Tactical Analysis: USA’s 4-4-2


Bob Bradley's 4-4-2 (projected starters)

Over the years, United States’ squads have been infamous for an overreliance on set pieces, rarely having the quality, or perhaps tactical know-how, to otherwise create goals. Though the threat of set plays has not decreased, the USMNT has shown an increased propensity for scoring during the run of play. Bob Bradley’s formation is one reason why. The former Princeton University manager has crafted a system to make the best use of his most talented players: Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey


Each US attack is determined by the runs of outside midfielders Dempsey and Donovan. Both have the freedom to move up the pitch or on an inward diagonal, and their teammates base their positioning on the outside mids’ movement. If Donovan or Dempsey cut in, the striker on the corresponding side moves wide and the fullback pushes straight forward. Conversely, when an outside midfielder runs directly up the pitch, the fullback slashes inside and the striker remains in the middle, sometimes dropping closer to the center midfielders.

The fluid nature of Donovan and Dempsey’s movement means the center midfielders have clear-cut responsibilities: one advances and one stays close to the center backs for extra defensive cover. Michael Bradley normally has the more offensive role, though his partner will press forward if Bradley is caught in a deep position. Either way, both players have more responsibilities in defense than attack.

US center backs also have a less than flashy role, remaining just behind the center line. One will push wide if a counterattack occurs along the flank, though that responsibility is sometimes left to a center midfielder.

As noted, the fullbacks react to the outside midfielders, but if Carlos Bocanegra is the left back, he tends to play a more defensive role than his counterpart, only advancing if there is plenty of space.


The squad’s defensive system is quite traditional: maintain parallel four-man lines in the midfield and defense, with one striker dropping back to the center circle to apply extra pressure. The other forward remains high in case an outlet pass is needed.

Maintaining a rigid shape seems to be more important than individual man-marking, allowing for defenders to more easily make up for mistakes but leading to extended stretches of having to chase possession.

Why the formation sometimes fails

Leaving space on the right flank against Turkey

Unfortunately, the outside midfielders’ flexible roles do not come without issues. Indeed, their inward runs force strikers into creating service from the wings, not necessarily their strong suit – as we saw on Saturday when Robbie Findley literally dribbled out of bounds on two separate occasions. This difficulty is somewhat negated by the finishing ability of Donovan and Dempsey: both have spent significant portions of their careers playing striker and are capable of turning a lackadaisical delivery into a stunning goal.

But no amount of skill can make up for poor positioning. When the strikers are pushed wide, they can get sucked into defending along the wing, and, even more problematic, when a fullback edges forward, someone else has to cover the space he vacated or the flank will be vulnerable.

A prime example of the latter occurred on Saturday against Turkey. Jonathan Spector intercepted an errant pass and rumbled to the middle of the penalty area while center midfielder Ricardo Clark simultaneously made a run into the box. As soon as Clark began his run, Donovan needed to drop along the right flank or Bradley should have fallen back towards Goodson and DeMerit, pushing the latter into Spector’s spot. Instead, no one shifted to the right and when Spector lost control of the ball, Turkish midfielder Arda Turan had acres in which to operate and didn’t fail to take advantage, netting a 1-0 lead.

To add insult to injury, the attack was doomed the moment Clark sprinted into the box: his positioning meant five attackers were in close proximity and Turkish defenders could easily cutoff passing lanes. The midfielder’s run would have been better executed at a time when Altidore and Dempsey weren’t both in the box.

Why it works

USA's 1st goal against Turkey

Fortunately for the morale of US fans and players, the same match gave an apt demonstration of how this formation can succeed. As can be seen in the diagram (assume Robbie Findley has possession), the US started the goal-scoring sequence in a traditional shape, but Landon Donovan, instead of heading straight up the pitch, curled inside of Findley and sprinted onto the striker’s subsequent chipped pass, leaving Turkey’s left back with a conundrum: follow Donovan into the middle of the pitch and present Findley room along the flank or maintain his position and let his center back cover Donovan? The left back chose to stay put, leaving a pondering center back to guard the speedy Donovan. The US star squirted past the defender and tapped the ball out of the keeper’s reach before delivering to an open Altidore.

If the US can change its shape in this manner – while concurrently covering the resultant open areas – they will advance out of the group stage and maybe make some noise in the knockout rounds.

Addendum: Clint Dempsey spent the first half of Saturday’s friendly at striker and could be used there during the World Cup. While the expectation is that his move changes the formation to a 4-4-1-1 (or at least a 4-4-2 with Dempsey in a withdrawn forward role), he played as an out-and-out forward against Turkey and the overall strategy stayed the same.

6 Comments Post a Comment
  1. bensten says:

    I love the fluidity of Donovan and Dempsey in the 4/4/2 you describe but, like you said, there has to be constant compensation from other positions. I don’t blame Spector for making that run, it was a nice push, but even a youth player knows you’ve got to cover that gap when an outside back drives forward, even if it means the center backs shifting around with the left back to make a temporary 3-man back line. In this case, DeMerrit should have shifted up and right and Goodson/Bocanegra right.

    As I’ve said commenting on other posts, I really prefer Dempsey in the midfield, and not in that ambiguous striker role, where he seems to roam a bit aimlessly. Let’s keep one of our speed demons up there next to Altidore and let Dempsey rely on his crafty tenacity from a bit farther back where he can see more of the pitch, driving in to the box when he can smell a goal.

  2. Rupert J Pelfrey says:

    When Feilhaber is in the game, does it make sense to still run the 4-4-2? Does Feilhaber have the chops to play that type of offense, or is he merely a defensive sub?

    • Blake Owen says:

      If he’s playing in the middle, it makes sense. It’s not his offense that’s the problem (though he did look out of sorts last Saturday).

      He’s Brazilian after all!

      Check out our latest post for all the possible CM starters.

  3. Chris J says:

    Very solid analysis. I’ve bookmarked the site for further articles!

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