A Second Beginning

Its been awhile ( OK, a long while) since The Soccer Yoda has written a post. But recently some major events have occurred in the world of soccer, especially in the United States. A number of soccer fans surprised the Soccer Yoda by asking what were his views on the change in national coach and the events which led to that change. Frankly, I was somewhat surprised and flattered that there were those out there in the soccer world who remembered this blog, so I dusted off the computer and relearned to hunt and peck with more than just my thumbs. It’s a second beginning for our new ( sort of) national coach and a second beginning for the Soccer Yoda and this blog. So……lets take a look at the recent national team results and their effect on our national coach position.

On November 8 of this year the USA played Mexico in Columbus, Ohio in the first game of the “Hexagonal”. This is the final qualifying round of matches to decide who goes to Russia in 2018 to represent our region in the World Cup. There are 6 nations left , hence the name. There are 42 countries with teams in the Confederation of North,Central American and Caribbean Association Football or CONCACAF, so it would seem that it is an accomplishment just to get through the several preliminary rounds to reach the final six. And if our region was like Europe or South America it would be exactly that. But, given that the majority of those 42 nations have a population about the size of New Haven, Connecticut, the USA is absolutely expected to make the top six . As a matter of fact, finishing in the top two (along with Mexico) has become absolutely expected ever since the soccer boom in this country started producing decent  players in greater numbers than somebody like say… Bermuda. In order to make it to the World Cup without an additional playoff game, we need to finish in the top three of the six. In light of our international results in this century, this should not be a challenge.

Although playing Mexico in the first game would seem a tough task, the fact that the game was a home match for the USA created an expectation of victory and not just by any score either. The last 4 matches against Mexico in Columbus, Ohio had all been 2-0 wins for the Americans, so cheers of “Dos a Cero” rang throughout the stadium before the start of the game.Then the USA came out in a 3-5-2 formation and the game took on a tone very different from those notable American victories.

One of the knocks on Jurgen Klinsmann during his tenure as our national coach had been that he tended to put players in positions for which they are unsuited. One rational for this is that he had a formation that works best and into which he must fit his players. During the 2014 World Cup cycle he used a 4-2-3-1 system very effectively and although all players were not the best fit for the formation, they grew familiar with it – they learned to play it – they knew who was where and how their teammates would react to the game in that formation. But since then Klinsmann had tinkered with several different formations and didn’t settle on anything in particular. The 3-5-2 was very different from anything the team had played before and they had only practiced it for a few days prior to the Mexico match.


It has been said that the wing-backs are the key to the 3-5-2. When advancing the ball in possession from the back line the wing-backs must get wide and be available for outlet passes that start the attack. When the team gets the ball near the opposing goal the wing-backs must be in advanced wing positions, ready to provide width to the attack and both supply and receive crosses. On defense the wing-backs must cover the deep wide spaces to prevent the opposition from exploiting the narrow positioning of the centerbacks, in effect providing 5 back defenders at that moment. The American wing-backs vs Mexico were Tim Chandler on the right and Fabian Johnson on the left. These guys are decent players when positioned correctly ( especially Johnson), but against Mexico, in this formation, they were lost. They didn’t provide for outlet passes which forced the USA centerbacks into central passes and long balls which lost possession. They were not in wide offensive areas very often and when they were the balls they played in were mostly misplaced. And they disappeared in those wide deep defensive spaces which allowed the Mexicans to play from those spaces without pressure. Mexico grabbed the momentum from the start and it was only a matter of time before they scored and not that much time either…..like 20 minutes. At the 26 minute mark Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones , the American central midfielders, took advantage of a break in the play and asked Klinsmann to change the formation. He did and the US got back into the game playing a much more familiar 4-4-2. The score was equal late in the game when another tactical mistake cost the USA a chance to gain at least a draw.

The common method of defending corner kicks is to place a defender on each post thus reducing the area of the goal that the keeper needs to protect. Some coaches prefer to leave one post or both posts without a defender which adds to the number of players which can cover attackers in front of the goal. Obviously, if an offensive player can still get his head on a corner kick against a goal defended with open posts then the open-post strategy is worthless. This is one of those times so common in sports when an uncommon tactic is a genius idea if it works and a goat idea if it doesn’t. So coach Klinsmann had the USA leave the far post open on a Mexican corner in the 89th minute and Rafael Marquez hit a brilliant shot with the side of his head into the open post area to win the game. So it was another mark against Jurgen’s coaching which cost the US the game and ended an unbeaten-at-home world cup qualifying streak that started in 2001. After the game Jurgen blamed the failure of the 3-5-2 on his midfield, particularly Bradley and Jones. This certainly did not go over well with those two or the team as a whole. It wasn’t very smart on Klinsmanns part, especially considering the caliber of the next opponent and the motivation needed by the team for that game, coming only 4 days after the loss to Mexico.

marquez-corner Mexico scores a corner against an undefended post to beat the USA.

The next game in the Hex was against Costa Rica and in this match our role was reversed when compared to playing Mexico in Ohio. This time the USA was the visitor playing away to a nation that we have not had any success with when playing in their home stadium. Given the loss to Mexico, one would think that the Americans would be sky high to both A) break the Costa Rica away game jinx and B) get our first win in this round so as to put us in a good position going into the rest of the games. Instead the Americans came out slow, again unable to maintain possession and almost lackadaisical on defense even in the preferred 4-4-2 setup. The result was a 4-0 shellacking by a team that, while competitive with the USA, certainly is not four goals better than our team under most any other circumstance. It was very obvious that Klinsmann was not able to motivate this team to play their best AND added to the tactical and psychological mistakes made in and after the Mexico match AND the controversial stances that Jurgen has taken during the last couple years including the Landon Donovan World Cup Drama, his comments about MLS vs European experience, his seeming preference for dual-citizen players trained in Europe over USA developed players ………well..the writing was on the proverbial wall.

With the change of national coach coming in the middle of the Hexagonal round, the job of replacing coach Klinsmann took on some definite prerequisites. The next matches are in March and , to be sure, the new coach has one specific goal……to get the United States into the 2018 World Cup. It would be nice if the USA could also have a decent performance at that World Cup, but first things must be first. Given the short preparation time before March the new coach should    1. Be familiar with our present players and prospective players.   2.Be familiar ( being experienced would be even better) with our competition in CONCACAF and the challenges of playing away in their home stadiums.   3.Have experience coaching a national team with its unique circumstances.   4.(Optional but preferred) Know the soccer culture of our country and its ups and downs.                                   This list narrows the number of candidates down to a very few ( like maybe 3) and one just signed a contract to coach in the English Premier League. So that left former USA coach Bruce Arena as the most obvious and possibly only choice. Bruce was the national coach from 1998 to 2006. His record of 78-28-27 , a quarterfinal finish in the 2002 World Cup and an American #4 FIFA ranking makes him the most successful American national coach ever. Arena has a much more subdued character than Jurgen Klinsmann and is known for his seriousness about his craft. He has had overall success at every coaching position he has pursued , but a poor performance in the 2006 World Cup cost him his spot with the national team. He has until March to gain the confidence of the USA team and to put together enough wins to get us to Russia. Lets hope his 2nd beginning as USA coach is successful in accomplishing his singular goal of an American presence at the World Cup in 2018.



Brazil 3 -Spain 0 Tactics for the Common Person Part 2

Previously on the Soccer Yoda:

We discussed Brazil’s whomping of #1 in the world Spain  and the reaction to it in soccer circles. And we talked about the basic concepts of Spain’s ticky-tacka style of play and why it has been so successful (please see our last post ).

And now, Part 2:

Teams facing Barcelona knew they must adjust or continue to lose. Since the style typically calls for slow play, they knew they had plenty of time for their players to fall back into defensive positions. So, rather than battle for the ball up field and get beat by the combination of lack of numbers on their part and great ball skills by Barca, they fell back into a defensive shell. They usually formed two defensive lines ,each consisting of 4 defenders, with the backs lining up around the top of the penalty area and the midfielders about 10 yards in front of them. Although the two remaining forwards even dropped back on occasion, usually they stayed farther up, waiting for the opportunity to counter-attack against the drawn-up and often out-of-defensive-position Barcelona defense. By the way, this is not a new nor uncommon defensive tactic against pass-possession oriented teams. I, myself, even at my much-lower- than- world- class level, have seen this as far back as the early 1980’s and as recently as last spring when my under-12 girls ran into 9 pulled back field players who simply refused to cross into our defensive half of the field. This defensive shell strategy achieved some success in lowering the number of goals scored by Barcelona. But unless a team had a very fast ,strong forward or two, it merely delayed the inevitable and made the scores easier to digest. On occasion Real Madrid or Chelsea ( teams with just such an attack) actually won, but it didn’t change the basic Barca strategy.

Typical defensive shell used against ticky-tacka

Typical defensive shell used against ticky-tacka

The question must be asked , ” why not attack them farther up than in front of your goal”? The answer is a bad case of Lionelphobia (I made up that term), which is defined (by your Soccer Yoda) as ,” fear of Messi”. Let’s face it, when playing against the best scoring machine in the world, who has terrific speed, quickness, ball skills AND a nose for the goal; it seems like suicide to give him space by pulling your players up. So, even good teams fell back, tried to absorb a game full of pressure and counter-attack when they got the ball, which wasn’t often.

So far we have considered Barcelona and Spain to be virtually the same squad, just playing against different teams in different competitions. For the most part, they are. BUT, there is one MAJOR difference; Messi is from Argentina, he doesn’t play for Spain. And the Spanish have nobody else at near his level to replace him. That hasn’t made much difference the last few years, other than the Spanish scoring fewer goals -as an example, they won the World Cup with a succession of 1-0 victories. They continue to ticky-tacka, they hold the ball, they make the opposition chase, they fended off the Netherlands in the World Cup final when the Dutch tried to hit them out of their possession. And on occasion, they break through and score plenty, as in their 4-0 win over Italy in the European championship.

So what happened against Brazil?

First, it must be made clear that the Barcelona/Spain defense has gotten much weaker in the last couple years. The combination of injuries and age have slowed them down immeasurably. This makes them even more susceptible to fast breaks than before. They don’t see many of these quick counter attacks though, because the opposition doesn’t see much of the ball. One thing about ball possession; it’s a great form of defense. It’s a fact – a team must get the ball at their feet, even if only briefly , to score. No ball=no goals. Commentators have often spoken about the evils of “possession for possession’s sake”. They say a team must do something offensively with the ball when they have it. Not necessarily so….the best way to play defense is not actually having to play defense. Spain has continued to be tough to score on because opponents don’t get the ball much. As for Barcelona, this past season they decided to attack somewhat more quickly ,therefore scoring more goals. BUT that opened the way for more counters and against the better teams they gave up more goals. When Messi got hurt toward the end of the season, Barca suffered, going out of the Champions League rather decisively.

But remember, Spain doesn’t have Messi.  There is no Lionelphobia. As a matter of fact, there is no fear of Spanish forwards at all. So Brazil decided to play Spain’s game , but from a defensive standpoint. When the Spanish moved to provide their guy with the ball those passing options, the Brazilians moved also. They refused to be outnumbered around the ball and when they got there , they pressured the ball and they frequently got it. And when they didn’t win the ball quickly, they fouled. The ref gave them some latitude when it came to yellow cards, so they broke up Spanish possession and broke up the rhythm of the game. Yes, they opened themselves up to fast attacks. Remember , that’s what you do when you move players to the ball and away from balanced defensive positions. They basically dared the Spanish to fast break on them. And with only a couple exceptions, the Spanish couldn’t do it.

Brazil equaled Spanish number and pressured the ball

Brazil equaled Spanish numbers and pressured the ball

So what about at the other end? The Brazilians knew the fast attack was on-  find the open spaces and run! And they have their own version of Messi!

Neymar da Silva Santos Junior is a fast, skilled 21 yr old Brazilian forward who has been lighting it up in the Brazilian league for a couple of years. He was somewhat young and inexperienced on the national level, but no more. He scored amazing goals in the Confederation tournament and created more goals for others to score. To go with him the Brazilians have Fred, who doesn’t seem to do anything except 1)magically appear in the opponents penalty area whenever the ball arrives there and 2) find a way to put it in the goal- even if lying on top of it, as he did on Brazil’s first goal Sunday.

Fred scores lying on the ground

Fred scores lying on the ground

fred 3

So the Brazilians pressured Spain at the ball instead of falling back into a shell, they attacked quickly at the Spanish defense knowing that the Spanish would be out of position because of the ticky-tacka style of offense and knowing that they were quicker and faster than the Spanish defenders. Why-because of Spanish age? Yes ,but mostly because of Neymar. AND they knew the Spanish offense would probably be too slow and unskilled to take advantage of the space the Brazilians would give them. They were right on all accounts. Oh, one other thing……not small….at any level of any type of competition….The Brazilians simply wanted it more. Sergio Ramos ,longtime Spanish defender said after the game,” one day the moment will arrive when you don’t win, we are not machines”. It seems as if the Spanish almost expected to lose. The Brazilians had something to prove, they were at home, they were quick , fast and well rested. The Spanish were none of that.

So, what is the future of ticky-tacka? Is it dead like many are proclaiming? Is Barcelona and Spain in big trouble? Well, not Barca. While it is true that they could certainly use some youth and speed on defense, they have something Spain does not…..actually TWO things that Spain does not. As mentioned before, Messi is still there, providing a good reason for teams not to take the chances that Brazil took against Spain. And if that were not enough, Neymar- the very player who made the Brazilian strategy viable, moves to Barcelona this season. Any team pressuring up field against Barcelona will have to deal with arguably the two best scoring threats in the world. Messi and Neymar and ticky-tacka–oh my!(Sorry about the old movie reference)

As for Spain….they have a year until next summer’s World Cup to figure out what to do. They need better forwards, they need faster defenders, they now have the motivation to make up for Sunday’s defeat. As Iker Casillas ,the Spanish goalkeeper said,” this wasn’t the World Cup”. Time will tell.