Jurgen Klinsmann named an unchanged lineup to the team that lost to Colombia, but made a couple of tweaks to the strategy from the start. DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson had more attacking responsibilities on the flanks to provide more width for offensive plays. Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya's roles were also different with them expected to balance their duties between dropping deeper to cover the spaces left behind by the overlapping fullbacks in an attempt to cede possession and play through counters by attacking the spaces that the opponents create by pushing men forward when in possession. Unlike against Colombia, the plan here was to mix it between possession and counter attacking and to try and bring the opposition out of their shell as they looked for the best possible ways to break them down.
Costa Rica continued with their 5-2-2-1 set up from the draw with Paraguay and named just two changes, both forced, with Francisco Calvo and Christian Bolanos coming in for the suspended Kendall Waston and injured Yeltsin Tejeda. As usual they were set up to play on the counter with the two wingbacks, Cristian Gamboa and Ronaldo Matarrita, crucial to this system because of the responsibilities they have in pushing the team forward by providing attacking width and acting as an extra supporting cast for an already well organized, compact defensive structure. They looked to the likes of Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz for goals and creativity on counters as they offer a mix of pace, dribbling, and shooting abilities when played through in space and were looking to, along with Marco Urena, get in behind the US defense whenever possible, especially if they were pushed higher up as in the first game.
U.S. Improved Defensive Organization, Costa Rica's Attacking Struggles
The early goal via a Clint Dempsey penalty certainly made a difference to the game, but what happened afterwards was something not many could have expected. Instead of continuing to play the possession style that the U.S. has adopted under Klinsmann over the last couple of years, the team instead dropped deep in numbers and got behind the ball with the 4-3-3 formation turning into a 4-5-1 when not in possession.
Wood and Zardes also withdrew into wide midfield roles to support Yedlin and Johnson defensively and leave Costa Rica with few options to attack through the wings, although the Central Americans didn't help themselves much by leaving an empty right flank and positioning most of their front players in central areas, which the U.S. already had covered well.
This is an example of how that looked on both sides' part:
There was also a slight alteration of that strategy with the deployment of a single man press with Jermaine Jones moving up from his midfield position in an attempt to hassle the Costa Ricans in possession and win the ball high up the pitch to initiate counters for his team. This meant that Bedoya had to move deeper and Michael Bradley had to slide across to cover Jones' absence in defensive transitions and with Zardes and Wood still supporting defensively out wide, this formed a 4-4-1-1 formation in these situations.
Here's an example of how this was executed:
Jermaine Jones didn't have the most impressive game against Colombia on or off the ball, but was tasked with several different duties in this match and was arguably the most important player in the U.S. team in trying to make this approach work. And he did an excellent job of that throughout the game and deservedly received plaudits afterwards, as well as the man of the match award.
More Space, More Chances to Score
With most of the team dropping deep and a single man pressing strategy being put in place, along with Jones being in inspirational form which certainly helped, this opened up possibilities for the U.S. to win balls further up the pitch and execute fast paced counters with several Costa Rican players moving forward. Whenever Jones won the ball as a result of his pressing, this allowed the two wide forwards and Dempsey to make runs off the ball into the open spaces in behind their defense and bypass their midfield in the process while their wingbacks were still positioned higher up. This exposed the flaws in their system, in particular how the 3-v-2 disadvantage they had to cope with in midfield and once they got past the pair of Bolanos and Borges, the options were endless.
Here is an example of that in the play before Jones' goal:
And another one in a play just moments before substitute Graham Zusi's goal:
So in comparison to the Colombia game where the U.S. huffed and puffed with plenty of possession but didn't get anywhere near breaking the South Americans down aside from set plays, they fared far better this time around with a different approach to the game. The idea to drop deep, press high, and win balls further up the pitch was an effective strategy that paid dividends both offensively through counters and defensively with better organization. The early penalty did change the game and tilted it in the U.S.' favor but the differences between the first game and this one was like night and day.
Although Costa Rica isn't on Colombia's level individual quality wise and aren't quite the team they were in Brazil anymore, this is the most conclusive proof yet that if Klinsmann is going to get the best out of this USMNT, it's going to be through defending, pressing, and counter attacking, just as two summers ago, and not through trying to force a possession based style that doesn't suit the players at his disposal. Whether he'll continue with this strategy or change things up again as he often does, now, remains to be seen.