wherein DF travels to Deutschland for the 2006 world cup to follow the US men's national soccer team

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Formation consternation

I wasn’t enough of a fan in 1998 to appreciate the now-infamous 3-6-1 debacle authored by also-now-infamous former USMNT coach Steve Sampson. For those who don’t know the story, basically it’s this: in a pre-World Cup friendly versus Austria, Sampson deviated from the tried and true 4-4-2 formation that had served the US well for years, using a 3-6-1 formation to achieve a great result: a 3-0 victory. Buoyed by this success, Sampson relied on the 3-6-1 setup for the Cup itself, with not-so-great results that I need not repeat here.

To be fair, that was not the only reason the US sucked in the 98 World Cup. There was internal team dissension, breakdowns in individual play at key moments (Mike Burns at the near post), and generally getting no breaks (it’s a little-remembered fact that until the Klinsmann goal that gave Germany a 2-0 lead in the first game, we had a few great chances to equalize). Still, Sampson stands as a cautionary example to all USMNT coaches not to change the formation on the eve of the Cup.

That said, I have an idea for how Arena could change the formation on the eve of the Cup that might solve a few of the MNT’s problems. As a background proposition, I think we can all agree that we’re incredibly weak at striker. Right now, there’s Brian McBride, and that’s about it. He’s played great for Fulham so far this year (including goals against Man United and Chelsea), and though his form has cooled off a bit of late, McB still looks like a mortal lock to be in the XI that takes the field in Germany.

Right after him there are Eddie Johnson and Taylor Twellman. EJ appeared to be a mortal lock about a year ago when he couldn’t seem to touch the ball without it ending up in the back of the net. But an intervening injury has raised serious questions about his form, and he’s still got to prove he can score against world class sides instead of Concacaf weaklings. The way he played against Mexico in WCQ and, more recently, Poland doesn’t fill me with confidence. TT has looked great of late, with five goals in his last five games and a goal or an assist in each of them. And while as of now I’d slot him in along McB as our second striker, I’m not sure using a second striker is going to get us very far.

Instead, I want to suggest the following variation: a 4-4-1-1, or one could say, a 4-2-2-1-1. It begins with McBride up top as a pure striker, and LD playing behind him as a withdrawn striker/attacking midfielder. Then there are two wingers out wide: DMB (or Convey?) on the left, and Dempsey on the right. Behind them are two holding/defensive mids: Pablo and Claudio. Finally, a flat back four with Dolo on the right, Eddie Lewis on the left, and Gooch and someone else in the middle.

Why do I like this? Because I’m a sucker for lineups that get our best eleven on the field, and this one does that. My take is that if we don’t have a second striker, then we shouldn’t force an unfit Eddie Johnson or an inadequately skilled Taylor Twellman onto the world stage just because the 4-4-2 is traditionally the US’s best formation. Also, this team is best when attacking and creating off the wings, using speed; Dempsey and DMB/Convey bring that aspect. Of course, against Poland we saw the need for a strong defensive mid to hold the ball and control the pace of the game; considering the quality we’re up against with Italy and the Czechs, we’ll need all the help we can get on that front, so two D-mids should do the trick. Up top, McBride is McBride, and LD seems like an ideal cross between withdrawn forward and A-mid. The former role reflects his ability to score (six goals and six assists for the MNT in 2005, each team leading totals, though I still think he’s only a B+ finisher), and the latter his ability to create and to link the midfield and attack.

Is it implausible to expect Arena to do something this different on the eve of the Cup? Well, for one thing, it’s not that different; it merely requires swapping a forward for a D-mid and then redefining somewhat the A-mid’s role. Also, Bruce has shown some balls when it comes to fielding weird lineups in pressure situations, breaking out a 3-5-2 to confuse the Mexicans in the Round of 16 in 2002. And that of course is the point: whether your use of a novel formation is a brilliant move or a stroke of idiocy basically hinges on what result you get.


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