How Do You Solve a Problem Like Ronaldo?

In truth, for Team U.S.A. that may be the wrong question.


It’s certainly been an interesting first week at the World Cup.  Host Brazil has looked indifferent in their first two matches and clearly isn’t the same sort of star-studded supersquad we’ve seen in the past, but given that every match they play is 14 vs. 11 they’re still heavy favorites.  Germany has looked like the best team in the tournament, but the rest of the European sides have been rather upside-down, with most of the traditional powers unimpressive and upstarts on the rise.  England has played their best World Cup football in many years and been ousted for their trouble, and most shockingly Spain has seen their run atop the football world come to an ignominious end.  Likewise in Latin America there’s been surprising play from unexpected sources while the giants have shown worrying signs.

Primarily, of course, I’m concerned with the fate of Team U.S.A. and Japan.  The latter is pretty much cooked, having played two unimpressive matches in losing to Ivory Coast (blowing a late lead in the process) and especially, in a scoreless tie with a pedestrian Greek squad that was a man down for most of the game.  Japan’s lack of finishing prowess and, frankly, attacking intent was exposed when the Greeks parked the bus and Japan seemed unwilling and unable to shift it.  It didn’t help that star attacking midfielder Kagawa Shinji was inexplicably benched until late in the match – yes he’s having an off year, but the side was clearly far more dangerous after he was on the pitch.  Japan isn’t eliminated but they’re a longshot to advance, and frankly they deserve to be – they’ve been one of the biggest disappointments of the tournament.

The Americans, though, are very much alive – part of a CONCACAF contingent that’s exceeded expectations more than any other federation so far.   Costa Rica has already advanced after two upset wins, and Mexico can do so with a point against a dangerous Croatia squad (or unlikely help).  The Americans have played but one match, but it was a cracker – a thrilling 2-1 win over a Ghana team that dominated the ball for most of the match, avenging losses at the last two World Cups.  The U.S. didn’t play their best game but three points is three points, and with Germany and Portugal awaiting in their “Group of Death” (in truth, the group featuring Spain, Holland and Chile was even tougher) they needed every one of them.  As things stand, thanks to Germany’s 4-0 humiliation of Portugal the U.S. can nearly ensure that they’ll advance with a tie against Portugal on Sunday.

There are problems, however, even above and beyond facing the World’s #4-ranked team and arguably its best player (I’d argue otherwise, for the record).  Striker Jozy Altidore and central defender Matt Besler both injured hamstrings against Ghana.  Besler’s replacement John Brooks scored the huge goal off Graham Zusi’s corner to win the match, but the U.S. was clearly better with Besler in the game – and they’ll need him against Portugal if he can go.  Altidore is definitely out – I’d guess for the tournament – and that leaves coach Juergen Klinsmann with a difficult decision.  He turned to young Icelandic-American striker Aron Johannsson in the Ghana game, but he did little in his time on the pitch.

Altidore is hardly an elite player, but he does offer pace, strength and the ability to control the ball in a way none of his potential replacements can.  This injury, of course, makes the exclusion of Landon Donovan – not to mention Eddie Johnson – from the squad that much more of an issue.  It’s not as though Donovan is the same type of player Altidore is, but inserting him on a wing and using Dempsey as a “False Nine” would probably have been Klinsmann’s best bet.  Johnson, for his part, is another guy who’s scored a ton of goals for the national team and probably comes closest to Altidore’s ability to hold the ball in the opponent’s end.  There are many theories as to why Donovan was excluded – personal bias being the most obvious, and it’s been plausibly suggested that Klinsmann had a secret deal to select 18 year-old Julian Green in exchange for him choosing the U.S. over Germany, or that he was simply bagging the 2014 tournament and trying to build for a more realistic chance in 2018.

I’ve felt from the beginning that Donovan’s exclusion was a mistake, and certainly feel so more than ever now – but that’s water under the bridge, and the question now is how to proceed.  Germany seems likely to beat Ghana, and given Portugal’s hopeless goal-differential problem a tie here would effectively guarantee the US a spot in the Round of 16 if Germany does their part.  Not only that but even if the Americans harbor dreams of winning the group, goal-differential means they’d have to beat Germany in their final game whether they tie or beat Portugal.

So you have a situation that for me is counter-intuitive – the U.S. really has no reason to try and win this game, yet the easiest way for them to lose it would be to sit back, let Portugal control the ball and let Cristiano Ronaldo run at them all night.  The possibility always exists that Portugal could not show up – the team and its star have a history of quitting, Ronaldo is battling tendonitis in his left knee, and after their blitzkrieg at the hands of Germany their mental state is surely on-edge – but while you can certainly try and smack them early, you can’t count on that.  You have to assume Portugal plays with desperation, and if they do they’re going to give you a lot of chances.  They’ll be missing central defender Pepe (red card) and left back Fabio Coentrao (injury).  Their goalkeeper Rui Patricio is shaky, too.  Defensively, this is a team that’s there for the taking – you simply cannot park the bus and hope for the best.

Hopefully, we won’t.  Klinsmann is supremely experienced in the subtleties of World Cup football, and by nature inclined to an attacking style.  The best defense for the U.S. is clearly a good offense, but the question is, what lineup do you use to mount it?  One thing I know – I don’t like Johannsson in the lone striker role.  If Klinsmann intends to keep the same 4-4-2 formation he used against Ghana, with Dempsey as a recessed forward, he’d be better off with MLS star Chris Wondolowski in the lone striker role.  He doesn’t have much in the way of speed or ball skills, but he has a knack for finishing in the area.  Klinsmann could also shift to a 4-5-1, using the same 4 midfielders he did against Ghana and adding Graham Zusi or even set-piece wizard Brad Davis to the starting lineup, leaving Dempsey alone up front and using the extra midfielder to try and keep more possession and slow down Portugal’s attack.

I wouldn’t do any of that, though.  I like Wondolowski as a bench option if you need a goal late, and I don’t like the notion of Dempsey as a lone striker, especially hampered with a broken nose.  I’d keep the same 4-4-2, but switch Dempsey and Johannsson – play Dempsey as the true striker and Johannsson as the withdrawn forward where his ball skills can be of more use.  Johannsson is a young player and finding the role where he’s most comfortable is crucial – and I think this is the most comfortable spot for him right now.  I do believe the U.S. needs Zusi on the pitch, though – he’s inconsistent but a dangerous man on the wing, and pretty solid in set pieces (as witness his corner that set up Brooks’ game-winner against Ghana).  If Zusi does start along with Johannsson, that would likely mean young midfielder Alejandro Bedoya won’t.  He played quite well against Ghana for the most part, but he’s not 100% after tweaking his hip and would likely be subbed out for Zusi at some point in any event.  I’d go with Zusi from the opening bell, though Klinsmann might choose to play both midfielders and use Dempsey as a lone striker.

Of course, probably more important than any of that is Michael Bradley playing much better than he did against Ghana.  He was better than some are saying in that match, but not as dangerous as he normally is, and he’s the key man in setting up the U.S. attack.  But Bradley’s presence is a given – he simply has to produce.  The decision Altidore’s injury forces is the crucial one for Klinsmann, and evidence of what a fascinating strategic puzzle soccer is – there are so many different ways a coach can go in terms of formation and position.  Whatever Klinsmann decides, hopefully the American side will manage to get that crucial point – and in this case, the best way to get it is to play like you need three.

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18 comments

  1. k

    Ahem. Aren't you forgetting Australia in that group of death. While Australia hasn't won a game yet, Australia has out performed Spain.

  2. Yes, the socceroos have played quite well also. I'd still pick Spain on any given day, though.

  3. R

    Yes — there are some surprised turns in the first week. I am rooting for Brazil, but their performance is a little underwhelming. I was a little shocked by Spain's performance — I guess things can change a lot in four years. I really don't know which teams will be the four finalists now, and judging from the first week, I think Germany, France, Netherlands all have a chance, but we never can tell what will come…

  4. r

    Indeed, a lot can change in four years, or even two… The Spanish core has unfortunately lost its potency. The loss of Puyol's leadership and defensive stability was only slightly felt in 2012 because of the talent and cohesion of that team in the Euros, but many things have deteriorated since then. Casillas' troubles over the past two seasons are common knowledge, the lack of a quality striker that led to Costa's naturalization as well and Alonso's lack of mobility has always been an issue, but the crux of the problem lies in Xavi's aging. At the peak of his ability, the Catalan was a fabulous footballer than combined both the sublime vision/passing ability the Spanish are famed for and, most importantly, legs. His mobility was key to the pass-and-move based tiki-taka, and without that mobility in midfield, retaining possession in the opponents' half is very difficult, even with Spain's technical abundance. The beauty of that system (at least in theory, many people get bored from it and I don't blame them) is that tiki-taka is both a defensive (if the opposition can't get to the ball, they can't score) and an offensive tactic (at their apex, Spain could patiently probe around the opposition's penalty box for 90 min, impossible without 1- vision/technique 2- mobility 3- cohesion). Spain lost a lot of #2, so they were forced to drop deeper to avoid getting caught in possession high up the field and being unable to catch up due to their lack of athleticism. That resulted in less cohesive fooball that the players clearly found uncomfortable to express themselves in, a more direct and anarchic style of play that has been put in place since the 2013 Confederations Cup. Ambitious, long balls from deep mean you'll lose possession far more frequently, and both the Netherlands and Chile's intense pressing aggravated the situation. A side that wasn't used to relentlessly stopping their opponents from picking the ball up in the middle of the pitch and ferociously attacking evidently got punished. This is the end of a Spanish generation, but not the end of tiki-taka or Spanish football as a whole. There is a lot of talent under the age of 24, and I can't wait for Thiago and Koke taking over the Spanish midfield.

    My pointless ramblings are almost over.

    On the USMNT's tactics – it ultimately depends on how fit Ronaldo is. The Iberians' raw quality surpasses the Americans' by quite a margin. If Ronaldo is fully fit, pushing up to get a goal is highly dangerous because 1- Moutinho will relish playing the ball into space and 2- Ronaldo will relish getting on the end of that ball. To successfully stifle a fit CR7, you either stick a world-class full-back on him (Ashley Cole in his prime) or you double-team, or even triple-team him (what the USA will likely do). Obviously, if the Ballon D'Or is unfit, playing proactively would be a very effective gameplan. I wonder what Klinsmann is going to do. Maybe play a proactive game in the opening minutes to rattle the Portuguese midfield, see how fit Ronaldo is? If he's unfit, they keep the pressing game until they score; if he's fit and the USA haven't conceded by the 20 min mark, they drop back, form 2 banks of four and decide to rely on Bradley's all-round game, Zusi's running+crossing and Dempsey's improvisation on the counter?

    Whatever the tactic, it's going to be omoshiroi.

    Good to see you writing about football from time to time Enzo, read your posts back in 2010 and was impressed. Impressed today as well.

    Otsukaresama deshita!

  5. T

    Enzo – I had no idea you were this into soccer. Excellent analysis! I wholeheartedly agree. The Altidore lose was huge. Your suggestions for compensating for it though are right on the money.

    It will be a huge game. I hope everyone here will be able to watch it.

  6. Z

    Deutschland all the way.

  7. Germany didn't do anything to help our chances by failing to beat Ghana (and allowing two goals to boot). A tie against Portugal is still probably good enough, but you better try and score at least a goal against that iffy backline, preferably two.

  8. f

    i have no idea you're also a football fan, and one that does understand the game and not interested in football because of the world cup, you've written a pretty good insight about the world cup

  9. f

    btw i doubt japan will qualify through the group now, because they need to win against colombia to do that, unfortunately for japan colombia has been very impressive with their attractive display style of play. i seriously doubt japan will qualify now, although their fans has been making headlines because after the game they cleaned the stadium, respect to that wonderful attitude of the japanese fans

  10. As I said in the post, I'm pretty convinced Japan is done. Given the unlikelihood that they both beat Columbia and get extensive help, they're cooked.

    Rumor mill says Wondo gets the start – we'll see. Not the direction I'd go, but Jurgen is the one who has to answer either way.

  11. m

    Wow!! that goal in the last minute ….it's good to read your posts about anime and now about soccer. Greetings from Costa Rica …

  12. That was an absolute heartbreaker. Needed a point, but a tough way to finish. Have to take care of business now, or hope Portugal shows up on Friday. Better a 2-2 draw than scoreless, at least.

  13. m

    At the beginning of the weekend if someone had said, "Ghana will tie Germany and the US will tie Portugal and both team's players will look miserable after" I would've thought they were absolutely crazy. It's funny how before Germany blew it against Ghana everyone was saying that tying Portugal would be the best thing ever, but after their tie and the US's blowing of their win, everything seems so different. Bradley is playing the worst soccer of his life right now and it's killing us. He had at least 3 missed shots (1 luckily was deflected and lead to Dempsey's score), a bunch of awful passes, and the giveaway that lead to the tying goal. If he's supposed to be the one who all offensive play flows through then we're in a lot of trouble. Howard slipped on the first goal, which was going in anyway, but had arguably the best save in the last 10 years. Not to mention the blatant Portugal offside that he saved anyway against a 4 on 0.

    We aren't in bad shape by any means though. Germany tying hurts us way more than us not winning. I know that sounds weird since we would've qualified if we won, but if Portugal/Ghana tie we automatically make it, if we tie Germany we make it, and if Portugal wins and we lose. we'd have to give up our 5 goal differential lead on them. If Ghana wins and we lose then its tricky bc if we lose by 1 and they win by 1 we have the same GD and it goes to goals scored overall I believe, but if we lose by 2 or they win by 2 in that scenario it's Ghana who advance. US Win/Tie and in, Portugal/Ghana tie we're in, Portugal win and were prob in. As long as Ghana doesn't win we should be fine.

  14. I don't know how you can say that Germany draw hurt us more than not winning – if we'd won we were in.

    Basically, we have to avoid losing by more than a goal or Ghana winning by more than a goal. Or losing by one and their winning by one, but outscoring us by more than one goal.

    It would be nice to win the group and avoid Belgium, but if you have to play a group winner in the Round of 16 you could do worse.

  15. m

    Haha I know it sounds crazy, but I'm saying Ghana tying Germany did more to screw up our chances of getting through the group stage overall. We went into the weekend with all this talk of how tying would be huge for us, and Germany tying made tying Portugal no longer an essentially guaranteed entry to the next round. Us tying Portugal did nothing to lower our chances from where they were entering the weekend, it just prolonged the result an extra week. Yeah we missed out on clinching, but my point is Germany tying made is so we almost had to win against Portugal instead of just tie.

  16. m

    If you look at the result as starting from extra time, or even from our 2nd goal that was worse, but the game started at 0-0 without the US being expected to win. With that in mind tying was a positive outcome, Ghana tying was only a negative outcome.
    Belgium is a decent team, though untested and playing relatively poorly against mediocre competition so far, but you're right that it could be much worse.

  17. If Joachim Low wants to pull a 1982 or a 2004 "Nordic Victory" scenario, Jurgen should say "Danke schoen" and gladly take 2nd place in the group. I just think Germany has too much pride to park the bus when they're the better team, and unless we show enough teeth to make them feel like they have be cautious, they'll feel free to swam the barricades.

    The best thing in the world would be to see Portugal score early like they did today.

  18. m

    I agree completely that Portugal needs to strike early. Ghana is a young team (the youngest in the WC at ave age of 24) and don't have the mettle to deal with an early score in an absolute must win game the way a more mature team does. They did tie us, but it wasn't as must win and they also showed signs of losing their cool with bad penalties. Also they blew their lead on Germany and I think the pressure of being winless and needing to make up GD/GS will hurt them against a Portugal team that's more experienced and who has basically nothing to lose at this point. They need to score early and often in order to advance and likely will not be playing a safe game at all.

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