First Tackle, First Foul, First Shot, First Goal
A few final thoughts on tomorrow’s critical match with Algeria. Here are my keys to the clash:
1. First Tackle, First Foul, First Shot, First Goal
In 2002, Bruce Arena gave his American team a pregame talk before they took the field against a Portugal side tipped by many to contend for the biggest prize. In sharp, concise words, he laid out four clear objectives for his team: make the first tackle, commit the first foul, take the first shot, and score the first goal. The message was unmistakable: be aggressive from the opening whistle, and take the game to the opponents.
For all the tactical nuances that could come into play tomorrow in Pretoria, the match will hinge on the ability of the United States team to fight aggressively from the moment they take the field—and continue it for 90 minutes.
For the Americans, that means one thing: get Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley involved early. The United States started brightly against England (Gerrard’s goal very much notwithstanding), and it had much to do with the early involvement of Donovan, Dempsey and Bradley. If the ball is at Donovan’s feet, the United States will have the opportunity to dictate the tempo of the game. In the middle, Bradley’s ball distribution has markedly improved, and he’ll need to take advantage of any space he’s given to help pull the strings.
If, however, the Yanks revert to the form they showed in the early stages of the Slovenia match, when the offense consisted largely of Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu blasting poor balls forward to Jozy Altidore, they’ll quickly be put back on their heels.
Donovan and Bradley must orchestrate from the opening whistle, and take the game to Algeria. If they don’t, the United States could slip into another lackadaisical early performance, and we’ve seen all too well the damage that results.
2. Own the Midfield
If the 18-yard box often mimicked a rugby scrum on Friday, the middle third of the pitch tomorrow could well pass for a Big 10 football game—three yards and a pile of dust. Yes, Algeria tends to attack via the wings, utilizing the creativity and skill of Karim Ziani and Belhadj. But playing a five- and sometimes six-man midfield, there are plenty of bodies clumped up throughout midfield.
Algeria’s three-man defense is possible only if they can dominate the midfield. By bottling up the middle and using their wingers/wingbacks to press high, they (aim to) prevent the opposing outside midfielders from getting into dangerous positions against an out-manned back line.
That being said, Algeria needs three points from this game, lest they haven’t a chance of moving to the knockout stages. While it’s unlikely that they’ll leave the tunnel with guns blazing, it seems reasonable that they could push their outside players forward as the game wears on, shaping up close to the 3-4-3 that they appeared to be in at times against England. Still, their focus will be on the American flanks, so Bradley and his midfield partner should have room to operate. It’s also why I believe that playing Dempsey up top gives the United States the flexibility it will need, as he can comfortably drop back into the middle, or switch out to the wing as Donovan drifts in.
After 90 minutes, the team who wins the midfield battle will walk away with points.
3. Protect the Middle
I won’t elaborate much on this point (you can see my thoughts a few posts below), but defensively, the United States must eliminate the space in the middle that has been all too available for England and Slovenia. They cannot afford to let Ziani sneak in between Onyewu and DeMerit, nor can they allow the kind of room that led to Valter Birsa’s strike for Slovenia. Bradley and Clark/Edu will need to communicate well, and avoid being overrun.
A final thought on the lineup. If I had a gun to my head, I’d say Bob Bradley will play it conservative, placing Buddle or Gomez as a second forward with Altidore, allowing Donovan and Dempsey to remain on their wings. Like everyone else, the Clark/Edu decision seems to be a toss-up. I simply wouldn’t rule out a surprise appearance by Beasley on the wing. He has the experience to step into a high-pressure environment and deliver–a trait we simply cannot yet attach to Buddle or Gomez. Enjoy the game, and feel free to leave your thoughts on who should start tomorrow.