Tactics Tuesday: Bradley and Bilardo

In the 1986 World Cup, Argentina manager Carlos Bilardo opened the competition with a 4-4-2 only to later turn to a 3-5-2 as the Argentines, led by Maradona and his miraculous hand, emerged tournament champions. In the 2011 Gold Cup, United States manager Bob Bradley opened the tournament with a 4-4-2 only to later turn to a 4-2-3-1 as the United States, led by Sacha Kljestan, stormed their way to victory.

At least, that’s what we hope happens.

Before it does, here’s what Team USA needs to do to build on their quarterfinal success and – hopefully – win the cup.

Get Landon out of the middle

Against Jamaica, Alejandro Bedoya’s fine play justified Bradley’s decision to rest Landon Donovan. But another choice concerning Landon didn’t work out quite so well. Donovan, shortly after entering for Bedoya, permanently switched positions with Kljestan, taking up the reins as the central attacking midfielder. Landon promptly disappeared.

He did the same thing for the Galaxy against FC Dallas in the 2010 MLS playoffs. Last August, he had a mostly ineffective game as a withdrawn forward against Brazil. And he was invisible playing in the hole in a March 2010 friendly against the Netherlands.

Even at the club level, his best moments have been on the wing. At Everton, he thrived on the right flank. At Bayern Munich, he languished in the middle. The same has been true of his international career.

Donovan is, of course, incredibly talented, but he’s not a traditional No. 10. Occasionally switching with Kljestan could cause defenses problems as they adjust to new matchups, but if the US wants to win the tournament, Donovan needs to spend most of his time on the flank.

Goodson needs to pull it together

Clarence Goodson hasn’t made any game-changing mistakes yet, though he has come close. Over the weekend Jamaica attempted to kick-start a comeback by pressing USA’s center backs. Goodson subsequently gave the ball away far too easily when under pressure. He also made poor decisions with his backpasses. Tim Howard had to chase down a number of his awkward passes. The center backs needs to clean up his play or an opportunistic Panama, not to mention top-class Mexico, could easily take advantage.

Lichaj needs to find a left foot

In August, FFG pegged Lichaj as a youngster to watch. His club season, first for Aston Villa and then on-loan to Leeds United, had its share of ups and downs, but his performance in the Gold Cup has been, as a whole, quite positive.

The problem? He’s not comfortable crossing with his left foot. Against Jamaica, he only attempted one cross with his weaker foot and it resulted in a wild shank. On another sequence he dribbled into pressure rather than attempt a left-footed cross. It’s only a matter of time before opposing fullbacks/wingers deny him a right-footed cross, eliminating a reliable means of service from that flank.

Since Clint Dempsey plays as an inverted winger, USA’s left back needs to be able to send in crosses from wide positions. Lichaj’s reliance on his right foot – see the cross that led to Jermaine Jones’ goal – forces him to cut inside to unleash his service, which brings him closer to Dempsey’s defender.

Lichaj is still the best bet at this point but long-term USA still needs to find a natural left back.

Bob has to stay with a 1-striker formation, right?

Carlos Bilardo, much like Bob Bradley, experimented with a new formation (3-5-2) in the months leading up to a tournament, reverted to his initial setup (4-4-2) as the tournament progressed, and then went back to his experimental formation to exploit a tactical advantage. We’re not sure if Bradley’s similar change was premeditated or a consequence of unsatisfactory performances in the opening matches.

Given Jamaica’s formation, we’ll go ahead and give Bob the benefit of the doubt and assume he was exploiting a tactical advantage against Jamaica. Three-at-the-back formations, like Jamaica’s 3-4-3 on Sunday or Argentina’s 3-5-2 in ’86, are designed to combat 4-4-2′s. One center back steps into the midfield while the other two each mark a forward. When three center back systems come up against a team with just one striker, one of the center backs is redundant. USA used this advantage to easily control the midfield.

It’s unlikely Panama (or USA’s possible opponents Mexico or Honduras) will use a countering, three-at-the-back system like Jamaica. Still, we think Bob should stick with the 4-2-3-1. The 3 vs 2 central midfield advantage it gives against a 4-4-2 is just as important as the mismatch it creates against a 3-5-2. And with USA down to just two strikers on the roster, Bob surely will keep the 4-2-3-1.

Tomorrow evening we’ll find out if Bob will continue to follow in the footsteps of Bilardo. Maybe Sacha Kljestan could even repeat Maradona’s heroics. Hopefully, he won’t have to cheat to do it.

Gringos, is Bob going to stick with the 4-2-3-1? If he does, will Landon stay out wide? What did you think of my not-so-subtle knock on Maradona?

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