Stars and Gripes

Occasionally interesting insight (and gripes) about the USMNT

Dissecting The American Counter-Attack

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As the final piece in our loosely connected USA-England ramblings, we’ll take a more detailed look at how the United States operates on the counter-attack.  First off, the United States is not a team whose path to victory is premised on holding possession, nor is doing so a requirement for success.  During its run through the Confederations Cup, the United States enjoyed just 47% of possession against Egypt (in an impressive 3-0), and 44% in the famous 2-0 win over Spain.

Possession is a secondary concern to their ability to quickly transition from defense to attack, using their speed to pick apart teams in the final two thirds of the pitch.  Donovan is the catalyst, and at 28, he has perhaps belatedly established a reputation as one of the better counter-attackers in the world (I tend to guard against hyperbole, but the likes of Brazil, Mexico, Turkey and Egypt will attest to his skill in this department).  Despite the fact that he lines up on the wing, he inevitably moves towards the middle of the pitch to orchestrate the attack.  Dempsey will man the left wing, with Altidore and the second striker (or third attacking midfielder) rounding out the necessary personnel.

I’ve dissected this two ways–diagrams that indulge my own self-conviction that a five-man midfield would be more effective against England, and screen shots to show how the counter-attack has actually worked over the past year, specifically against Egypt, Mexico, and Brazil.  It should be noted that the Unite States were in a two-forward formation in all those matches.  So why a five-man midfield?  No Charlie Davies.

Counter-attacking starts with a quick change of possession, which for the United States means Michael Bradley or Rico Clark breaking up a play in the middle of the pitch and commencing the forward surge.  When Bradley takes the ball away from an opponent, two things happen.  First, Donovan makes a run to get into position to receive the first pass.  Second, Dempsey and the forwards begin to move forward.  Bradley has options, but Donovan is the clear first choice.

The diagram below is premised on a five-man midfield, but you can just as simply envision Robbie Findley in for Holden (Findley will be asked to track back defensively, so this isn’t out of the ordinary).  In this first shot, Bradley is starting off with the ball.  The blue arrows indicate the runs being made by Dempsey, Holden (or Findley/Gomez), Altidore, and Donovan.  Like a good point guard following a rebound, Donovan finds the ball while the rest of his teammates begin the break.

Once Donovan has the ball at his feet, he has two options.  He could send Dempsey or Holden clear through on the wings, or could continue his own run forward.  Against England, this will be the most important point in the sequence.  Were Dempsey and the opposite winger/forward able to get behind Cole and Johnson?  Are Gerrard and Lampard properly positioned to stifle movement down the middle, or is there space where a true holding midfielder would normally be situated?  More likely than not, Donovan will look to release one of this options with a quick ball out.  Here, I’ve taken the liberty of having Holden receive the ball on the right wing.

With Holden now on the ball, it’s up to him to make the final decision.  Dempsey has scored goal after goal at the back post (much like Gerrard, mind you), the result of solid runs in from the wing.  No doubt, Holden will be looking first in the direction of he and Altidore (or Buddle).  Rounding out the attack, Michael Bradley will take off up the middle, making one of his patented runs into the box (a criminally underrated part of his game).

With Donovan making a similar move, Holden will have the option of playing a ball into the middle of the field, if space presents itself.  Finally, with Cherundolo moving forward from his spot at right back, Holden will have a third option, utilized when there’s no clear space for the other attackers.  It’s then Holden’s decision to make.  Look for the United States to be aggressive in the these situations against England.  To make a basketball analogy, they Bob Bradley does not want his team playing a half-court offense–they need to push.

Ok, so that’s how it works in theory.  How has it looked in practice?  In my mind, three counter-attacking sequences have stuck out over the past year for the United States, highlighting the different possibilities that it can present.

The first was against Egypt in the Confederations Cup, featuring a terrific run and finish from Bradley.  It gave the US a critical second goal, helping set the table for a run to the semi-finals.  Anyhow, in a slight reversal of roles, this image was preceded by Donovan winning the ball in midfield and playing it quickly to Bradley.  Bradley initiates the break, already having options to his left (Donovan and Altidore) and right (Dempsey and Davies, who is out of the picture).

With Bradley having continued his run through an empty middle of the pitch (really shoddy defending by the Egyptians), he picks Donovan out to his left.  The timing on Bradley’s pass was critical—he didn’t wait too long and put it into a crowded box, but held it long enough to allow Donovan to run into space undisturbed.

Donovan doesn’t hesitate, playing the ball right back through to Bradley, who continued a disciplined run straight into the box.  What’s important, though, is that Donovan had options.  Had Bradley been picked up by the defense, both Davies and Dempsey were available at the far post (they weren’t offside, despite the visual evidence offered by this particular image).

The other two sequences feature a Donovan-Davies combination, which, unfortunately, will not be replicated tomorrow.  The first took place last August against Mexico at the Stadio Azteca.  Again, it’s Bradley setting the play in motion from midfield.  As I mentioned above, you can see in the image that as soon as Bradley receives the ball, Donovan starts his move inward.

Once Bradley plays the quick ball to Donovan, it’s a one-touch through to Davies, who’s off to the races towards the Mexico goal.  Once again, this is a rare combination of Donovan’s vision and touch, and Davies’ speed and class on the ball.

Finally, here’s the last example.  Based on the pure skill displayed, this was one of the finest plays from the American team in the past decade.  In the first half against Brazil, Robinho had played a ball into the box from the wing.  Clark quickly sends it out to Donovan, who breaks with Davies.

A good ball from Clark turns into (again) a quick pass ahead from Donovan to Davies on the break:

Davies doesn’t hesitate, sending the ball right back through to Donovan, who puts it in the net.  As amazing as it may seem based on still shots, this entire sequence took three passes–and no dribbles.

Hopefully this gives folks an overview of just what the American counter-attack looks like, since the phrase will be repeated so consistently tomorrow.

For all the reasons above, and for all the words, charts and pictures displayed over the last week, I still believe Bob Bradley’s best bet is a five-man midfield.  It provides the speed on the wings needed both to shut down the dangerous runs by Cole and Johnson, but also to exploit the space they leave behind.  It gives them flexibility to play Donovan—as close to a playmaker as Bob Bradley has—through the middle or one of the wings, depending on the play.  It gives us speed to stretch the field, but also the touch and skill to keep attacks going, and preserve possession in the final third of the pitch.


Written by Pete Kavanaugh

June 11, 2010 at 10:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. […] Capello’s options, be sure to check out Shin Guardian’s piece here, and Stars and Gripes piece here, which are outstanding and come with diagrams and classical data-driven American analysis that even […]

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    June 11, 2010 at 8:11 pm

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