Jan 26, 2011

Making a Case for an American 4-3-3

In light of the play of the young Americans on the US Men's National Team against Chile, Bob Bradley certainly had to have seen some promising players who might make a big impact on the future of the MNT.  Bradley has clearly  moved to the almost international standard 4-2-3-1 formation, abandoning his former bucket 4-4-2.  While I understand why Bradley would move to a 4-2-3-1 considering the feast of central midfielders at his disposal and the formation's focus on maintaining a strong defensive pressure, I think the arrival or impending arrival of some of these young Americans, there is a solid case for a 4-3-3.

The 4-3-3 does a couple of things that could appeal to the American fan and me, even as a former center back/sweeper myself.  It opens up the field of play and gives a fair number of options for attack, either through the midfield or through the direct ball or counter attack.  I don't see Bradley making this change, particularly in light of the current trend in world soccer of clogging up the midfield with players, but in a dream scenario, using players currently available in the pool, this is what I could see as a possible 4-3-3.

If I were making up an 18-man squad under this theory, it would look something like this:





My bench would have the following guys

Brad Guzan, Eric Lichaj, Jermaine Jones, Mo Edu, Mix Diskerud,  Juan Agudelo, Teal Bunbury.

First up, as goalkeeper, Howard is one of the best shot stoppers in the world, but he is also very good with distribution to start a counter attack and the goal against Algeria is not the first time.  A goal keeper is about more than blocking shots, he has to just as good with distribution.

The back line is where people are probably going "huh?"  Most everyone would agree that right now Steve Cherundolo is the best American right back even though he is getting up there in age, he might still make the 2014 World Cup squad.  Certainly Convey is a surprise pick, but if you look a little deeper and a little longer at these four guys, what do you see?  Confidence and skill with the ball at their feet, great passers of the ball, and good defending skills.  Such a back line is necessary because they will be tasked with two additional jobs other than defending--starting the ball forward with sharp passing, and providing width and ball handling in the midfield.  Both Cherundolo and Convey can attack down the flanks with speed and control and whip in great crosses.  They will either have to provide width in the attack, letting Holden and Donovan to pinch inside or Dolo and Convey would have to move into the channels to provide the connection to the wings.  Convey has been out of the spotlight for a while, but his time with San Jose has improved his crossing and defensive skills. The fact is that Convey is a better crosser of the ball than Jonathan Bornstein, has more speed that Carlos Bocanegra and better ball skills than both.  If the problem is left back, Convey may be the solution.

Stuart Holden, Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan are going to have the hardest job.  It is a good thing that these guys are the probably the fittest players on the U.S. squad, because they have their work cut out.  These guys will have to put in box to box shifts, covering in attack and getting back in defense.  The beauty of these three is their ability to mix it up.  Bradley is not as good on the wings, but he is a brilliant destroyer, breaking up plays but also making those late slashing runs that result in goals.  Neither of these players is afraid of letting go from long distance.  All of these players are also confident on the ball, sharp passers and unafraid to take defenders on.  They all possess the right soccer brain as well and that will be necessary to carry out their tasks.

The strikers are a dynamic group all with a knack for moving around.  Imagine you are a back line with these three players moving all over the pitch.  All three can play on either side or in the middle.  All three are strong, reasonably quick and good in the air and on the ground.  They are capable of scoring from anywhere.  Such Davies might be some wishful thinking, since don't know anything, but the chemistry between Davies and Altidore was undeniable.

With the bench I have chosen, I have looked for flexibility of position (Agudelo and Bunbury aside), guys who can play many positions well, proven industry, tactical awareness and attacking ability.  Do you need to lock down a game in the last 20 minutes?  Take out Holden, insert Jones or Edu and move Dempsey to right midfield and go with a 4-4-2. Does Bob Bradley need some more box to box players--enter Diskerud and Jones.  What about another centerback?  Hello Mo Edu.  Does Bob Bradley need to insert some more attacking flair, in goes Bunbury and Agudelo, another solid partnership that is forming, who can run at a tired defense and make something happen.  The point is that the bench has to be flexible if you are going to play a 4-3-3.

The drawbacks to the 4-3-3 is that it takes an enormous amount of tactical knowledge, soccer brains and absolute trust in your teammates.  The system puts big burden on the defenders and a burden on one or two of the strikers to regularly track back to help on defense.  It will take a lot of work on the pitch to make sure the defenses doesn't get hung out to dry.

I harbor no illusions though.  The fact is that our players may not be tactically savvy enough to run an effective 4-3-3, but the possibility is there.  A system as attacking as this one is radically different than what Bob Bradley has done in the past and could easily unbalance opponents.  A 4-3-3 is unquestionably an attacking formation which rewards creativity and forwardness.  It also requires more defensive discipline, despite the system's emphasis on attack, and the system is highly intolerant of mistakes as there are fewer bodies to clean up the mistakes.

But simply revel in the possibilities--an attack oriented American team, running at defenses, getting sharp, quick passes from the back line to pry apart a midfield and three strikers moving around like the Harlem Globetrotters doing the weave drill.  A team that entertains and isn't that what we want?

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