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USA vs. Paraguay, Copa America 2016: Tactical Breakdown and Analysis

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A tight victory, along with events elsewhere, unexpectedly saw the USMNT win Group A.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Starting Systems

For the third game running, Jurgen Klinsmann named the same starting eleven for the USMNT but once again, just as against Costa Rica last time out, he made a slight alteration to the way the team was tactically set up to tackle on their latest opponent, Paraguay. Instead of continuing with the 4-3-3 that we saw in the first two outings of the tournament, he changed the formation to 4-4-2 with Gyasi Zardes playing more withdrawn as a wide midfielder rather than as a forward and Alejandro Bedoya moving over to the left side of midfield, allowing Bobby Wood to move in and play in his natural centerforward position alongside Clint Dempsey. The change wasn't entirely new, given that Klinsmann had already tried it out for long periods of the Costa Rica game, mainly for counterattacking and transitional plays which is the approach that the team adopted for this match as well from the get-go.

The 4-4-2 setup may also have had something to do with creating an attempt to cancel out the Paraguayans as that is their standard formation under Argentine manager Ramon Diaz, The South Americans made several changes to the side that lost narrowly to Colombia last Tuesday with Antonio Sanabria coming in for Edgar Benitez to partner Dario Lezcano up top, Victor Ayala and Derlis Gonzalez replacing Robert Piris and the suspended Oscar Romero in midfield, and Fabian Balbuena taking Bruno Valdez's place in defense with long-time servant Paulo da Silva moving to right-back. Paraguay went into this one knowing they had to win to have any chance of progressing and their physical, direct approach was expected to be a stern test for this USMNT on paper prior to kick-off.

Two Banks of Four, Defensively Compact

With the 4-4-2 v 4-4-2 battle, most believed that it'd be a close battle between the two sides as far as possession and attacking intent was concerned but from the very beginning of the match, it was clear that Paraguay were the team that wanted to keep the ball at their feet more with the USMNT feeling happy to just cede possession and play on the counterattack, which worked out well in the last game. Paraguay were the ones who had to win while the U.S. only needed a draw so that was an understandable, evident development as the game wore on.

This meant that the U.S. had to emphasize their defensive structure and organization over their attacking plan if they were going to make their approach successful and get the result that they were looking for to advance. So by playing 4-4-2, they relied on the defense staying tight and compact to one another with Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones screening in front of them to close down the central areas while Zardes and Bedoya were tasked with dropping deep into their half to protect DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson and avoid the possibility of Paraguay outnumbering them with 2v1 wide direct and vertical attacks.

The midfield was also tasked with pressing the players in front on the ball in an organized manner in hopes of winning the ball back as seen here:

So the U.S. midfield withdrew themselves from playing more advanced and sat deep in order to help the defense which created two banks of four and made them tougher to break down, especially for a Paraguay team lacking in creativity and technical quality. While the central areas were very difficult to find success in with the number of U.S. bodies there, there were still some holes that could have been exploited with more runs in behind the fullbacks from the Paraguayan wide players due to the USMNT's narrow, compact setup, but they failed to take advantage of that with their wingers cutting more inside and their own fullbacks not getting on the overlap as much as they needed to which made it easier for the U.S. to defend against.

The U.S. always had at least seven or eight players behind the ball in Paraguayan attacks that were built up from the pack and the two banks of four were positioned well, either horizontally or diagonally as this picture shows on one of Paraguay's attacks through the left side:

Improved Transitional Defending from U.S.

During the Colombia game, we saw how unbalanced the left side of the USMNT lineup was and how many numerical advantages the Colombians had against Johnson who was often stranded alone down the flank with little defensive support coming from Jones and Wood, mainly in transitional situations. Klinsmann has clearly identified the problems well from that game and found a way to adjust the system to create a better balance not only defensively, but transitionally as well.

With Bradley and Jones, both very capable players with or without the ball, marshaling the central midfield, the 4-4-2 allows Bedoya and Zardes to be pushed out wide and focus on helping the fullbacks defend the flanks as well as being supported by them going forward too. Whenever the two wide players did go forward and Paraguay managed to win the ball back in their own half to initiate a counter, Bradley and Jones left their central posts to move out wide and avert any danger down the flanks, depending on which side the counterattack was going and how they needed to shift themselves accordingly to deal with it.

Here's a good example of that with Bedoya and Zardes coming in late from behind but Jones and Bradley already recognizing the danger early and moving closer to the player on the ball that's leading the counter in order to try and kill it.

In this situation, the player on the ball can either make a early through ball into the striker who's occupying the half space between John Brooks, who likely would have stopped him in the form that he was in, and Johnson or he can attempt to run down the flank and send a cross into the box. Either option though is a risky one and with the U.S. well positioned here, it would have been difficult to create a chance out of it for the South Americans. The only other option for the player was to turn backwards and pass it back if he didn't feel confident enough in taking one of those risks in hope of success and that's exactly what he did, which only allowed more U.S. players to get back and resettle into their regular defensive shape. Much better than what we saw before.

U.S. Adjustments Following Yedlin Dismissal

The DeAndre Yedlin red card early in the second half was the one black mark on proceedings for the USMNT and it left them down a man for nearly the entirety of the second period having to defend against a Paraguay team already behind and in need of cranking up the pressure even further. Immediately after his sending off, Klinsmann made a change and brought on deputy Michael Orozco for Clint Dempsey and pushed him into the vacant right-back position. This turned the formation into a 4-4-1 with Wood holding the fort up top on his own and him solely in charge of holding balls up and using his pace for any potential counterattacking opportunities.

Although they had lost a man, the U.S. didn't seem to budge too much tactically with things largely remaining the way they were in the first half, as evidenced in this picture below with the two banks of four again positioning themselves the way the ball was facing, horizontally here:

Conclusion

Some strong individual performances from players like Brad Guzan, Brooks, and Bedoya were the key to the victory here thanks to their brilliant efforts in defense throughout the evening, but tactically the team has shown gradual progression even though there are still some clear weaknesses and kinks to work out on both sides of the ball. Paraguay didn't manage to exploit them well here, but better teams remaining in this competition may well do so, especially one that emphasizes wide play, like the USMNT's next opponents, Ecuador.

Throughout the group stage, the U.S. has played against three different opponents with three different tactical setups. While they didn't fare well against the asymmetrical 4-2-3-1 compact, counterattacking style of Colombia, the switch to more of a counter approach themselves did see them overcome the Costa Ricans' 5-2-2-1 and Paraguay's 4-4-2 by beating them at their own game. It's clear now that the 4-4-2 formation, which is also capable of turning into numerous different systems like 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, and 4-4-1-1 with the versatility available on the pitch, is the template for the rest of this Copa America as the two last games have shown.  The U.S. are having success with it and starting to look more like a cohesive unit again now for the first time in at least a year and now the target will be to first meet their pre-tournament goal of making it to the semifinals and from there, who knows what could happen.