be much more difficult.
FourFourTwo’s Stats Zone (and app) tracks anything and every during the World Cup. It’s stats charted the United States for a paltry nine shots on target over the three games of the group stage, whereas FIFA’s official stats have Jurgen Klinsmann’s team for a slightly more respectable 18 on target. FourFourTwo also charted the U.S. with 39 percent total possession in the games vs. Ghana, Portugal and Germany.
Ultimately those numbers don’t matter much. The U.S. got through with a 1-1-1 record. The stats don’t take into account that the Ghana and Portugal matches were swayed by goals inside of the first five minutes or the Manaus-hangover vs. a dominant Germany squad. In short, the U.S. never played a even or balanced match during Group G. All three were lopsided one way or the other, but the team did enough with a 1-1-1 record to live to play Belgium on Tuesday.
Despite all its players with (English/Barclay’s) Premier League pedigrees, Belgium should be more of a even matchup for the United States. Belgium, like the United States, only scored four goals in the group stage. Marc Wilmots team has struggled without injured striker Christian Benteke, whereas the U.S. hasn’t looked much worse for the wear vs. Portugal or Germany without Jozy Altidore.
Belgium is much sounder defensively than the U.S. — which has allowed goals to European opponents in each of its last 16 World Cup games. The Red Devils only defensive blemish is a penalty kick to Algeria and then blanked Russia and South Korea, scoring the winning goals in each of the three matches in the 78th minute or later.
So how is Klinsmann’s side going to get anything going offensive vs. Belgium? It’s not going to be up-the-middle with the big-haired, physical midfield pairing of Marouane Fellaini and Alex Witsel in front of Vincent Kompany and Daniel Van Buyten. Oh right, then there’s Thibault Courtois in net, whom many regard as the best keeper in the world at the moment. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
Belgium, like Germany, are trying to make a run at the World Cup without natural full backs, instead playing Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, converted center backs, wide. Vertonghen conceded the early penalty to Algeria and was replaced by Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen against Russia. Vertoghen returned vs. South Korea, but is out today.
Russia targeted Belgium’s left side, although to no avail. Via Stats Zone:
South Korea went more at reserve right back Anthony Vanden Borre, although most of its shots on that game went wide or were blocked.
Fortunately for the U.S., it has right back Fabian Johnson, who along with Jermaine Jones has been the team’s best performers in Brazil. Against Ghana Johnson created a pair of chances and he later got into the attack vs. Portugal. Pitted against the slower-footed, taller Vertonghen Johnson should be able to create on the right side, or at least provide an outlet since the middle should be clogged up.
How much Johnson is able to get into the attack might come down to the play of Belgium winger Eden Hazard. For comparison’s sake, Johnson did a good enough job bottling up Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, although he did get a lot of defensive help from Jones in that match. Until his 95th minute, inch-perfect cross (from the right), Ronaldo didn’t do much vs. to trouble the U.S. defense.
Hazard isn’t quite as powerful or direct as Ronaldo and Belgium do have balance on the other wing, unlike Portugal, whether it be Kevin Mirallas or Dries Mertens meaning the defensive gameplan cannot focus exclusively at stopping the Chelsea star. Hazard isn’t as fast as Ronaldo with the ball at his feet, more apt to make a small move to fake out a defender rather than trying to blow him with raw pace. This difference should allow Johnson more chances to roam forward.
This isn’t to say Johnson should be expected to score another goal like he did vs. Turkey, but he’s a genuine threat if the game circumstances allow him to get into the attack.
When Klinsmann took the reigns from Bob Bradley one of his key tasks was rebuilding an aged U.S. defense. The center of the defense is serviceable enough with Matt Besler next to either Omar Gonzalez or Geoff Cameron. Left back remains forever a position of question for the U.S., but at right back at least, Johnson looks like he’ll make the job his own for the foreseeable future taking the baton from Steve Cherundolo.
Pitted against Belgium in the Round of 16, it seems fairly clear if the team is going to create chances in the run of play, it’s going to come from Johnson bombing forward, rather than playing direct at the Belgian defensive line. At worst, his industrious work should create either some corner kicks or free kicks in dangerous positions outside the box. Going around the Belgium defense, rather than through it remains the best option.