Tactics Tuesday: USA’s 4-4-2

Coach Bob Bradley of the US gestures during a 2010 World Cup Group C soccer match against England at Royal Bafokeng stadium in Rustenburg June 12, 2010. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: SPORT SOCCER WORLD CUP)

In our Tactics Tuesday series, FFG breaks down the formation and strategy of a particular squad, covering teams in club and international soccer. Each edition also includes a section detailing how Bob Bradley could make use of that club’s strategic principles. But today there’s no need to look for an application, as we’re starting with Bob Bradley’s 4-4-2.

Note: The following article is archived in our Tactics section. You can find it here.

A typical US formation under Bob Bradley. Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey's movement often turns the 4-4-2 into a 4-2-2-2.

All teams, from the lowest club division to the top echelon of international soccer, must consistently seek a balance between individual brilliance and unified team discipline. Bob Bradley’s solution was to craft a 4-4-2 that allows the USA to maintain defensive discipline yet simultaneously make use of its most talented players, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey.

In possession

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 wingers’ movement.

The World Cup match against England illustrates how Donovan and Dempsey’s movement differs from that of traditional wingers, especially since England used a more conventional 4-4-2. Looking at the stat ‘passes received’ shows how the two gringos drifted centrally when the United States had possession.

The two wingers switched flanks in the first half, which is why they received passes on both touchlines, but they also spent a significant amount of time in central areas.

In contrast, England’s outside midfielders Shaun Wright-Phillips and Aaron Lennon stayed much wider.

Wright-Phillips and Lennon never switched flanks and didn't move inward with any regularity.

Of the four players, Lennon operated in the most conventional manner, staying high and wide to stretch the backline. Wright-Phillips did drop into his own half to participate in build-up play, but, again, he never strayed inside like the Americans.

The fluid nature of Donovan and Dempsey’s movement forces their teammates to base their positioning on the wingers’ 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.

In defense

The squad’s defensive system is quite traditional: maintain parallel four-man lines in 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 sometimes leading to extended stretches in which the Americans have to chase possession.

Tactical troubles

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. During a pre-World cup friendly 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. Neither winger is a slouch in defense, but there are instances when their movement leaves them far from their defensive responsibilities. Consequently, when the fullbacks surge up the pitch the flank is vulnerable.

Center backs Jay DeMerit (red) and Carlos Bocanegra (blue) and center midfielder Maurice Edu (yellow) position themselves to make it difficult for opponents to apply pressure in USA's half.

This dilemma is why Carlos Bocanegra is such a valuable asset. When he’s deployed at left back the United States essentially has three center backs on the pitch. Steve Cherundolo can then bomb forward from right back without worrying about exposing too much space. When Bocanegra is at center back, or on the few occasions he moves forward from left back, one of the center midfielders drops deeper and the two center backs move wide. Their width also serves an attacking purpose, as they provide an outlet pass along the flank.

In essence, Bradley the Elder almost always has three players in the backline. As always, their roles are geared toward allowing the wingers to make full-use of their talents. The trio creates a sturdy-enough base for Dempsey and Donovan to work their magic.

Bradley’s 4-4-2 can’t always be called beautiful, but it has been quite effective. Under this formation the United States has excelled, appearing in the final of the Confederations Cup and winning their World Cup group for the first time in the modern era.

Gringos, what do you think of Bradley’s 4-4-2? Is it ingenious or insipid?

3 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Bradley's Receding Hairline says:

    It works. I question player selection. I have nightmares about Robbie Findley.

  2. bensten says:

    As you say, in the past it has been a smart use of resources. The Confed. Cup was an awesome run. With the introduction of new players with different talents (i.e. Holden, Jones) we’ll have to see how Bob might adapt. The good thing is the flexibility of Landy and the Texas Hammer (Clint)–either would make a nice withdrawn striker if someone else can take up the wing.

  3. AG says:

    Is it me, or is the USA’s 4-4-2 style the exact same as my high school setup?

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