Tactical Trends and the USA


Like all sports, soccer is beholden to shifts of philosophy. Zonal Marking recently chronicled the latest rise of the 4-3-3 formation.

In short, the article posits that teams of the early 2000s were obsessed with employing a physical, defensive midfielder (unimaginatively termed a ‘destroyer’) in conjunction with a creative, attack-minded foil (the ‘creator’), using the two as the central midfielders in a 4-4-2, or some variant thereof.

Over the last year or two, though, top clubs have increasingly made use of a 4-3-3, fielding one destroyer and two creators. The latter are not necessarily speed demons or possessors of a stunning shot; they are, without question or any elaboration, excellent passers.

In the English Premier League alone, the top three teams (Chelsea, Manchester United, and Arsenal) have spent significant portions of the season utilizing this formation, with Chelsea and Arsenal using it almost exclusively. Last year’s Champions League victors Barcelona are 4-3-3 enthusiasts as well.

The USMNT, with a deep midfield pool and health concerns surrounding starting striker Charlie Davies, would seem a prime candidate for this formation. Ricardo Clark and Maurice Edu could fill the destroyer role, with any combination of Michael Bradley, Jose Francisco Torres, Benny Feilhaber, or Stuart Holden stepping in as the creators.

Manager Bob Bradley, however, continues to employ a 4-4-2 (often functioning as a 4-2-2-2), but recently, in terms of international soccer, Bradley did try fielding a 4-3-3 and found disaster waiting.

Last summer’s World Cup qualifying match against Costa Rica began with a surprise – the US came out in a 4-3-3. Unfortunately, the supposedly high-scoring lineup, pictured below, proved anything but. The United States lost 3-1.

While Bradley should be commended for having the nerve to adjust his formation, he picked a horrible occasion in which to do it: the USMNT has never won at Estadio Saprissa, the Costa Rican national team’s preferred stadium. Due to constant, almost torrential rains, the stadium has artificial turf instead of grass and, as these Soccer by Ives pictures show, it’s quite the intimidating place.

On top of the locale, some US players were clearly not ready for the formation change. DaMarcus Beasley started at left back, a position he has only played a few times in his career, Marvell Wynne – in his first World Cup qualifying match – was his counter on the right, and Pablo Mastroeni showed his age and lack of pace as the holding midfielder.

Beasley was culpable on the first goal, Wynne on the second, and Mastroeni on two of the three.

Bradley shouldn’t give up on the 4-3-3 solely because of the Saprissa catastrophe. The almost month-long camp leading up to the World Cup (May 15th – June 12th) would give the manager, his staff, and players a chance to work out the kinks, which obviously didn’t happen before the Costa Rica game. Utilizing the current crop of players, the USMNT could field this lineup:

The changes could only be for the better. Maurice Edu is already as good or better a defensive midfielder than Mastroeni was seven years ago. DeMerit’s emergence as a center back option moves Bocanegra to fullback, where Bocanegra and Spector provide far superior defensive cover than Beasley and Wynne, and if Bob Bradley deems Torres too green, Benny Feilhaber could swap for the youngster.

Plus, a number of midfielders fit nicely into roles coming off the bench. As mentioned, Feilhaber and Torres are a straight swap; Ricardo Clark is the same for Edu. Beasley and Alejandro Bedoya would understudy Donovan/Dempsey, and Stuart Holden, assuming he’s healthy, could come on for either a winger or attacking midfielder.

Forward is a bit more problematic. Altidore has the skillset, but not the experience, to play in the middle, and none of the probable subs (Brian Ching, Herculez Gomez, Edson Buddle, or Eddie Johnson) have significant international experience as a 4-3-3 striker. A solution would be subbing a winger for Altidore and pushing either Donovan or Dempsey into the vacated space.

The real issue isn’t the midfield or forwards – it’s the fullbacks. They are heavily called upon to provide offense in this formation. While Spector is composed on the ball and has a helluva cross, Bocanegra offers little in attack and neither is particularly fast, a necessity when having to constantly track back into your own half.

Then again, Beasley and Wynne can both fly yet were raked over the coals by Costa Rica. The know-how of Spector and Bocanegra (they play in the top divisions of England and France) could win out over pure athleticism.

And that supposition marks the dilemma. This is all ‘in theory.’ Bradley, using the players at his disposal, has to field the strongest formation possible, and in 2009 that formation was a 4-4-2.

Let’s hope he finds the right combination for 2010. If he’s successful and a World Cup run catches American culture’s eye, we just might see some theorycrafting on ESPN.

What are your thoughts, gringos?  I know you’re out there (Google tells me so).  Should Bradley change his formation, or does the 4-4-2 complement the team too well?

Let’s hear from you in the comments.


Another tactical trend noted by Zonal Marking is a shift to a strikerless formation, covered in two posts here and here. Favored striker Jozy Altidore doesn’t fit the required mold for this tactical style, but Clint Dempsey certainly does and has, on occasion, played a 4-6-0 variant for his club, Fulham. Bob Bradley would be wise to note this formation if potential Charlie Davies replacements Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez don’t pan out.

16 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Ryan says:

    Do the fullbacks have side preferences like strikers do? Why do strikers/forwards have side preferences?

    • Gringo_Prime says:

      Yes, fullbacks have preferences. In fact, we’ve covered that very issue, but the basic idea is that right-footed fullbacks have an easier time crossing from the right side (and vice versa), as they don’t have to cut into the middle to put the ball on their right foot.

      Forwards don’t really have a preference, but wingers (in this case Donovan and Dempsey) do – for the same reason as fullbacks.

      Some coaches, though, like to have wingers line up on their weak side. This allows them to cut into the middle and blast a shot with their strong foot.

  2. AG says:

    according to this new 433 formation, the destroyer would also need to be very capable of creating as well, and not just being a sort of super-stopper who plays midfield too.

    assuming that the middle guy is the destroyer, that would leave the two outside guys to be creators. That is fine, but unless the destroyer is also a creator, then that leaves the outsides as the only means of attack, or at least advancing the ball down the field. At first glance, I dont like it. But after some thought, I realize that the US is so used to counter attacking, and since they have the personnel on the wings to do it, midfield and forward, it might just be a viable strategy for them.

    • Gringo_Prime says:

      It’s true that the deep-lying midfielder needs to be an excellent passer as well, but this formation is actually quite strong through the middle, with both ‘creators’ controlling that area of the field.

      It’s weak on the outside unless the wingers drop back to their own half or the fullbacks venture forward. The club sides employing a 4-3-3 even use fullbacks who are converted midfielders.

      • AG says:

        with as much speed as they have one the wings, it would seem that they would be stronger on the wings, unless of course, they position themselves more in the middle, if thats what you were saying.

        • Gringo_Prime says:

          The US, with Dempsey and Donovan as the wingers, has its most talented attackers outside.

          But the formation itself is strong in the middle yet weak on the wing, unless the fullbacks can get forward.

  3. bensTEN says:

    I like the 4/3/3 and am happy to see some major clubs are getting out of the 4/4/2 dogma (some of you may know there is even a famous soccer magazine called “Four Four Two”). I think the lineup you suggest is quite feasible. I do worry about Altidore floating around aimlessly up there, but he’s got to get experience somewhere, and some counter attacks led by Donovan could be perfect opportunities for Josey to find the end of a searching ball and start finishing.

    However, my one worry about this formation for the US is that in order for it to be really effective, those outside backs need to be a legitimate and unsettling offensive threat. With that 4th midfielder removed from that part of the pitch, those now open lanes need to put the opposition on the defensive, rather than be open pitch for them to drive. Think of those great outside backs who, in the blink of an eye, you suddenly find down at the edge of the box, or receiving a through ball deep in the corner (Alves for Barca, A. Cole for Chelsea, Sergio Ramos for Madrid, Maicon for Inter).

    I agree with your assessment of the top-flight European experience Bocanegra and Spector will bring to the outside back spots, but worry they don’t have the pace or hunger to drive up those lanes and at least really aggravate opponents.

    • Gringo_Prime says:

      I bet Bradley feels the same way about his fullbacks, hence the experiment with Beasley/Wynne instead of Bocanegra/Spector.

      Gringos, check out Ben’s Ten, they’re a friend of FFG and have interesting, unique content!

  4. Sam says:

    Where is Freddy Adu?

    • Gringo_Prime says:

      At this point he will struggle to make the World Cup roster. The general consensus seems to be that his limited defensive abilities and lack of pace overshadow his potential offensive contributions.

      He also sees limited playing time in Greece, which doesn’t help his case.

      Still, the 4-3-3 is one of the few formations where Freddy could have a role (as either an attacking midfielder or winger), but he certainly wouldn’t be a starter.

      Hopefully he’ll be called in to the pre-World Cup camp and be given a shot.

    • AG says:

      I guess alot of marketing and media hype wasnt enough.

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