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

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A comprehensive defeat which brought the USMNT's Copa ambitions to an abrupt end.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Starting Systems

Jurgen Klinsmann was forced to change his lineup from the quarterfinal win over Ecuador with the trio of Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya, and Bobby Wood, all of whom had been important in one way or another to this run to the semifinals, suspended. While DeAndre Yedlin was once again available having served his own one-match suspension last time out. Klinsmann decided to keep the 4-4-2 formation as his template and made the expected changes of Yedlin and Graham Zusi coming in for Matt Besler and Bedoya while Kyle Beckerman and Chris Wondolowski were selected over the likes of Perry Kitchen, Darlington Nagbe, and Christian Pulisic to replace Jones and Wood. The plan was clearly once again for the team to drop deep and try to catch out Argentina on rare counter opportunities, mainly through Bradley, Zardes, and Dempsey who needed to have big nights if the U.S. were to pose an attacking threat in the absence of the suspended players.

Gerardo 'Tata' Martino fielded the same Argentinean side that disposed of Venezuela in the last round sans Nicolas Gaitan, who was also suspended, with Ezequiel Lavezzi coming into his place. Their plan was as usual under Martino, to control possession of the ball and make it count by opening the pitch up to attack both vertically and centrally. Fullbacks Gabriel Mercado and Marcos Rojo were tasked with providing the vertical options while Lionel Messi and Lavezzi tucked inside from the wings not only to leave the wide spaces for them, but to help the midfield maintain possession and aid Argentina in numerically dominating the central areas of the pitch.

Bad Early Set Piece Defending

A big moment occurred early on in the game that may have changed everything and set the U.S. well on their way to an awful night where nothing fell in their favor. The moment in question is of course Ezequiel Lavezzi's opener inside the first three minutes where a poorly defended set piece led to an early conceded goal that the U.S. never recovered from, much like the Colombia match in the opening game of the tournament.

Lavezzi himself took a quick short corner from the left side with Marcos Rojo nearby while Zusi and Fabian Johnson were close by as well, defending them after spotting the danger early enough to get in position in time to avert the threat. Here's how things looked at this point:

Then, less than five seconds and a Lionel Messi chip pass later:

Zusi and Johnson made the mistake of tucking inside to try and limit the space for Messi to take a shot from the edge of the penalty area, but quick thinking and a well executed pass from Leo, which are two of his strongest suits as a player, allowed his team to exploit the space left behind by those two. Rojo and Lavezzi were both in wide open positions as a result of continuing their runs into the box. Either of them could have ended up scoring here, eventually it was Lavezzi who was closer to goal who got on the end of it and put it away with his head, although Brad Guzan's goalkeeping here was suspect to say the least. He came off his line and stopped halfway through his charge, which gave Lavezzi an easier task of just heading the ball over him and into the net, which he duly did.

Basically, just a very poor goal all-round to concede so early into a game in which the U.S. was already a major underdog and from here, it was clear that there was only ever going to be one winner on the night.

U.S.' Midfield and Pressing Problems

Aside from the early goal and the fact that Argentina was just a superior team in many ways, Klinsmann and the USMNT didn't help themselves with the poor structure of their playing system and lineup. Obviously Lavezzi's early header had a lot to do with that, but the response to conceding after just three minutes was a disappointing one from all those involved with the U.S. Instead of staying true to the way of playing that had gotten them this far in the first place, the U.S. abandoned their strategy and opted for more of a counter-pressing approach which was evident from the moment that they went down that route that they were not suited or well drilled to play such a style.

Take this image for example:

Klinsmann set the team up in a 4-4-2 formation for this game for a reason; to continue the good work from the previous three games and with the same approach. But as soon as the U.S. conceded, they tried to alter their approach by pressing higher up from the front and trying to win balls back, which they clearly were not prepared well enough to do and this resulted in a big disconnect between the midfield and the defense, as displayed above. Given that they were already outnumbered by Argentina in midfield, trying to press high with their flat midfield four was a bad error of misjudgment and this resulted in plenty of spaces opening up for Argentina to punish them on the flanks and through the middle, so long as they could bypass the U.S. midfield which they usually did.

Another change we saw from the previous games was the compactness and narrowness of the team who focused more on defending the central areas than the flanks as against Ecuador and Paraguay, most probably as an attempt to compensate for the numerical inferiority to the Argentines in midfield. Instilling a pressing strategy that involved their whole midfield had already rendered this a , but by tucking their wide players inside to defend and play this way, this played into Argentina's hands with Gabriel Mercado and Rojo pushing up high and wide to exploit the deficiencies in the U.S.' defensive set up.

Here's how that looked:

As pointed out in the last analysis on the Ecuador game, the U.S. did a good job of defending the flanks by focusing their efforts on stopping their most influential players in those areas but here they tried to go for a different approach which backfired completely. Martino is a manager who is known for his use of verticality in attack as he likes to spread the play and use the wide players when going forward, which also helps his teams keep possession more frequently in the process as by pushing the fullbacks up, they take attention from the wingers who drop deeper to defend against them and this leaves the opposition with less players forward and minimal possibilities to initiate counterattacks without losing the ball to a packed midfield of players hungry to win the ball back. The U.S. neither defended the flanks well nor did their compactness and pressing work as they were clearly technically and numerically inferior in the central positions. They just fell into Argentina's trap and it was a tactical disaster to watch.

While the U.S.' defensive failures have already been well broadcast in this article already, there were also clear flaws in the team's offensive game in the rare opportunities they got to build up play from the back or initiate a counterattack. This is one of the few situations they got an opportunity to do the latter and this is how it looked:

Beckerman had the ball at his feet and took a couple of seconds to look around and decide who he was going to pass the ball to but, with no one available that had at least a few yards of space to run into, he took the safe route and passed to Bradley who gave the ball away and Argentina formulated a counter of much higher quality of their own. While Argentina's defensive positioning here should be noted as good, the U.S.' offensive spacing is not. Three of the midfielders are too close to each other which allowed Argentina to just cover that zone with players and make it difficult for the U.S. to get past them, while the forwards are too far apart and Zardes is alone on the other side up against Rojo with no support or chance of receiving the ball in that position.

The failures of the team as a whole were easy to spot throughout the entire 90 minutes, but the U.S. really let themselves down by trying to play in a way that they cannot or at least weren't ready enough to and this was most probably the most directly contributive reason for the one-sidedness of this match throughout. Not because the U.S. has no quality or is not competitive enough to give a team like Argentina a hard time, but because they abandoned their previously successful approach and tried to play something that they were not drilled well enough to do, causing disconnects in partnerships and destroying any chemistry they had prior in the process. They didn't play to their strengths and were ruthlessly punished as a result.

Conclusion

Overall, it was just an awful performance in almost every facet of play possible from the USMNT. The early goal was a big blow and led to a quick change of strategy from the U.S. that didn't really suit them well and wasn't something that they prepared for well enough to try out in a game like this, but the reality was that the U.S. were just second best in everything and were deservedly comprehensively beaten on the night. Add in the fact that the team abandoned the approach that got them here, which was the biggest disappointment of the match, and you have yourself a recipe for disaster.

As bad as the result was, the manner of the defeat was the most worrying aspect from a USMNT perspective as the hosts didn't come anywhere near troubling Sergio Romero's goal, neither from open play nor even from set pieces. Argentina were in control of proceedings and dominated the match from start to finish in as comfortable a knockout match as you'll ever see. The absences of Jones, Bedoya, and Wood didn't help the U.S. one bit in preparing for this game, nor did the shock of conceding early, but falling way short in every department was unacceptable from a USMNT perspective, regardless of Argentina's quality, and this will go down as one of the worst competitive showings in the modern era to date from any assembled U.S. squad.