Scoring more goals in one half than the team had in Jurgen Klinsmann’s first six games in charge combined was a welcome change, as was the resulting 3-2 victory, only the German’s second as manager. For the first time in his tenure, Klinsmann set out two dedicated strikers and the change in tactics certainly contributed to the increase in chances and goals. Getting the win ended a three-year drought for the US squad in Europe and sends the national team into its January training camp on a high note.
The news wasn’t all good from the Ljubljana, however, as the defense reverted the worst of the Bob Bradley era, poorly organized and conceding chances and goals at an unsustainable rate. A tactical shift also was a factor here, as Klinsmann deployed just one defensive midfielder to screen the back line. But the problems that plagued the U.S. defense in the past, which Klinsmann appeared to have left in the past, returned with a vengeance. The defenders struggled to keep a consistent line and the spacing was terrible, leaving huge gaps which were frequently exploited by the Slovenes.
The formation Klinsmann set out was largely a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield, another departure from his more common 4-3-3. The more attack-minded formation pushed three players, Jozy Altidore and Edson Buddle as the two strikers and Clint Dempsey at the point of the diamond, higher up the pitch in the center and through the channels. It was precisely this that led to the first goal as Dempsey won the ball off a Slovenian defender and the ball broke to Buddle who scored with a beautiful shot that went in off the post.
The tactics had an impact, but soccer is a player’s game and the XI that Klinsmann selected was the decisive factor in the result, both positively and negatively. Michael Bradley, Buddle, and Fabian Johnson, who earned his first cap, were inserted into the front six, with Bradley on the right and Johnson on the left of the midfield diamond. Their effect was practically immediate, with Buddle’s goal inside ten minutes and Johnson looking awfully quick and comfortable with the ball at his feet.
But it was Bradley that changed the way the U.S. midfield played. While he was nominally wide right, he tucked in to the middle and significantly upped the tempo. When in possession he would consistently drive the U.S. forward, and his movement without the ball was exceptional, often bursting into space creating numerous good attacking opportunities.
The U.S. midfield didn’t have it all its own way, however, as Kyle Beckerman really struggled in his role as the only defensive midfielder. He did not serve as either a screen in front of the back four or a destroying breaking up play through the midfield. He was particularly exposed on the first Slovenia goal, as he was caught following the play as the U.S. moved the ball up just into the Slovene half. But when possession was turned over, Beckerman wasn’t able to disrupt the attack nor was he able to mark the Slovenian attacker.
This first Slovenian goal was almost an exact copy of their first goal against the U.S. at World Cup 2010. With Beckerman a bit lost, Carlos Bocanegra came out to match up with the Slovenian striker, but he failed to win the ball. It was then really just a simple pass into the space Boca vacated as neither Timmy Chandler from his left back position nor Boca’s central back partner Clarence Goodson was able to cover. Gooch did the same thing in South Africa.
The U.S. defense didn’t cover themselves in glory on the Slovenian second either. Goodson was beaten in the air far too easily, and then went to ground, turning loose his man who easily collected the return pass from his flick-on, and still unmarked because Beckerman was caught ball watching, and fired into the net to pull within one.
The defense looked very vulnerable, much more so against Slovenia than they did against France. It is understandable that Klinsmann would turn the team loose a bit in the pursuit of the goals that had proved so elusive. The challenge now for Klinsmann is to find a way to balance the more attacking formation and players with the need to establish a solid defensive shape. U.S. fans need to have the patience to stick with him as he builds from the back and hopefully get to a point when Klinsmann can place a powerful attacking force on a strong defensive foundation.
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