Turkey – Defensive Troubles
While it’s dangerous to look too far into the results of a simple friendly (see: Serbia-New Zealand), Saturday’s first half in Philadelphia raised some worrying questions regarding the United States defense, and they weren’t exclusively about Jonathan Spector’s ability to deal with speed down the left wing. The absence of Oguchi Onyewu was painfully obvious in the first 45 minutes, with Jay DeMerit and Clarence Goodson clearly uncomfortable in the early going.
Yet it was Spector who bore the brunt of the post-game criticism, as if his difficulty to deal with with pace only came to light in the city of brotherly love. While Spector made his share of errors, particularly on his mistimed header that was a mirror of Maurice Edu’s howler five days prior, Turkey’s attacking success was the result of more fundamental problems with the U.S. rear-guard.
For starters, Bob Bradley’s approach to the first half seemed suspicious. Given the lack of time spent playing together by Goodson and DeMerit, and knowing Turkey’s offensive acumen, one would have expected Ricardo Clark to line up in his usual holding role ahead of the defense. Instead, he, Michael Bradley, Spector and Carlos Bocanegra were all pushing forward, leaving the United States extremely vulnerable to counter-attacks.
Further compounding the problem was that neither Landon Donovan nor Benny Feilhaber made much of an effort to track back, allowing the Crescent Stars even more room for runs down the flank. Whereas the US has looked compact and organized in many recent big games, this was the opposite–a porous defense suffering from a lack of communication with the midfield. To provide some visual context, here is a look at some of the key early plays.
The first sequence takes place just five minutes in. With Turkey moving the ball upfield with a series of quick passes, the U.S. defense is already on its heels, particularly in the middle. Ricardo Clark had been pressing higher than normal, allowing—as John Harkes correctly pointed out—Selcuk, Sanli, and Kazim far too much room to operate in the middle. In this first image, it looks like the U.S. is well positioned. The unseen threat, however, is posed by Arda Turan, who is just out of the screen at top left.
Sanli receives the ball from Selcuk, and immediately cuts in from the right. Bocanegra stays on Kazim, with DeMerit and Goodson holding their positions, moving slightly over to follow Sanli. Three separate mistakes soon converge. First, DeMerit failed to properly close down on Sanli. Second, Clark was stuck behind the flow of play, chasing Sanli without aiding the defense. Finally, Donovan was no where to be found on the right side. As a result, Spector was forced to abandon the left flank, in an attempt to deny Sanli space.
With Donovan late to track back on defense, and Spector forced to help close down Sanli, Turan was left free. A quick ball from Sanli to the streaking Turan set him free in the box. This sequence would be repeated soon after.
Five minutes later, a similar build-up exposes the same deficiencies (below). The presence of both Kazim and Sanli on the right side meant that Goodson had to stay home. Yet the three earlier mistakes were repeated. First, DeMerit is slow to close down Hamit Altintop. Second, with Clark again chasing the ball, Spector is forced to abandon the wing to help in the middle. Finally, with no help on the right side of the defense, Turan is left free. Fortunately, Altintop elected to take a poor shot on goal. In the World Cup, however, those are the types of defensive lapses that can bury you.
You can make an argument that Spector should have simply left Selcuk to DeMerit and moved back out to Turan. In reality, however, he couldn’t let Selcuk go unchecked. At the end of this play, a furious Tim Howard showed his displeasure about the space afforded to Turkey right outside the American box, screaming at DeMerit, Goodson, and Spector.
In the 14th minute, we again see the same thing. Perhaps more bizarrely, this was following a clearance from Howard. Still, Clark and Bradley are both pushed up high, and Donovan has come into the center of the park from the wing. Once again, Turkey is gifted a four-on-four break. Kazim, at the bottom-right, is picked up by Goodson, who comes from out of the picture. DeMerit moves out to take on Sanli, but with Clark trailing behind and Sanli again cutting across the pitch, Spector needs to at least hedge in from the right side.
The result is the same—Turan is left out wide with too much space. Sanli played a neat ball in, which Spector misjudged and got turned around on. Still, with space in the middle of the field, no help on the wings, and an attack moving across the pitch, Spector is left out to dry.
It should be noted that the defense improved immediately following the Turkey goal (a goal which isn’t even worth breaking down here, except to say it was a complete and utter collapse). Seemingly, three changes were made defensively. First, Clark fell further back. Second, Donovan and Feilhaber switched wings, with Donovan moving back to the left, and began tracking back. Third, the communication amongst the back four, and particularly between DeMerit and Goodson, visibly improved.
Just minutes after Turan’s goal put them ahead, Turkey again came on a counter-attack in the 38th minute. The Americans were mostly forward, with Dempsey and Bocanegra swinging consecutive balls into the box. This time, however, the communication and positioning at the back was far better. Clark had kept further back, offering defensive cover in the middle. With Spector still forward, DeMerit quickly picked up Turan coming down the left, while Goodson marked Kazim making a run through the middle. What’s notable is the communication—in the picture below, you can actually see Goodson pushing DeMerit to switch off onto Kazim, almost like they were defending a pick-and-roll in basketball. The play ends with DeMerit overpowering Turan on the sidelines. They were successful because they had some cover in Clark; DeMerit made a quick (and solid) decision to stop Turan; and Goodson and DeMerit effectively communicated in the middle
There are a few points to all of this.
First, while Cherundolo certainly seemed more steady than Spector at right back, the reality was more complex. Improved American possession cut down on Turkey’s chances. The presence of Onyewu and Torres had a large impact, with Gooch clearing out the middle of the field, and Torres providing a surprising amount of deep defensive help. Furthermore, the team defense, particularly in regards to the midfielders tracking back on the wings, was much improved. While I understand the sentiment that Cherundolo offers better defensive form, there’s a bit more to the story, and it wouldn’t shock me to see Spector start against Australia (though if I were betting, my money would probably be Cherundolo). What needs to improve is the team defense–the spacing, positioning, and communication.
Second, while I only touched on this, I’m surprised more hasn’t been made about the way the Americans lined up, as it often only vaguely resembled the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 that was announced. Considering Turkey’s quickness and skill, the U.S. took a rather aggressive approach, which was masked in the first half as they struggled to gain possession. At times, Donovan was so consistently forward that it took on a look of a 4-3-3. Both Bocanegra and Spector were constantly finding their way into the attack, at times resembling wing backs. As mentioned, Clark and Michael Bradley also played forward, seemingly trying to press Turkey high upfield, with only limited success. While we saw Bradley and Clark line up as twin holding midfielders throughout much of the Confederations Cup—taking the shape of a 4-2-2-2—it often seemed like neither was playing that spot in the first half. Finally, while it wasn’t all that surprising to see Donovan pushed high, his lack of defensive help seemed out of character. (Note: I’m not advocating for Bradley to play further back–I believe we’re at our best when he can move forward and play box-to-box).
Third, this gives us a clear indication of areas for improvement ahead of June 12th. In some ways, the English attack is an inverted version of Turkey’s, with the notable exception of Wayne Rooney. Where Turkey tends to use it’s wingers on the left side to provide width (Turan on Saturday, although Sanli played there at times during qualifying), and attack with Sanli and Selcuk from right to left, England just as often does the opposite, using Aaron Lennon (and, once upon a time, Theo Walcott) down the right flank (i.e., left side of the defense), while Steven Gerrard and Rooney tend to come in off the left wing and into the middle.
Starting on Saturday against the Socceroos, I expect Donovan and Dempsey to stay on the right and left, respectively. While Dempsey will need to get back to help deal with the duo of Lennon and Glen Johnson a week on, Donovan will be kept busy on the right side by Rooney, Gerrard and Ashley Cole. To me, the Cherundolo and Spector argument is not finished. The real interesting part will be who takes the spot next to Michael Bradley. Against England, I’ll put money on Maurice Edu, but if the kind of space given to Turkey is afforded to Gerrard, Lampard, and co., the scoreline isn’t going to be 1-0 at the half.
Might take a look at the offensive formations against Turkey in the next few days…