Positional Play Scholar

We had a competitive game!  USMNT won 1-0 vs Honduras in the semi-final of the Nations League.  In a fantastic preparation for world qualifiers the super young USMNT got the job done. So why did we leave the game feeling more relieved than excited? 

Summary

The biggest reason (aside from my pre workout red bull that didn’t completely get worked off) was that fans overreacted to some nervy moments. After taking some time away and rewatching the game in detail, I came to the conclusion that the US really dominated that game. A few mistakes made it nervy for fans. US couldn’t finish plays. But when you break it down the US had no problem in build up. They had no problem getting into final third. They had no problem except that last pass or shot. 

This is just one really good example. 

Honduras could do nothing against the US. There were two, maybe three really dangerous opportunities, all self inflicted.  The most dangerous player for Honduras was Ellis. They first tried him in the middle and Brooks aggressively said, “nope.”  They thought he could pick on the “weak” defensive option Dest. Dest manned up 1v1 and laughed.  He rarely even tried Robinson who seemed to have been brought on as a defensive specialist.   

The US did have a few moments that left fans incredulous. The two most obvious were Steffen coming off his line and completely missing the ball on a cross.  It led to Sargent’s best play of the night, a defensive header. (oof).   The second was Dest leaving his man (what felt like) 10 yards behind Brooks- on sides.   Steffen sniffed out the 1v1 fairly easily.  These bloopers aside, Honduras had nothing on their own. By the 60th minute mark while fans were fretting, Honduras knew it and started doing every CONCACAF trick in the book to get the game to penalties.  

Chess Match

The most surprising thing on the rewatch were not individual players, it was the tactics. The US was in their usual 433.

Set up

Tactical matches between coaches is about predicting how the other team will try to attack/ defend you and developing counters.  Ever since the Gold Cup in 2019, when our primary 6 was Michael Bradley, teams focused on man marking the 6.  Depending on how they do that, you can counter that in a few ways. 

Honduras did that with 2 strikers, zonally keeping Yueill out of the game. 

Honduras looked to take out the 6’s ability to be a deep lying playmaker.
It creates a 2v2 in back centrally.

In every game Berhalter depends on a deep lying play maker/ regista to control the tempo of the game and make plays to his attackers from deeper positions. A deep playmaker makes the field bigger.

Defenses want to make the field small and compact.

A deeper playmaker than can hit deeper passes and can stretch the defense both vertically (by playing balls deeper to guys running in behind) and horizontally to spread them wide to create space for combination plays and runners. A deep lying playmaker is crucial to opening up a low block. In the past, Berhalter ran his offense through a 6 as that deep lying playmaker. Mostly notably Michael Bradley

Honduras wanted to take that away. Mexico did it against the US in the GC. Canada did it to the US in first Nations League game. This was expected. It’s not a big deal for anyone that plays with a 6. There is simple tactical adjustment to this. Mexico plays the same way. In the Gold Cup, Berhalter had Mckennie mark their 6 and Tata made the expected adjustment. He dropped an 8 down.

This is why when people say to me the US should just play a 4231, I say not necessarily. The 433 is a very tactically flexible system. The difference in the 433 vs 4231 (or any formation really) is more about personnel selection than shape. This was the obvious adjustment. You can call this a shift to a 4231 if you want or a 433 with one 8 playing closer to the 6 to get number advantages.

Berhalter didn’t do that. Watching the game I was irritated. This was an obvious adjustment. Berhalter was again not adjusting in game. This wasn’t good.

Well I overreacted and was “less right.” (sounds better than flat out wrong).

Berhalter and his staff simply laughed and said JY is not our star player. Throughout the first half they used him as a decoy. Everyone, including myself, were wondering why the 8’s were playing so high. They weren’t just playing high. The whole team were focused on vertical interchange. The tactical adjustment that the US made was not in the form of numbers, they changed their player movement.

They worked to move the opponent with their movement to create space to exploit.

They used the vertical interchanges from deep to open up space in behind Honduras

You see it all through the first half on both sides. People said the midfield didn’t play well. That’s simply false.  They used their movement to open up spaces to attack.  

 

They then had added wrinkles with Reyna and Pulisic routinely cutting inside. Every fast break, you’ll find Reyna and Pulisic inside on the break together.  It was fantastic, the way they planned to get these two 10’s in the right spaces to work together on the counter. It was largely built off these vertical interchanges. 

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Consistently, they had Reyna and Pulisic cut inside off of these vertical interchanges. They used the forward movement of the cms, to create space for them to attack.  This was best seen on fast breaks and quick transitions. 

Why?

So why? Why did the US focus on these vertical interchanges instead of the simple adaption of dropping a deeper 8? That’s the chess match. In checkers, you think one move ahead. In Chess, you think two (or many more) moves head. The current Us coaching staff may not be good at checkers but they are excellent at chess.

What would be the reaction by Honduras if the US dropped the 8? We don’t have to guess. Honduras adapted to the vertical interchanges by half time and the US were getting fewer chances with their movments. At half time, the the US dropped their 8’s.

By the second half, the US were getting fewer opportunities with the vertical interchanges. So they played closer and dropped their 8’s to make progression easier.

The result was Honduras in a deep block much of the second half.  This was why Yueill seemed better and calmer. (he still had a bad game as a whole).  It’s why the US started getting deeper as a team into Honduras final third. 

 

One of the hardest things to do is break down a deep block.  This season Jorginho scored an own goal against Arsenal.  Chelsea spent the whole game trying to beat a deep block.   One reason the 3 in the back is more popular is that teams are using their CB’s more as passing playmakers.  Brooks was that again and again and again against Honduras.  By design.  Throughout the first half, Jackson Yeuill occupied two attackers high up the pitch and allowed Brooks to pick them apart from deep. 

If they had gone early to dropping the 8’s, Honduras would have spent a lot more time in the low block. We would have had to push numbers forwards to break it down and spent a lot more time vulnerable to the counter. 

The US intentionally kept Honduras from falling into that low block for the first half by making plays and runs from deeper.  They opened several opportunities throughout first half. Then when Honduras stopped biting on the midfield movement, the US adapted by dropping the 8’s and pushing numbers forward.

Late Game adjustments

At the end of the game with the game still tied 0-0 and Honduras mostly in the low block, the US made further adjustments. These are the best in game adjustments I’ve seen from Berhalter since he became the US coach.

Siebatcheu for Sargent because Sargent was horrible. I’ll try to get into that in a later article.

Acosta for Yuiell because Yueill was also very bad. JY was not bad for the reasons most think though. In short he wasn’t bad because he’s not press resistant or because of his technique. His technique was as good as most on the US (who were oddly bad all game) and the US doesn’t ask their 6 to be press resistant. If they get in a situation where they have to be- something went wrong. I’ll try address that later. For now- he was bad because of these.

He saw it and didn’t hit it.
He saw it and didn’t hit it
He chose the blue with all of those options. This was the worst moment of the game for him for me.

When the game was on the line, Berhalter couldn’t trust Yueill to hit the pass. He hit some. It wasn’t all bad but in the last 10 minutes it became crucial that Yueill not play tentative with his passing. So he added Acosta for better range and cover and moved Brooks higher for his DLP skills.

Also huge – for me was Cannon for Robinson. These adjustments drove fans crazy. They want, badly, dynamic impact subs that an do something different. Berhalter and his staff are more likely to change how they want to attack the defense than hope on a supersub.

In this case, they moved Dest to left. This is something I was hoping to see. I’ve said before that the understanding of space and movement is superior by our two best players which currently are Pulisic and Dest. Reyna is a fantastic talent who mostly had a very good game. He’s just not to their level of understanding of those things yet. He’s much better than he was. He did a much better job of both cutting into the halfspace and going wide.

This is a classic zonal interchange that we’ve seen since 2019. Very slick movement by Mckennie to pull two defenders to the wide zone. Mckennie goes wide and Reyna goes to the halfspace slot.  Great read and run of Reyna to the space and nice pass slotted into that space.  This suits Reyna who I’ve said has a magnet attached to him and the goal. This is more of the “system” at work.

He’s not as good wide though and his instincts to go to goal can get a little predictable. 

By adding Cannon and moving Dest to the left, they get these types of things more often. They get better overloads on the left that open up space on the right. As Honduras fell back into a deep block, they needed more zonal fluidity on both sides but particularly left;.  They needed more than every to spread out Honduras or  they would have to start relying on deep crosses which rarely end well.. just ask Chelsea. 

They wanted to use the combination of Dest and Pulisic’s ball skills and their understanding of movement and space to interchange, combine and pry that full back away.

https://twitter.com/goal/status/1375150195181285393?s=20

Similar to this- though this was an overlap.  Honduras were doubling Pulisic all game. With Dest and Pulisic together that becomes increasingly difficult to do AND keep defensive integrity across the back four. 

Then you get this. 

 

Overload of 1v1 talent on the left created a 1v1 with Weston Mckennie and a free man in Cannon. Wes beats his man and it’s a goal. 

He brought in Cannon to overload the left. He brought in Acosta to push Brooks up for his DLP skills and he brought in Siebatcheu to get better finishing. 

Check Mate.   

Concerns

The biggest concern I have is not Jackson Yueil to most fans chagrin. He was mostly a non-factor for me. My biggest concern is related though. My biggest concern is the over reliance on John Brooks. Without Brooks we don’t win that game. We don’t even get half the chances we got and are a lot less dominant.

Mckenzie was pretty poor in deep distribution. He didn’t hit the passes necessary but mostly he didn’t see or try them when they were there. It was not the plan during the vertical interchange to only focus on Brooks. It happened that way because he was the only one that could consistently play the pass.

Best example though there are others.

Sargent is not finishing chances. The below was the worst for me. He finally loses his defender. How does our top striker prospect not beat the cb there?  Mount beat Pique in a championship final but our #1 striker prospect can’t beat a Honduras defender. And if you look closely, it looks to me like he just whiffs. Sargent simply wasn’t finishing chances.  He got a fantastic ball from Robinson and puts in right at the keeper.  I think this is a concern.

We need more players than Brooks to unlock teams from deep and we need a 9 who can score.  I would be surprised at this point if Sargent starts next game and I’m concerned with what Tata will come up with to shut down Brooks.  I expect Adams back at the 6. He was on the bench this game and I think they’ve been saving him and Musah for Mexico. 

The positive side is Berhalter and his staff planned an excellent game against Honduras.  They adapted well.  Despite some poor finishing and lots of wtf play from just about every player on the field, the US dominated.  Most optimistic take away from this game was that the coaches got the tactics right from the start and made pin point adjustments throughout. Those adjustments were huge in winning the game. Let’s hope they can do that vs Mexico.