When the U.S. Men’s National Team travels to Antigua and Barbuda this week for their next World Cup qualification match, they should line up in a 4-2-3-1. Not because it’s the best defensive prescription for this game, but because it offers the best attack options.
Half of Antigua and Barbuda's national team—a roster built from a population of only 80,000—plays in a lower division U.S. club team. They don’t often see sophisticated attacks. In fact, they probably don’t see anything in which the scoring threat is other than opposing strikers.
By holding numbers back in midfield, the U.S. maintains more options for deception and creativity. The team arguably can’t be all that deceptive and creative against Spain, but it can be at the slower speeds of play it'll experience against the likes of A&B. It is a game the U.S. simply has to win, and a 4-2-3-1 or similar scheme in which Jurgen Klinsmann's guys aren't camping two or three strikers gives the U.S. the best chance of taking advantage of this opponent's lack of experience with creative attacks.
Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, while listed as forwards, should take the outside midfielder roles. They are comfortable and effective in those positions, in both build-up/possession and counterattacking styles of play. Donovan likes to stay wide, and in fact when playing in space along the right touchline is one of the few truly world-class players the U.S. has. When he drifts in towards the middle, he loses effectiveness.
Dempsey, while without Donovan’s ability to dribble and find lethal crossing feeds at pace, is more versatile (as well as capable of more effective strikes). He’ll go where the flow takes him, meaning he’s more comfortable drifting inside. And he will drift if that's necessary. This opens space for the U.S. rising attack star, LB Fabian Johnson.
Johnson doesn't need space to overlap. He seems more than capable of making runs in traffic. But he also has a knack for floating high at opportune times, like when midfielders are occupied and occupying opponents' attention elsewhere. Coming down the left side, Johnson can effectively feed Herculez Gomez or whoever is occupying that top position—or Dempsey, or Donovan across the box deftly moving diagonally into space from the right.
Two defensive mids allow Johnson to play this role more safely, especially when the two are fairly competent and familiar with one another, as are Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones. Yes, I know a chorus of Jones criticism is now arising, that doesn’t matter, because he’s among the best two the team has for this position. And Jones can be effective in all phases of play, too. In fact, he can be downright explosive in attack phase (he just seems to have trouble putting anything on target).
The notion that the guys who are represented by the last set of formation numbers are the predominant scorers is quaint and outdated at the top levels of the modern game. Well, seen as quaint and outdated everywhere except that other island nation that invented the game. But that’s fodder for a future article. For this one, suffice it to say that if Klinsmann tells Antigua and Barbuda where they need to focus their defensive efforts, he would be playing right into their less than international-quality hands.
The more effective building attacks against an opponent like this will come out of the back or midfield. It's something the A&B defenders don't see enough to handle well. And if the U.S. can pull A&B players too far out of their defending third, which was the mainstay of U.S. tactics in its more successful handful of international results for years, who in the midfield gives the team a better shot at counterattacking effectively than Dempsey and Donovan? I think Spain would agree the answer is no one, at least not at the moment.