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

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Not the best of starts for the USMNT to Copa America Centenario. We review why things went wrong.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Starting Systems

Jurgen Klinsmann set out his team with a 4-3-3 formation. DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson were the fullbacks whose roles were to neutralize Colombia's wide threats and run up and down the flanks in support of the attack. Michael Bradley started once again as a #6 where he's excelled lately for club and country with Alejandro Bedoya and Jermaine Jones on either side of him expected to help the defense when necessary and carry the ball forward when opportunities to do so presented themselves. Gyasi Zardes and Bobby Wood played on either side of Clint Dempsey, who was the focal point of the attack albeit more withdrawn than a natural centerforward should be. The front three was expected to variate between playing closer in and the two wide men tucking inside to make run for the overlaps of the two offensive fullbacks as well as utilizing the pace of Zardes and persistency of Wood who is always looking to either shoot or combine with others when he gets on the ball.

Colombia, on the other hand, came out in an asymmetrical 4-2-3-1 formation with star man James Rodriguez, who carries most of the team's creative load, playing closer to the right next to Juan Cuadrado with Edwin Cardona used as an inside left winger on the other side, while Santiago Arias and Farid Diaz acted as supporting fullbacks but not often as an attempt to not tinker too much with the initial shape and disturb the defensive compactness of the team. Sebastian Perez and Daniel Torres were the screening holding midfielders whose jobs were to sit in front of the defense and kill U.S. attacks higher up the pitch before they could get into their defensive third. Carlos Bacca up front was the main guy in attack and his role was to move from side to side and get in behind the U.S. defense early with smart, well timed runs, especially in transitional plays.

U.S. Lack of Balance and Weaknesses on Left Side

This was a major talking point before the tournament started and after this game, it's possibly become an even bigger one. Fabian Johnson, coming off his best career season in Europe playing as a left winger and attacking wingback for his German club Borussia Monchengladbach, started at leftback as expected and with him being an offensive minded player first and foremost, this was perceived to be a weak point in the U.S. lineup, much like it was two years ago with DaMarcus Beasley, who's also an attacking player, in the team there.

On top of that, Klinsmann chose to go with a left side that had Jermaine Jones, an offensive minded midfielder who's currently enjoying his career best attacking form playing as a #10 for his club, and Bobby Wood, a natural center forward, playing as left central midfielder and left winger respectively. This of course meant that every single player operating on that flank for the USMNT was playing out of their best positions.

This rendered the left side of the team a weakness given the lack of coordination and to an extent a certain level of unfamiliarity with those playing out of position, although each of them have had handfuls of games in their respective roles for the USMNT before, and this was perceived to be an easy target for a Colombia side whose strength was on their right with players like James Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado, and Santiago Arias attacking down that flank.

With Jones and Wood not putting the defensive work as expected given their weaknesses in that area, this often left Johnson isolated against anywhere from one to three Colombian players on his side for almost the entirety of the game. While the right side was faring better in comparison with harder working players like Gyasi Zardes and Alejandro Bedoya tracking back to help out Yedlin, there was a serious imbalance taking place on the other flank and little was done to address the matter at any point in the match. Johnson was usually left alone in situations like the one below at several points throughout the 90 minutes:

For some reason though, Colombia did not opt to overload that side even though our best attacking weapons were always around in those areas. They looked more towards feeding early balls in behind the U.S. defense for Bacca to latch onto or spraying it quickly to the other side where Cardona was finding pockets and exploiting half spaces between the defenders instead of directly focusing on the U.S. left side, which was easily the most vulnerable. Perhaps the fact that they had a lead to protect from early on in the game had something to do with that, but it's still strange that they ignored attacking that flank as much as they could have done with the vast amount of spaces available there.

Although Colombia may not have made the most of the USMNT's deficit down that side, there will eventually come a team in this Copa America that will look to do just that and if Klinsmann doesn't figure out a way to plug those holes and balance things out defensively better, the U.S. could be in for a whole lot of trouble in the coming games.

U.S. Lack of Offensive Depth and Width; Impressive Colombian Defensive Organization

The central midfield trio of Bradley, Jones, and Bedoya were supposed to be the base of the American attack and each of the roles were fairly simplified. Bradley would act as the composed deep lying playmaker initiating attacks with his passes while Bedoya and Jones were expected to lead the way with charges forward whenever they could out-battle and bypass the pair of Daniel Torres and Sebastian Perez in midfield.

For this approach to work and lead to functional, regular attacks for the U.S., spacing would be key and the two central midfielders (Jones and Bedoya) would need to play wider and spread apart farther from each other in an attempt to exploit spaces themselves or drag opposing players out of position to open up room for teammates to run into. In the picture below, it's evident that neither of these two things happened.

Further up front, Zardes and Wood would occasionally be asked to drift out wide in order to create options for attacking through the flanks but they were often played more inverted and tucked inside which, presumably, was a ploy to leave those spaces for the fullbacks to overlap into. With that not happening nearly as much as it should have, this meant that the approach to play a centralized front trio had backfired and failed to make use of the skillset of each of the players making up that attack. Wood's finishing abilities didn't come into action this way, Zardes' pace was rarely used in good situations, and Dempsey, who is more of a false 9 than a true striker, didn't have the space in front of him to attack and find success because the attack was so narrow and congested for it to have any coherence or plan for it to work well. As Grant Wahl pointed out well on Twitter during the game, playing the three of them in the same attack takes away what each of them do so well and it once again backfired in an important game for the U.S.

Here's a good example of the attacking problems the team had on Friday night:

Here in this photo, you can see all the issues going forward in one simple picture. The fullbacks, especially Yedlin, are positioned far too deep to make any sort of foray down the flank and create some width in the play, the midfielders are too disconnected and unorganized as far as conjuring up attacks go, and the front three are tucked so far inside that the Colombian back four can take care of each of them on their own, without any necessary help from the midfielders in front of them. There isn't a single player occupying a position where they could receive the ball in space and create an attack out of a play, no one is making any runs or movements off the ball to tilt the offensive situation in the team's favor, and there is very little depth or width with everyone playing so tight and close to one another in all three thirds of the pitch. And it was like this for almost the entire game with the only meaningful chances that the U.S. mustered up coming from direct freekicks and corners.

Although it's easy to criticize the U.S. for a poorly executed attacking plan, which they deserve on the basis of this performance, it'd be just harsh not to give some credit to Colombia who were well drilled and structured at the back throughout the game. Their starting 4-2-3-1 formation turned into a 4-4-1-1/4-5-1 whenever they weren't in possession (as shown in the photo above) with the offensive players dropping deeper to support the team defensively and men getting behind the ball. Their discipline and defensive commitment on the day would have been a tough nut to crack even with a better offensive plan from the USMNT, but as things played out, they were rarely stretched at any point in juncture and a lot of that is owed to the steady concentration levels, work rate, and good positional abilities of their whole team.

U.S. Second Half Changes and Conclusion

Klinsmann originally continued with the same 4-3-3 shape at the start of the second half but made slight adjustments such as pushing Bedoya further up, instructing Zardes and Wood to play wider, and allowing the fullbacks to push a lot higher up the pitch than they did or managed to do in the first half. The formation at that point became similar to Colombia's asymmetrical 4-2-3-1 system but that, and the introductions of Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic, wasn't enough to create a turnaround as Colombia held on for a well deserved win in the opening game of the tournament.

A lesson learned for Klinsmann and the USMNT in the opening game of Copa America Centenario and plenty of homework to be done ahead of crucial games against Costa Rica and Paraguay that will decide the team's fate in Group A. Finding the right balance between defense and attack on both sides and fielding a balanced lineup is an important step and perhaps the most realistic one to pull off at this point with little time to recover and prepare between games, but if there's anything learned from this match, there's no point in being stubborn and keep trying to force something that's obviously not working now and didn't work before. It will be interesting to see what the response is, if any, from the coaching staff and players alike ahead of the Costa Rica match on Tuesday.