Dustin George-Miller is a life-long soccer fan, a sports blogger and a Goshen College staffer. His community blog for The Elkhart Truth, The Corner Flag: World Cup 2014, will cover the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Start watching soccer for an extended period of time, and you begin obsessing over tactics.
It’s natural. You see the players on the field — their movements, the interplay between attack and midfield, and you start to wonder: What is it about their lineup that allows them to do that? You begin reading books like Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid and eventually end up doodling hypothetical 4-3-3 diagrams on scrap paper for your favorite team, complete with player names and arrows. I can tell you with experience that once you start going down this particular rabbit hole it’s awfully hard to come back out again.
Fortunately for us lineup obsessives, one of the biggest story lines for the USA men’s national team going into this World Cup centers around tactics. USA opens its World Cup campaign on Monday, June 16, with a crucial match against Ghana, its erstwhile rival and the team that has knocked the U.S. out of the last two World Cups. It’s a must-win game if USA has any chance of progressing out of Group G, and one of the biggest questions leading up to this match is how manager Jurgen Klinsmann will set up his squad’s tactics against the Black Stars.
It’s not a gotcha question, either. Since taking the helm of the national team in 2011, Klinsmann has experimented with a number of different formations depending on personnel available, opponents and willingness to experiment. The focus of this tactical tinkering has recently settled on a formation referred to as “4-4-2 diamond,” the formation that Klinsmann used in recent World Cup warm-up matches versus Azerbaijan and Turkey. This seems to be a shift from the more continental 4-2-3-1 favored by Klinsmann throughout World Cup qualifying.
But what exactly is a diamond formation, and why does it matter?
The Midfield Diamond
When you talk about a 4-4-2 diamond formation in soccer tactics, you’re referring primarily to the shape of the midfielders. In this example, there are four defenders in front of the goalkeeper (the first “4” in the 4-4-2) and four midfielders (the middle “4”) — an offensive midfielder playing centrally behind the strikers, a defensive midfielder ahead of the back line who’s responsibility is to break up play before they can attack the center backs and two wide players on either side, forming what looks like a literal diamond in the center of the pitch. The final “2” refers to two strikers/forwards whose primary job is to get into dangerous positions in the opponents’ box and put the ball into the back of the net.
[Graphic: USA’s starting lineup vs. Azerbaijan, May 27, 2014]
The midfield is the most important area of the pitch in soccer. Control the midfield, and you control the ball, giving you more and better scoring opportunities. The diamond formation is a narrow one — the “wide” midfielders aren’t all that wide, and the play is directed to the center of the field. The idea is to control the midfield and allow the attacking midfielder (Michael Bradley, arguably USA’s most important player) freedom to romp around, looking for openings to either feed the ball to the strikers or find his own shot. Width is provided not by the midfielders, but by the two defensive wing-backs (right and left sided defenders) who bomb up the pitch and try to stretch the opposing defense by putting in crosses from the flanks. It requires speedy wing-backs with incredible stamina that have the vision to move forward when the need arises, but with the defensive tenacity to quickly get back when the USA loses the ball.
And therein lies the problem. The downside to the diamond is that when the wing backs push forward, it leaves the heart of the defense, the two center backs, horribly exposed to counter-attacks. That’s where the defensive midfielder (CDM) steps in. The CDM — Jermain Jones, or possibly Kyle Beckerman, depending on Klinsmann’s preference — stays deep and can even drop back to become a make-shift third defender if the wing backs are caught too high. If the USA loses the ball in midfield, the CDM is vital to make sure the back line doesn’t get overrun before the wing-backs can recover. Likewise, since there may be a man disadvantage in the midfield, it can often lead to the diamond team having a striker (in the USA’s case, Clint Dempsey) drop deep to help ameliorate the advantage in midfield.
The diamond is a tactic that works well against teams that play defensively, but has the possibility to spectacularly backfire against teams that have excellent and speedy wingers or that thrive on the counter-attack. Like, for example, Germany and Ghana. The 4-4-2 diamond is dynamic, offense oriented and narrow. Employed correctly and against the right team, it can also be devastatingly effective and a lot of fun to watch.
Now compare that to Klinsmann’s preferred tactic in World Cup qualifying, the 4-2-3-1. Here, you sacrifice a striker for an extra midfielder. The two deepest midfielders, referred to as the “double pivot,” usually divide duties — one defensive (“anchor”), one transitional (“runner”) and both of them help cover for the other one if they move up the pitch into more attacking positions. The width of the wing players, who often cut inside themselves to drag defenders out of position, theoretically opens up the midfield and allows more opportunities to get the ball inside to the attacking midfielder and in turn, to the striker.
[Graphic: hypothetical USA lineup in 4-2-3-1 formation]
This is the preferred formation for not only Ghana, but also Germany. It is one of the most common formations you’ll see in modern football, as it’s a well-balanced formation that ensures teams are not outnumbered in midfield. In a 4-2-3-1 the striker may not be the focal point of the attack; he/she often drops deep and holds up the ball in order to give time for the wide players and the attacking midfielder to get into scoring positions. This formation sacrifices that second striker but helps ensure that the midfield doesn’t get overrun, and Klinsmann used it to good effect during World Cup qualifying. It’s a formation that can play a little slower and more deliberately as it relies less on swift counterattacking football and more on patient passing into the box.
What will Klinsmann do?
You might think with all the pre-cup focus on the diamond midfield that this is what we should expect from the USA in its group stage matches. Although it’s curious Klinsmann would spend so much time instituting a new system of play for USA just days before Brazil when the time could be spent solidifying its best known and most familiar formation, it does show the USA’s manager is open to tactical adjustments depending on the team’s opponents. And despite all the diamond focus, it’s not clear that this is how Jurgen Klinsmann will actually set up his squad against Ghana.
Ghana tends to deploy in a 4-2-3-1 double-pivot, but its defense is its weak point, as illustrated by its recent 1-0 loss to the Netherlands in Rotterdam. The scoreline doesn’t reflect the number of times the Dutch were able to get past the Black Stars’ defensive line. If the USA deploys in the diamond formation, it implies an intent to attack Ghana’s suspect defenders and to press defensively higher up the pitch. The idea is to put Ghana under pressure, deny the team the ball and drag defenders out of position to create scoring chances. This relies on a solid defensive midfielder, in this case either Beckerman or Jones, who can shield the central defenders but also distribute the ball up the pitch. But Ghana’s midfielders are speedy, and USA has shown a weakness against teams that counter-attack and hit back fast on the break. If players like Christian Atsu, Jordan Ayew or Asamoah Gyan can get some daylight behind the line, especially through the problematic left side of the defensive line or via a ball over the top that attackers can run onto, the diamond may come back to haunt USA.
Or, it’s possible that Klinsmann may take the lesson learned from USA’s excellent friendly victory over fellow World Cup qualifiers Nigeria this past Saturday. Against a very good Nigerian squad, Klinsmann sacrificed a striker for an additional midfielder and played both Beckerman and Jones deep in a mutable 4-5-1 formation along with an in-form Alejandro Bedoya. The extra defensive midfielder helped free up Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, both playing behind the striker. The result? The Americans maintained possession of the ball, Jozy Altidore scored two goals and USA dominated a team that might make the second round of the World Cup. And maybe it’s even simpler than that: noted football journalist Michael Cox noted in his excellent blog, Zonal Marking, that USA’s 4-5-1 against Nigeria was really just another flavor of the midfield diamond.
Klinsmann’s focus on the diamond midfield in the pre-tournament friendlies suggests he is taking it seriously as an option in the World Cup based on the personnel he has available. It remains to be seen whether this indicates a formation shift from qualifying or if it’s just another arrow in his tactical quiver.
As with any discussion of tactics, ultimately whether you win or lose comes down less to how you set up and more to how you adjust to game circumstances. This is perhaps where Klinsmann’s tactical flexibility may pay the most dividends. However he sets up against Ghana, if it’s not working he’ll be expected to adapt and change to address the weak areas. This is why having USA be less dogmatic in its tactics and familiar with multiple formations is a good thing. Should their initial tactics fail, the American players should be able to merge into a formation with a greater efficacy.
“There is no such thing as a best system because it doesn’t matter if you play really a 4-4-2 diamond or a flat four in the middle or a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3,” said Klinsmann after the Azerbaijan match. “It doesn’t really matter because it’s the whole team, how it shapes up and how it works as an entire unit, how it attacks collectively and how it defends collectively.” This is true, but it doesn’t minimize or eliminate the need for a solid but malleable tactical framework. If USA can seamlessly adapt to changing in-game situations, it bodes well for their chances to escape the Group of Death.
Must See Matches:
The opening match of the World Cup yesterday provided the expected outcome – a 3-1 victory for home-team Brazil – but some questionable officiating decisions that went against Croatia seemed to indicate that we might be in for some surprises in this tournament. While Monday’s USA-Ghana will of course be the match that captures the most interest here in the States, keep an eye on these other games coming up this weekend:
Spain vs. The Netherlands, today, 3:00 p.m., Arena Fonte Nova, Salvador
A rematch of 2010’s World Cup final, this pits the highly technical Spaniards against a Dutch squad itching for revenge. Tune in just to see if Nigel De Jong will karate kick Spain into submission again. (No, Truth readers, De Jong wasn’t even carded for that.)
England vs. Italy, Saturday, 6 p.m., Arena Amazônia, Manaus
England and Italy historically... don’t like each other all that much, at least on the soccer field. Both teams will want a win, so don’t expect a defensive clinic.
Switzerland vs. Ecuador, Sunday, noon, Estadio Nacional Mané Garrìncha, Brasilia
These two teams should be fairly evenly matched despite Switzerland’s pre-World Cup seeding. Ecuador has been woeful away from Quito and will need points badly if they want to escape the group.
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