USA v. Algeria – A Kind of, Sort of, Preview
There is already a wealth of information floating around the intertubes regarding Algeria, and many have already chimed in. Jonathan Wilson did his usual superb work, and concisely explains how the Algeria formation works in a manner that makes it presumptive to even try replicating here.
By way of overly simplifying matters, the key to the shape is Nadir Belhadj. While nominally listed as the left back in a 4-4-2, the Portsmouth man really plays as a wingback/left-sided midfielder, getting forward often enough that his effective absence results in the three-man back line. Below is a heat map, courtesy of ESPN, which shows Belhadj’s movements and placement throughout the match (this is adjusted, so it represents how Belhadj would look if he had only played on the left, going from right to left along the picture from defense to attack, instead of switching sides at halftime). Note the red just above the midfield line. Clearly, he spends more time forward than a left back–even Ashley Cole.
As Wilson alludes to, Algeria seemed to catch England by surprise last Friday by “reverting” to the three-back formation, although this seems strange, since Algeria had played in a very similar manner during their opening match against Slovenia (though it was announced as a 4-4-2). The map below shows the average positions of the Algerian players. Those with circles around them (orange for defenders, yellow for midfielders, and blue for forwards) were the starters, and have been highlighted to make it easier to spot the actual formation, regardless of subs.
Algeria’s shape did indeed change between the Slovenia and England games. Though they stayed relatively true to a 3-5-2 in their Cup opener, against the Three Lions on Friday they added a few wrinkles, which Wilson doesn’t quite dive into. Karim Ziani (15), Algeria’s most dangerous player, was announced as a winger, yet lined up in a position much closer to a second striker. In fact, as you can see by the map below, he was very nearly playing off the shoulder of Karim Matour (13), who was the nominal forward.
On the other side of the pitch, Ryad Boudebouz (7) also pushed forward—so much so that you could look at Algeria’s formation and argue that they were at times playing in a 3-4-3. Also unlike the Slovenia match, when Algeria remained relatively static throughout the game, they made some significant changes throughout the England match. When it began to appear that a tie—and an elusive point—was in reach, they adopted a more defensive posture.
Upon replacing Boudebouz, Djamel Abdoun (22) moved further outside, assuming a more traditional winger position. Ziani (15) then gave way to Adlene Guedioura (17), who more or less flipped positions with Djamel Mesbah (20), who had come in for Hassan Yebda (19) in central midfield. The effect was to turn that nominal 3-4-3 into a 3-6-1, with Matmour playing alone up top. While the difference can seem trivial, the tactical objective was obvious.
By moving the two wingers further outside, it helped to suffocate Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson—England’s outside backs—on their runs forward (remember how many times Cole came forward in the second half as opposed to the first?). Cole had been England’s best player for much of the match, but the switch helped to stifle his ambition. Again, the defenders are in orange, the midfielders in yellow, and the lone striker in blue.
Confusingly, Algeria’s “official” team sheet (i.e., the one fed to FIFA and ESPN) continues to paint the starting lineup as a 4-4-2, although that’s clearly not the case. With the Desert Foxes looking to pick up three points against the United States—encouraged, no doubt, by the not-so-distant mirage of advancement out of the group on the horizon—it’s likely we’ll see a shape more akin to the 3-4-3/aggressive 3-5-2.
So, what does this mean for the United States? There’s an argument to be made that the United States should simply play to its strengths, which up until now has meant a traditional 4-4-2. Yet with Robbie Findley unavailable due to his phantom yellow card, Jozy Altidore is without a natural partner up top. Bradley could turn to Herculez Gomez or Edson Buddle, but the more likely scenario seems to be Clint Dempsey getting the call.
Why? While Dempsey appeared uncomfortable playing alongside Altidore against Turkey, his inclusion as the second forward would allow the United States the flexibility to adapt to Algeria’s defense. As Belhadj moves into the wingback position, leaving Algeria playing three at the back, Dempsey can fade back to form a five-man midfield, moving from a 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1. Either Dempsey or Donovan can move into the middle, with the other taking the wing. Frankly, they two have become quite proficient at switching wings throughout games, with each occupying a central role at times.
If Belhadj does play further back, Dempsey can simply move further forward, assuming a 4-4-2 shape. (Again, you should take a look at Jonathan Wilson’s article, where he describes why it’s not effective to play two forwards against a three-man back line.)
Donovan should initially stay on the right, where his fitness will allow him to track back on defense while also exploiting the space left by Belhadj’s forays up the sideline. With the left winger spot open, DaMarcus Beasley could get the call on the left. Madjid Bougherra will man the right fullback position for Algeria. While talented, Bougherra is not blessed with pace, and plays in central defense as Beasley’s teammate at Rangers. Beasley’s speed could give Bougherra fits, and if he is able to get behind the defense, his crosses into the box (though admittedly not his strength) would no doubt be welcomed with relish by Dempsey and Altidore. Later in the match, we could see Stuart Holden replace Beasley, with Donovan and Holden switching wings, providing a pair of fresh legs–and if necessary, an offensive spark.
As for the rest of the American lineup, it certainly seems that Jose Torres will be replaced by either Ricardo Clark or Maurice Edu. While I’d like to see Edu in the holding role (for a number of reasons, including his superior on-ball skills, his nose for goal on set pieces, and importantly, his temperament), it seems likely that Clark will reclaim his spot from the bench. If Dempsey is indeed paired with Altidore, Bradley has options beyond Beasley, and could turn to Benny Feilhaber–who really hasn’t done much to stand out over the last six weeks–or to Torres (now wouldn’t that look interesting…) who has occasionally lined up on the left wing for Puchuca. He could also put Holden out there, but with much of Holden’s value tied to his superb crossing ability, he would seem to be wasted on the left.
Now, if Bradley sticks to a 4-4-2 without Dempsey (a mistake, in my opinion), he could look to either Herculez Gomez or Edson Buddle to partner with Altidore. If it’s the quicker Gomez, he would be playing off of Altidore. If it’s Buddle, you’d have two muscular forwards, both comfortable with their backs to the goal and the ball at their feet. Combined, they could create some interesting opportunities for Dempsey, Donovan, and Michael Bradley making runs into the box.
While I think Bob Bradley deserves a lot of credit for the way he has selected, prepared and managed this squad, I think it’s obvious he made some grave mistakes early against Slovenia, specifically with the inclusion of Robbie Findley, who was miserable, and Jose Torres, who seemed uncomfortable in what may be the most important outfield position. If he sticks to a 4-4-2 with Dempsey on the wing, you know he’s going conservative and sticking to his guns (not to mention, the formation that produced a 3-0 victory over Egypt in the Confederations Cup, with advancement out of the group stage on the line then, as well). With Dempsey, he gets more tactical flexibility for the first 65-70 minutes of the game (i.e., until substitutions are made), and has weapons in every attacking position on the field. I’d say he goes with Dempsey, and we see a flexible, attack-minded offense.
I’ll be back later today with some thoughts on the keys to the game.