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The USMNT three man backline

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Arena had the USMNT line up in a 3-4-3 formation on the way to a draw in Azteca. But when Klinsmann played a back three against Mexico back in November, it went disastrously. What’s different here?

When Bruce Arena released the line up for the away qualifier against Mexico, there was a bit of a surprise. Seemingly out of nowhere, the United States was playing a 3-4-3. The team suddenly switched to a back three. The USMNT’s plan was to suffocate Mexico’s attack by clogging up the spaces El Tri wanted to possess the ball in front of goal. And it worked exceedingly well. While they overwhelmingly dominated possession, Mexico was limited to a single shot on target. It was an incredible display of Catenaccio and the result was a point out of one of the most inhospitable stadiums in the world in an intense rivalry match.

However, this wasn’t the first time we saw a three-man backline line up against Mexico. Back in November, Jurgen Klinsmann had Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, and John Brooks play defense to a calamitous effect. In the opening 30 minutes, Mexico ran riot through the team. They scored and hit the post twice. Midway through the half, Klinsmann was forced to make a change, pushing Besler out to left back and abandoning the experiment.

So what was the difference between the two? Turns out, it was practice. Klinsmann reportedly gave very little time for players to work in and get familiarized with a back three. The result was a line up where the defensive roles were unclear and uncertainness. You can see this on the goal. Michael Bradley does well to play aggressively to close down and challenge Giovani dos Santos. But there’s nobody there for the USMNT to follow up and pick up the play when Bradley screws the challenge up and the ball squirts lose the wrong way. Miguel Layun is able to pick up the ball in space and lash one into the net with all the central defenders rooted in place yards away from the goal. It’s obvious that nobody knew whose job it was to step up. And the result was the end of Dos a Cero.

In contrast, the USMNT spent a great deal of time preparing for the Azteca game in exactly this formation. The team worked on it from the start of this international camp.

In an interview highlighted elsewhere here on SSFC, Bruce Arena actually said that the plan for the 3-4-3 went much further than this camp, all the way back to January. The result showed, with clear defensive roles delegated to the players. The wingbacks, DeMarcus Beasley and DeAndre Yedlin, were tasked with working as two-way players, pushing into the attack opportunistically, but safeguarding the wings otherwise. Inside were Tim Ream and Omar Gonzalez who were tasked with controlling the center. In particular, Gonzalez dominated aerially, clearing a massive 8 headers in the defensive third. Geoff Cameron was tasked with mopping everything up, a task he did with aplomb. When exposed, Michael Bradley would slot into the backline as an ad-hoc central defender.

Earlier, I made reference to the infamous Catenaccio, the defensive style whose name refers to a chain used to lock a door. I think that’s exactly the frame to consider these tactics. It’s not exactly pure Italian Catenaccio, Italian but more one that has been adapted for the modern game. Classical Italian soccer relied on a set up of 3 defenders with an additional center back behind them, known as the libero. The idea was that the 3 defenders would attempt to control the game in front of them while that last man standing would sweep in and handle anything that slipped between the cracks. With his wide-ranging defensive actions, willingness to serve as the central defender, and ability to clean up everything that came before him, Cameron certainly resembled a libero. With Bradley dropping deep between the other center backs, there certainly were moments where the formation lined up with that old Italian vision. But more than the actual formation, where this performance truly evoked Catenaccio was in the way it strangled the opposition’s opportunity to build meaningful chances. Mexico had but a single shot on target (alas, that shot went in, but I digress) even though they completely dominated the ball. And that is the spirit of Catenaccio. You let your opponent have the ball but you do not let them have your goal. It was in this vein that the USMNT pulled off this defensive masterclass.

Of course, there was another difference between the two matches. Klinsmann had much more attacking interest than Arena. Location absolutely functions into this. Klinsmann was playing at the very friendly Mapfre Stadium in Columbus, while Arena had to deal with the altitude and smog of Azteca. But, nonetheless, the intent was very different. Klinsmann paired Altidore and Wood with Pulisic charged as the creative focus behind them, all in a 3-5-2. It didn’t really end up working. More often than not, Pulisic was isolated from the play and surrounded by Mexican defenders. In Arena’s case, the system was more of a 3-4-3. But that isn’t to draw contrast from Klinsmann’s formation. In fact, Arena’s lineup essentially doubled as a 3-5-2. Arriola would drop back to help out Yedlin and keep defense, while both Wood and Pulisic kept high in order to attack on the break.

I am not here to say that the USMNT’s tactics were perfect. They weren’t. In particular, there was the goal from Carlos Vela, which highlighted a complete defensive breakdown. Taylor Twellman had an excellent analysis on the failings of Acosta and the central defending trio on the goal.

This was exactly the sort of problems we saw in Columbus last year. But the difference here was that this was an isolated issue. For the most part, the defense knew what they were doing and were able to act on it. And, the result was a defiant performance in hostile territory. Getting a point in Mexico is really, really, really, hard. But the players and staff were able to find a way to make it happen.