Stars and Gripes

Occasionally interesting insight (and gripes) about the USMNT

The Case for a 4-2-3-1

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Conventional wisdom amongst US soccer observers holds that Bob Bradley’s squad will take the field against England lined up in a classic 4-4-2.  Given that the Americans have been organized in such a manner throughout much of Bradley’s reign, the move would provide little in the way of surprise.  Yet there’s a case to be made that something different might be in order—mainly, that a 4-2-3-1 formation could prove to be more effective.

Before I begin, let’s get a few things out of the way.  First, I would be perfectly comfortable seeing a 4-4-2—there’s little advantage to changing a formation just for the sake of it (i.e., this isn’t a “Bradley isn’t tactically sophisticated!” rant).  Second, how the players move and interact after the first whistle is far more important than how they’re organized on the lineup card.  Third, others have proposed this switch—I simply want to take a deeper look at the pros and cons.  Finally, this wouldn’t represent a huge tactical switch for Bradley—the US played a 4-2-3-1 in the early stages of CONCACAF qualifying, and it’s not all that different from a flexible 4-4-2.  With that out of the way, let’s have a look…


The attacking component of a 4-2-3-1 is rather dependent on the availability of a striker rugged enough to play up front alone—a requirement made all the more necessary due to the presence of Terry and Ferdinand on the English back line.   The forward’s role is less to score goals than it is to occupy the defense, hold up play, and create chances for others.  Disregard, for just a minute, Bob Bradley’s decision to put a quartet of forwards on the plane to South Africa, since it doesn’t guarantee that two of them must be on the field against England, regardless of whether Clint Dempsey is pushed up alongside Altidore.

Altidore can succeed as a lone striker.  He’s played alone at the top in the past for the US, splitting time with Ching throughout 2008.  During his tenure with Hull City, Altidore did much to polish his game, a lack of goals be damned.  He made significant improvements in his ability to hold the ball and distribute, and his tactical awareness is far more advanced than it was eighteen months ago.


Perhaps the greatest attribute of the 4-2-3-1 is the flexibility it creates in the midfield.  The central roles can be tailored to any approach.  While Michael Bradley has assumed a box-to-box role over the past year, it seems more likely against England that he’ll be deployed as one of two holding midfielders, similar to the approach (a 4-2-2-2) utilized during the latter stages of the Confederations Cup.  Against England, the other holding role should go to Maurice Edu, who combines sharp passing with his natural strength and athleticism—an ideal combination to contain the likes of Gerrard and Rooney.

Quite simply, success for the US hinges on the ability to maximize the impact of Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, whose effectiveness is dependent on their ability to find open space.  Dempsey seems far more comfortable playing on the wings, and particularly on the left, where he has room to run and can cut inside onto his favored right foot.  He seemed unsettled in the second striker role against Turkey, and while he’s filled that position at times for Fulham, it’s been more out of necessity than preference.

(Case in point: in 2009-2010, Dempsey scored one goal in the eight EPL games in which he lined up as a forward.  Conversely, he scored five times in 14 games as a LM or RM, as well as scoring in his only appearance as a central midfielder.)

With Landon Donovan, there’s more flexibility.  Just shy of his third World Cup, Donovan has finally been cured of the ill which caused him to disappear during games, and now adapts to ensure he is the offensive focal point at all times.  While he’s found a comfort spot on the wings with the national team and during his stint with Everton, a central attacking role in a 4-2-3-1 will allow him freedom of mobility, with the option of switching to either wing should the desire arise.

The choice of a third attacking midfielder comes down to Beasley, Holden and Feilhaber.  Beasley offers more defensive cover tracking back, and loves playing on the right (see here and here).  Feilhaber, meanwhile, has the ability to create, but many of his recent performances for the national team have been rather anonymous, and his defensive help against Turkey was lacking.  Jose Torres, for all of his considerable skill and promise, is better suited to playing in a more withdrawn position, and should get the chance later in the group stage.

Stuart Holden fits the role, providing skill on the ball, superb delivery on set pieces, and the ability to switch inside effectively (where he lined up for Bolton, albeit briefly), allowing Landon to move to the wing as he sees fit.  Holden completes the line’s versatility, with each of the three attacking midfielders interchangeable with the others.  He also provides better service from the wings than Beasley, critical considering the areal threat provided by Altidore and Dempsey.

With the personnel set, we still need to justify the tactical change.  The beauty of the 4-2-3-1 is the match-up problems it creates for an opposing defense.  With attacking players constantly switching from the wings to central locations and back, it becomes difficult for the back line to mark the attackers, particularly when the fullbacks are constantly moving forward, as is the case with England.  With a lone striker, the two wide players have plenty of space down the flanks, and the option of cutting inward.

Rio Ferdinand and John Terry, despite worries about fitness and form, will not be overpowered inside the box.  However, both have slowed considerably over the last two years, suggesting an attack that focuses on the space outside of the box—where they’re less likely to roam—could be potent.  Furthermore, by playing more directly forward, you help to remove the risk of Donovan or Dempsey slipping out of the game, while they’ll in turn help to keep Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson in check on their forward runs.

Altidore will need to occupy the two central defenders—and even if he doesn’t, one of Terry or Ferdinand will still be reluctant to track all the way out and cover the central attacking midfielder (Donovan).  You end up, in many ways, with a wasted defender.  In turn, the holding midfielder (Gareth Barry, the English nation hopes) must make the choice of picking up Donovan, staying inside to prevent the runs in from the wings, or waiting to cover a deep-lying midfielder (Bradley) coming forward into the final third.

This also allows the United States to have five possession-based midfielders.  One of the bright spots in the Czech Republic game—and we saw flashes of this against Holland, before Nigel De Jong did his damage—was the possession passing between Holden, Edu and Torres.

The old adage that “possession is key”—which will undoubtedly be repeated ad nausea by ESPN’s finest—is simply inaccurate, as has been proven time and again.  What matters more is the ability do deny solid chances, and to be creative—and competent enough—on offense so as to provide a real threat.  This formation (and lineup) offers that.

There’s a lot more that can be said, and some of it will be worked into future England previews.  Until then, feel free to tear this theory apart.


Written by Pete Kavanaugh

June 4, 2010 at 2:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses

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  1. I know nothing about soccer. But this shizz is awesome.

    Hire Esherick

    June 4, 2010 at 5:35 pm

  2. Great stuff. I would, however, put Beas on the left for defensive cover purposes and Dempsey on the right. Also, Spector seems to be in poor form so I would replace him with Dolo.

    As for getting the space in the midfield… I’m wondering if the 4-4-2 offers us the better chance due to the fact that we can get Findley paired up top with Altidore which would stretch the field a bit. Thoughts?


    June 4, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    • I can certainly see Beasley and ‘Dolo getting the nod, and either would be fine. RE: Spector v. Dolo, I think it’s a toss-up right now. Spector looked rough at times, but I really think too many folks are dismissing the defensive lapses around him (and in front of him). I’ll also submit that Steve Cherundolo wasn’t going to put those two balls into Dempsey in the Confed Cup. Frankly, I wasn’t all that impressed with Cherundolo in either game–he was OK, but he wasn’t great by an stretch. His performance benefited greatly from other changes on the field. Anyhow, I’d be comfortable either way.

      I agree with you re: Beasley–if Bradley is going to play it safe, he might be the choice. My personal opinion is that a few things have changed over the last seven months, and perhaps our thinking hasn’t adapted appropriately when thinking about how the US plays, mainly:

      – The emergence of Holden and Torres as viable offensive weapons
      – The reemergence of Beasley
      – The improvement and form of Bradley and Edu
      – The absence of Charlie Davies
      – The form of Dempsey and Donovan playing on the wings

      The 4-4-2 was ideal for the personnel and style we played with last summer (remember when the big debate was over whether Feilhaber should play more?). Over the course of 90 minutes, it’s difficult for me to see Findley, Buddle or Gomez contributing more offensively than Holden. If that’s the case, than it’s tough to see why we’d force ourselves into a 4-4-2 again. Findley looked very good against Turkey–in spots. He clearly offered something in camp as well, otherwise he wouldn’t be in S. Africa. But it’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that he couldn’t crack RSL’s starting line-up (a knock on his form, not on MLS), but now he should start against England.

      I’d put my money on a 4-4-2 vs. England, but I simply think this would offer something different. Plus, it’s more interesting to think about…

      Pete Kavanaugh

      June 4, 2010 at 6:14 pm

  3. Lovr the blog! The combination of literacy and thoughtful analysis is tough to beat. Keep it up!

    Michael Jennings

    June 4, 2010 at 7:55 pm

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