A Historical and Tactical Analysis of Landon Donovan’s National Team Role

Los Angeles Galaxy v Chivas USA


Landon Donovan has long been the most prominent American player, but his actual position on the national team has not always been clearcut. Wandering from left midfield to withdrawn striker to right midfield to forward, Donovan has never settled into a permanent position at the international level. Today, Fútbol for Gringos will attempt to chronicle the historical and tactical reasons regarding his position changes.

National Team History

Landon’s first successful run with the senior national team occurred during the 2002 World Cup, but during that tournament he was neither the most important nor the best US player. Both honors belonged to Claudio Reyna, a center midfielder who, at the time, suited up for English Premier League club Sunderland. The United States depended on Reyna to control a game’s pace; his pinpoint passes led to scoring chances and ensured the team could maintain possession.

At the tournament, Donovan split time between outside midfield (mostly on the left) and forward, where he played a bit deeper than target man Brian McBride. DaMarcus Beasley, another young prospect, played on the wing opposite Donovan. With both outside midfielders capable of flying by defenders and Reyna able to lead them with perfectly placed passes, the US attacked down both wings and used this combination of youth, speed, and vision to advance to the quarterfinals.

Between the ’02 and ’06 World Cups, a number of strikers retired and, as a result, Donovan began to see more time in the middle of the pitch. Though he did spend some time out wide in the 2006 World Cup, he was normally used as an attacking midfielder, intending to provide a link between Reyna and McBride. Unfortunately, the two midfielders appeared to get in each others’ way more than they did complement one another (more below on why Donovan has never worked in a central role). The US only scored one goal and failed to advance beyond the group stage.

The 2006 retirements of McBride and Reyna left new manager Bob Bradley, who replaced Bruce Arena, quite the conundrum. He didn’t have any traditional midfield creators and his only proven international strikers, Donovan and Clint Dempsey, were also his best outside midfielders. Plus, Beasley suffered a number of injuries that, combined with stretches of poor form, curtailed his involvement in the latter half of the ‘noughties.’

Unable to find a like-for-like replacement for Reyna, Bradley quickly settled on using two defensive midfielders (Reyna was often balanced with a defensive mid), but the manager took much longer to find the right striker pairing. From 2007-2009 a number of attacking players auditioned to take McBride’s place – Brian Ching and Eddie Johnson chief among them – but none panned out. It wasn’t until last summer that the manager found permanent replacements. Jozy Altidore brought a heretofore unseen combination of size, speed, and technical ability, while Charlie Davies’ blistering pace and silky ball skills complimented the larger Altidore. Their emergence shuffled Donovan and Dempsey to midfield and led to USA’s best showing in an international tournament: runners-up in the 2009 Confederations Cup.

Historical Trend and Donovan – Fading of the ‘Number 10′

As mentioned above, Claudio Reyna was actually the United States’ best player during Donovan’s early years. The US captain filled the traditional ‘number 10′ role,’ the centralized player used to organize an attack. Though the jersey number does not necessarily have any bearing on which player is the number 10, he generally lines up in a central role, linking the rest of the midfield to the forwards. This type of player is rarely fast and not necessarily an outstanding dribbler, but he does possess an almost supernatural ability to find open teammates.

Reyna’s retirement occurred at, for him, an advantageous time: the mid 2000′s brought a decline in the number 10′s importance. With many clubs and national teams employing one-striker formations (4-3-3 being perhaps the most common) the midfield became more congested and left less room for individual playmakers to employ their magic. This congestion is one reason Donovan has never caught on as a traditional number 10. Also, one of his greatest assets – speed – is negated in the middle. When Donovan plays on the wing, he’s able to get behind opposing fullbacks after they push forward. Centrally, he’ll always have to deal with a defensive midfielder and/or a center back.

Though Landon doesn’t line up in the traditional 10 area, he is still very much central to the US’ offense, which brings up a larger issue – the fluidity of roles. Donovan may be listed at left midfield but he often drifts to the middle of the pitch. Dempsey’s propensity to do the same occasionally leaves the US playing a 4-2-2-2 as opposed to a 4-4-2. This freedom allows them to take advantage of the rare occasions when opposing midfielders advance too far and leave space between themselves and the defenders.

Where Will Landon Lineup This Summer?

Of course, Charlie Davies’ injuries throw all recent US tactics out the window. His absence might tempt Bradley to play Donovan as a withdrawn striker, but while FFG believes Donovan will end up on the wing, we won’t get a peak into Bradley’s thought process until next week’s friendly against the Czech Republic.

The manager’s intention to name his final 23-man roster shortly after that match should give a hint towards where Donovan will line up and how he will fare in making up for the 2006 debacle.

2 Comments Post a Comment
  1. bensTEN says:

    I like him as a right or left mid/wing, with the freedom to zip up that line or cut across toward the middle, especially on counter attacks. With Dempsey being kind of a wild card, however, in terms of where you’ll find him on the pitch, Donovan may need to be the more disciplined of the two in terms of keeping shape for the team.

    • Gringo_Prime says:

      Good point

      Building on that idea – the fullbacks and center mids also have to be cognizant of the times either wing flows out of their natural position.

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