Tactics Tuesday: USA vs Argentina Match Preview

This Saturday, the US Men will have the toughest test yet in their run up to the 2011 Gold Cup as they face South American giant Argentina. The albiceleste appeared, in turns, both fierce and fragile at last summer’s World Cup, but the departure of legend Diego Maradona as manager has meant a lot more than less flashy suits along the sidelines. First, we’ll discuss how Argentina has evolved since South Africa under new manager Sergio Batista and then we’ll propose the tactical approach that might best suit Bob Bradley if he has hopes of maintaining a dignified result. We’ll focus less on speculation about personnel and more on team-level strategy.

A Brief Look at the New Argentina

Statistically speaking, Argentina has literally been unstoppable since Batista took over. In their undefeated run they’ve thrashed World Champion Spain 4-1, shutout Brazil 1-0 and outclassed Portugal 2-1. Friendly results should always be taken with a grain of salt, but Spain, Brazil and Portugal are hardly 2nd tier pretenders who go down casually.

Here are some reasons Argentina has been so effective under Batista:

  • Dial “M” for Messi: He’s out of his national team “slump.” Maybe it was the psychological weight of playing for a demi-god that kept him off the score sheet, but now the little flea seems finally up to his Barcelona ways while playing for the Gauchos. His game-winner against Brazil could have easily been Xeroxed from a Barca game vs. Malaga.
  • A solidified midfield: Diego sacrificed holding and possession in midfield to focus on a glorious attack tactic that often paid off in spades. When it didn’t, the team looked spineless (see Germany match). To remedy, Batista plays two holders—usually Mascherano alongside Cambiasso. There’s a new focus on possession and buildup, and when Argentina wants to keep the ball, there’s not much you can do about it.
  • Attacking fullbacks: Ironically, the attack-obsessed Maradona didn’t release his goal hungry fullbacks (in South America, making a kid play defense is a punishment) to support the offensive buildup along the flanks. Batista has opened the door for players like Zanetti, Zabaleta and Heinze to push up. Interestingly, this also creates one of their new vulnerabilities (discussed below).
  • A Balanced Formation: On paper it looks like a 4-3-3, but in practice it plays more like a 4-2-1-3, with the two holders mentioned above and a linking midfielder supporting Messi, et al up top. Messi, of course, has free range, and wingers like Di Maria can play inverted or natural, thus making the 3 attackers even more unpredictable.

The Best Defense is a Good…Defense

Unless he has the denial capacity of a Middle-Eastern dictator, Bradley is likely to take the realistic approach to this match that Argentina will dominate possession and that most of the game will take place in front of USA’s goal. That being said, the only reasonable strategic position to take is one of fierce, disciplined defense and counter-attack. In the diagram below, we see team

USA should pack tight, create turnovers in the "crucial zone," and counter behind the fullbacks or between the center backs.

USA (red) packed into a fortress-like defense, but with counter-attacking “escape routes” always ready. As the diagram notes, the best space for these counters are behind Argentina’s advanced fullbacks. This forces the center backs out toward the sideline, which, in turn, creates another route between the two center backs. Neither Argentina’s center backs nor defensive midfielders are particularly speedy, and heading off to the races with Donovan or Altidore may give the North Americans the edge.

Defensively, there are four key players in a crucial zone (highlighted on diagram with black outlines) who must have a spotless performance—the two center backs (Onyewu and Ream?) and the two holding midfielders (Jones and Bradley?). First, they must shut down the ground lanes above the 18 and make it a crowded, messy (no pun intended) place and, second, they’ll need to clear any crosses coming in from the flanks. Surprising a comfortable Argentina with a sudden turnover and quickly releasing teammates down the counter-attacking lanes is the key component to making this strategy work.

In the end, this match may be less about Bradley playing with new formations, such as his developing 4-2-3-1, and more about a test of the kind of team discipline and spirit that can keep you in games against world-class opponents.

OK, Gringos, now we can talk players. Who do you think are Bob’s best choices for this type of strategy, or do you think we are way off?

3 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Blake Owen says:

    Counter-attacking sure seems like the way to go. With Holden unavailable, I’d like to see Mikkel Diskerud get some time.

    Feilhaber will be the first choice to replace Holden, but we already know Benny’s capabilities. Why not see what Diskerud can do against top opposition?

    The same goes for newcomer Timmy Chandler.

  2. AdamFromMich says:

    I’d like to see Edu as one of the holding midfielders. He seems to be good at picking off passes, as well as tackling. I think this makes him a good partner for either Bradley or Jones. Its possible that we’ll see all 3 of them on the field for part of this game, especially if B. Bradley goes for the defensive tactics you describe above. I’d also be happy seeing Diskerud as the ‘advanced’ CM for part of the game, but I’m not sure Bob will try that.

    I expect Argentina to be a tough test for our defense, especially without Cherundolo. I wonder who’ll replace him in this game. I don’t think that Bob will throw Chandler in after so little time with the rest of the team, but I guess he could see a few minutes against Argentina (and possibly more against Paraguay). I’m also curious to see who will get paired with Gooch in the center.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to it. Go USA!

  3. bensten says:

    I’d also like to see 3 CMs in something like a 4-5-1, at least to start the game. It would be a shame for Edu to miss a start because there is only room for 2 holding mids…

    I’m hoping Agudelo gets some end of game minutes too. If he scores again he’ll be pretty close to convincing me he’s the real deal.

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