In my experience with USMNT fans and media, the single biggest complaint I hear about Bob Bradley is his tactical stubbornness.
From day one, Bradley has implemented the 4-4-2 “empty bucket” formation, with two holding midfielders, two advanced wings, and two strikers.
So far, the formation has done its job for Bradley. The US have paired it with a defensive, counter-attacking style that has led to World Cup qualification, a runner-up finish at last summer’s Confederations Cup, and a 2007 Gold Cup title.
However, things are changing. The loss of Charlie Davies and the development of other players has the team heading for South Africa this summer looking quite different from the one that shocked the world by beating Spain 2-0 last summer.
The old adage about sticking to your guns is one thing, but should Bob consider some tactical change-ups that better suit the personnel he has now, especially considering potential match ups in the World Cup this summer?
Here’s a look at some tactical ideas Bob might want to at least consider situationally if he wants to make some noise in the Cup.
The Current System—Pros and Cons
The empty bucket (above, with Saturday's starters against Turkey) has worked for Bob because it has set his players up to make use of their strengths and effectively inhibits exploitation of their weaknesses.
In short, the US strengths are speed, physicality, and stamina. At every position, the US boasts athletes that rival any other in the world.
Speed—look no further than Landon Donovan, whose electric pace was too much even for the Brazilians to handle in last year’s Confederations Cup final.
Strength—ask Joan Capdevilla how strong Jozy Altidore is.
Stamina—I’d put Michael Bradley and Jose Torres up against any distance runners in the world and like their chances.
At the same time, the empty bucket keeps the US weaknesses at bay, which all, in short, are technical flaws—poor touch, relatively poor passing vision, and limited tactical acumen.
Both lack of touch and passing range of American players is less of a problem when the midfield is bypassed on so many of our scoring possessions. Rarely will the US win the possession battle, but wins and time of possession aren’t equivalent.
The same goes for tactical acumen—just because a Ricardo Clark or Michael Bradley can’t pick a defense apart like Xavi doesn’t mean that we can’t get results.
Most of the biggest US goals in recent history were from counterattacks, long balls, or set pieces. The empty bucket cuts out midfield build up and allows the US to set up strong defensively, where our strength and physicality can be fully expressed, while hitting teams on the counter allows our speed to come to full fruition.
However, as seen in games like Mexico last summer, the first half against Turkey on Saturday, and the second half against Brazil in the Confederations Cup final, sometimes the empty bucket fails to carry water.
I’m not advocating abandoning the system altogether. I think it has worked in key situations for us against certain types of teams. Teams who rely on steady buildup and quick passing often struggle to find gaps when our back four suddenly become a back six.
Still, there is a time and place for everything, and especially in this World Cup, there are some tactical alternatives Bradley should consider.
Alternative #1: 4-1-4-1—Versatility in Attack and Defense
The 4-1-4-1 is a versatile formation, and I think we should try it against England with this look.
Its versatility is its greatest asset, and it fits certain US lineups perfectly. It would allow us to put our best 11 players on the pitch, crowd the English midfield, and focus heavily on defending Rooney, while still enabling us to put some offensive threats on the field.
Torres showed yesterday that his creativity doesn’t come at the expense of defense—his tackling was superb. His inclusion helps our possession and keeps us strong defensively.
Jozy can lead a line. He has all the tools to be a lone forward—he did it for Hull against Chelsea, when he gave Terry and Alex all they could handle, drawing free kick after free kick.
Landon and Clint are still in scoring positions but can also drop back and defend. Edu is your physical holding midfielder, allowing Bradley the freedom to roam forward and back.
However, the formation requires quick passing and patient build up, and the US have yet to show that ability to me consistently.
Also, few teams counter well out of this formation unless their fullbacks are threats down the wings, and I’m not sure ours are technically astute enough to threaten an English defense.
This 11 would be slower than the 4-4-2 we saw in the second half Saturday against Turkey, as well. There's something to be said for a Buddle or Findley who can run behind the defense.
Still, if I’m Bob and preparing for England, I have this in my back pocket. He may not start with it, but if we find ourselves even or down a goal after the half, it might not be a bad idea to go this way.
Alternative #2: 4-2-3-1—Work with What You’ve Got
This works along with the 4-1-4-1, but with this formation, we play more conservatively in defense. We retain our two holding mids from the empty bucket, but with Charlie Davies gone and no replacements that seem as viable a scoring threat, putting a midfielder on instead isn’t a terrible idea.
The 4-2-3-1 requires attack-minded wingers, stout holding mids, an attacking mid with a long motor, and a striker with some creativity and vision. For the first time in US Soccer history, I think we have all those things.
Attacking wingers—Donovan and Dempsey. This shape has them more narrow than a true winger would be, almost like supporting strikers, but it allows them both to get central if needed or attack down the wing. Think Robben and Ribbery for an offensive approach or Milito and Pandev for a defensive approach.
The holding mids—Edu and Bradley, strong tacklers, gritty defenders, and both capable of putting in some mileage without sacrificing offensive ability.
Advanced midfielder—Torres may be a bit green, but he is dripping with ability. He has all the tools to be a fantastic international midfielder, and for those who worry that his slight frame might cost him against bigger midfields like England, this slot lets him track back with less urgency—Wesley Sneijder is an apt comparison. Stuart Holden could also slot in here, and Torres could slide back as a holding mid.
Creative striker—Jozy is ready. He was the lone bright spot in the first half against Turkey yesterday, and against the Netherlands he even looked threatening with virtually no strike support. Jozy can pick out a pass when needed, a skill he picked up in Hull, and he’s a good enough poacher to benefit off of Dempsey and Donovan’s runs.
Honestly, I think this is our best alternative shape. It’s good on the counter—see Inter in the CL final. It can be open when needed—see Fiorentina or Bayern. Most importantly, however, it fits our personnel.
Alternative #3: 4-4-2—Fill the Bucket
It’s crucial to not mix up things too much—players require a certain level of comfort, especially on the biggest stage in the world.
Technically, there’s no difference in this and the empty bucket, but really I'm more focused on closing the gap between midfield and forward, which we did quite well in the second half Saturday.
If needed, this can also be adjusted to a diamond midfield—allow one central mid to hold while the other gets forward. Bradley, Torres, Edu, and even Holden are flexible enough to do this. Clark and Feilhaber are more limited and inconsistent, but both have shown to be capable.
Should Bob stick with the 4-4-2 however, it will be crucial that one of our forwards—be it Dempsey, Gomez, Findley, or Buddle—make diagonal runs behind the defense.
This idea is best seen in the two halves yesterday. In the first half, both Jozy and Dempsey wanted to come back to the ball, but neither would run behind the defense and stretch them out. Jozy did once—and it almost ended up in a US goal. In the second, however, Findley made several runs that stretched the Turkey defense and offered more gaps for our midfield to exploit.
Also, the 4-4-2 will require more energy from our midfield than we had in the first half yesterday. Feilhaber and Clark didn’t cover much ground in the first half, but Dempsey and Torres did in the second half. That was the difference—midfield runs. Both goals came off of deep runs from midfielders, and the next best scoring chance came off a similar run from Michael Bradley, who laid it off to Dempsey for a strike off the post.
Last, and most importantly, Bob must have the courage to put his best 11 on the field, and in doing so, he has to realize that our most creative players offensively—Donovan, Dempsey, Torres, and Holden—are good enough defensively.
Ultimately, it will be traditional American soccer—solid defense, counter-attacking, and set pieces—that helps us advance out of the group stages. Bob must know, however, that he does have creative players who are versatile enough to shift tactical shapes and movements mid-game without sacrificing defensive strength or team chemistry.