So many games I want to cover in the last two days, but with the US playing Belgium this afternoon, it seems like a good time to catch up on game reports from their group stage games. The US outperformed my pessimistic expectations for the group, so I’m now cautiously optimistic against a dangerously talented but underperforming Belgian squad.
United States 2, Portugal 2
Portugal remained in their expected 4-3-3, but Paulo Bento’s team was ravaged by injuries and suspensions, particularly at the back. André Almeida and Ricardo Costa filled in for the injured Fábio Coentrão and suspended Pepe, while Bruno Alves played at less than full fitness, as did Cristiano Ronaldo. Hélder Postiga also replaced the injured Hugo Almeida, only to himself get injured and be replaced at 16′ by Éder. At half time, Bento moved defensive midfielder Miguel Veloso to left back, removing André Almeida to introduce William Carvalho into a flatter midfield three (rather than the more conventional triangle). After the first US goal, Silvestre Varela replaced Raul Meireles, effectively filling the space vacated by Ronaldo on the left as he drove inside.
Jozy Altidore’s injury apparently spelled the end for Klinsmann’s 4-4-2, or at any rate the midfield diamond that was supposed to give Bradley freedom to attack the opposition. Without a second target man amongst his forward options, Klinsmann instead opted for a defensive 4-2-3-1, leaving Clint Dempsey alone up top and bringing in Graham Zusi on the right (with Alejandro Bedoya shifting left) to allow Jermaine Jones to drop back alongside Kyle Beckerman–at least in theory. Jones also moved over to the right of Beckerman (he had been left in the previous game), and Michael Cox is probably right that the reason was to allow him to provide defensive support against Ronaldo. But in practice Jones pushed forward at every chance, effectively shifting the US into a 4-3-3 when in attack, and on the balance of play this was probably a more accurate description of the US shape.
Performances to Consider
Ricardo Costa (Por) – The 33 year-old Costa did an admirable job filling in for the suspended Pepe. His highlight reel moment was clearing Michael Bradley’s shot off the line, but his all-around play was very strong considering the pressure coming down the US’s right flank and the poor performances from both André Almeida and Miguel Veloso at left back. Costa was frequently tested, and led Portugal in most defensive categories (interceptions and tackles being the exceptions).
Silvestre Varela (Por) – Cristiano Ronaldo deserves the lion’s share of the credit for Portugal’s late goal, delivering one of the assists of the tournament to (briefly) stave off elimination. True, Varela’s finish was nothing to sneeze at. But mainly I’ve included him as an excuse to show off his super-sub goal against Denmark in Euro 2012, also a last-minute goal to keep Portugal’s tournament hopes alive. Enjoy.
Jermaine Jones (US) – This game made clear that Jermaine Jones is both the US’s best and its most important player. While Michael Bradley was slightly more fluent than against Ghana, Jones was the player who linked defense and offense. Jones did an excellent job of shuttling in the game, and his interaction with Fabian Johnson and Graham Zusi down the right flank was central to the US attack independent of his blistering equalizer. Like Bradley, Jones is a critical two-way player for the US, and he has demonstrably proven his critics wrong in the group stage games.
United States 0, Germany 1
Jogi Löw retained the 4-3-3 Germany had used in both of its previous group matches, but Bastian Schweinsteiger came in for Sami Khedira and Lukas Podolski for Mario Götze (the latter was surely a matter of rotation, while the former may have been a reflection on Khedira’s sub-par performances). A measure of the US success in this game–notwithstanding the jokes of Stephen Colbert and others–is that Löw felt compelled to bring on Miroslav Klose to start the second half in place of Lukas Podolski, Mesut Özil moving to the left and Thomas Müller to the right. Following Müller’s 55′ goal, they shifted into something more like a 4-2-3-1, with Bastian Schweinsteiger moving into a central role significantly ahead of Toni Kroos and Philipp Lahm. Germany retained this shape through their late game substitutions, and used the same 4-2-3-1 in against Algeria in the Round of Sixteen (though with changes to the back four enforced by the illness of Mats Hummels).
The United States were unambiguously in a 4-3-3 for this game, with Jermaine Jones actually positioned further up the pitch than Michael Bradley, a clear sign that Klinsmann was happy with the previous game’s experiment. Brad Davis saw his first action in this World Cup, starting ahead of Alejandro Bedoya.
Performances to Consider
Brad Davis (US) – Davis’s inclusion was a big surprise, especially in a game where you might have expected the US to try and bunker in so as to avoid a tournament-ending blowout. Probably, he was introduced with an eye to set pieces, for which he can offer a deadly left-footed delivery. But at 32, he is a defensive liability, as was demonstrated by Klinsmann’s struggle to find an effective on-field position for him. Though he started on his more natural left side, Davis swapped flanks with Graham Zusi after only 18′, presumably so that Zusi could provide more defensive cover for DaMarcus Beasley (Fabian Johnson had Jermaine Jones for protection, and was also ably employing his own “a good offense” defense). Davis returned to the left flank to start the second half, and within 10′ Germany had scored. 4′ later, Davis was off, replaced by Bedoya. While Davis probably wasn’t responsible for that goal, it’s clear that Klinsmann thought his team needed something more. With the likely return of Jozy Altidore likely pushing Dempsey into a midfield position, Davis would have been hard-pressed to find a place against Belgium regardless; but this performance didn’t do him any favors.
Pitch Invader (Ger?) – Germany took a decisive lead in the number of pitch invasions this World Cup, boasting their second invader in a row. At least this one wasn’t a Nazi. He just wanted, you know, to lay some skin on Thomas Müller, and who can really blame him? (Click on image below for link to this and other images from the game.)
Omar González (US) – González has looked very suspect, both for club this past season and for country in recent qualification games, and he did open the day with an embarrassing whiffed clearance attempt. But on the whole he had an excellent game, and was surely one of the reasons the US was able to stay in the game with Germany. This is potentially evidence in favor of Klinsmann’s “no spot is safe” philosophy, as González certainly looked like a player fighting to make a case for himself–in the best possible way. Klinsmann now has a tough decision to make at right back, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Michael Bradley (US) – Michael Bradley, of course, is the main question for anyone who has been following the United States this tournament. If Jones has taken the mantle as the US’s most important player, there’s still no question that Bradley needs to do better if the US hopes to advance. While the idea of replacing Bradley with Mix Diskerud has tantalizing offensive possibilities, it’s important to note that Bradley is still performing a vital defensive role for his team that couldn’t be replicated by any replacement (other than Jones, but he’s already on the pitch). It’s not clear that Bradley can continue to perform that degree of defensive work–Bradley has run further than anyone in the tournament thus far–while still producing effectively in the final third. But it’s also not clear that the team can afford to lose his defensive input. Perhaps we can hope that Bradley’s performance in Recife was made worse by the 10 hour rain during which the game was played, and that more hospitable conditions may produce a more favorable outcome.