USA v. Ghana: Redemption in Rustenburg?
As always, I hope you enjoy, and that this adds value when watching the match unfold. Enjoy, and go USA.
Ghana is a young, physical team, who made up for their inability to find the net in the group stage by playing steady defense, particularly in their clogged midfield. Throughout the first three games, Ghana showed tactical flexibility, though the personnel remained static. Ten of the eleven players have started all three matches, the lone exceptions being Lee Addy and Jonathan Mensah (not to be confused with John Mensah, the captain and other starting center back), who each got nods at center back for the injured Isaac Vorsah.
Lining up in a 4-5-1/4-1-4-1 that tends to morph throughout the match, the Black Stars look to overwhelm in the middle of the pitch, regularly clogging the center with four of their five midfielders. Their only true width comes courtesy of Prince Tagoe, the converted striker who is moved outside, where he becomes something approximating a winger. His counterpart on the left, Andrew Ayew, looks to cut inside, often forming a compact triangle with Kwadwo Asamoah and Kevin Prince Boateng. Anthony Annan, a 5’7” pit bull provides a one-man defensive shield in the midfield, often dropping to cover for John Pantsil, the right back who always enjoys a good push forward.
To give you a sense of the shapes they take, below are graphs showing the average position on the field of the Ghanaian players over the first three matches. As you can see, the defense stays relatively true, with Patsil (2), the right back, moving forward and generally playing a far higher line than his counterpart on the left. Annan, the defensive midfielder, stays in a line with the outside backs, in a position to cover for Pantsil.
Ghana’s shape against Serbia and Australia was similar, with Tagoe playing as a modified winger/outside striker, almost as if it’s a 4-1-2-3, only with the left wing dropped off. You can see the clear triangle formed between Boateng (23), Asamoah (21), and Ayew (13), playing just behind Gyan (3) up top.
Against Germany, the tactics changed ever so slightly. No doubt worried about the precocious and deadly Mesut Ozil, Boateng played deeper, offering additional cover for Annan and the defense. Tagoe also moved further inside, playing more as a second striker than as a modified winger.
Yet while Ghana created plenty of offensive chances in the group stage, their finishing was brutal. Shockingly, they are second in the tournament with 55 total shots (the United States sits third at 49), though a rather pathetic 14 have been on target. The Black Stars have yet to score a goal from the run of play, with both strikes in the group stage having originated from the penalty spot. Instead of relying on possession (as a team with five midfielders might presumably do), they tend to sit back and absorb the pressure centrally, relying on quick passing in the center of midfield when they regain the ball.
The United States will find it a challenge to crack the Ghanaian defense, though their astute use of wing play thus far could prove fruitful. For all their physicality, the Ghanaian defenders are not big by international standards, particularly in the absence of the 6’4” Vorsah. In fact, all four defenders will be 5’10” or shorter, forming by far the most diminutive back line the United States has faced (on average, a full 3-4 inches shorter, according to my admittedly rudimentary calculations). While intuition would indicate that set pieces could provide a real opportunity for the United States, Ghana has given little away in the air thus far.
The United States
For the United States, Bob Bradley has a host of choices to make before kickoff on Saturday. He must decide the makeup of his backline, which he threw for an unexpected twist on Wednesday. Up top, he has the now-familiar choice of who—if anyone—should partner with Jozy Altidore. Should he move Clint Dempsey forward, he then must fill a hole on the wing, choosing from one of Benny Feilhaber, Stuart Holden, DaMarcus Beasley or, perhaps, Jose Torres.
If there was only circumspect evidence offered that Oguchi Onyewu was not fully fit, his cement-footed performance against Slovenia seemed to remove any doubts. After playing relatively well against Wayne Rooney and Emile Heskey, he labored versus the Green Dragons. Bradley’s decision on Friday to slide Carlos Bocanegra inside and replace him with Jonathan Bornstein at left back paid off. Though doubts will remain about Bornstein’s ability to play on the international level, he made it through 90 solid minutes without committing the types of mistakes that dogged him in qualifying.
With Bornstein moving patrolling the flank, Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit formed a solid partnership at the heart of defense. Aside from the third-minute lapse that nearly resulted in an Algerian goal (and another US hole), they managed to avoid falling victim to the miscommunications that have plagued the DeMerit-Onyewu pairing since Gooch’s return from knee surgery. Runs into the box were picked out and marked; crosses were authoritatively cleared; and space was closed down quickly and effectively. Bocanegra in particular thrived, relishing his license to play a central zone, and relieved to be freed from marking the speedy wingers that tend to trouble him.
So, will Bradley really revert back to Onyewu to start against Ghana? There are two cases to be made. First, DeMerit formed a much more coherent partnership with Bocanegra than he had with Onyewu—critical against a team like Ghana, who prefer to build through the middle. The central defenders will need to be mobile and alert, two qualities that have eluded Onyewu since his return.
However, to the extent that Ghana does have width, it comes down the right side, primarily through Prince Tagoe and Jonathan Pantsil. Tagoe is a physical force, standing at 6’2”, 180 lbs.—not exactly Bornstein’s cup of tea. That said, I’d still expect to see Bornstein out left. With Ghana playing a lone striker in Gyan (who DeMerit will mark), Bocanegra will be free to help on the left, allowing Bornstein to use his pace to get forward and join the attack, as well as press John Pantsil, the Ghanaian right back who spends as much time on the opponents’ side of the field as he does on his own. If Onyewu is healthy, however, he may well step back in.
To his credit, Bradley was tactically and strategically flexible throughout the group stage. His adjustments versus Slovenia—removing Findley and Torres for Edu and Feilhaber, later adding Buddle for Onyewu to form a 3-5-2—turned the match on its head, while the insertion of Feilhaber for Gomez helped pace the American attack on Wednesday.
Yet his success with substitutions conversely serves to highlight some of his ineffective starting selections, particularly on the forward line. Over the last three matches, the striker starting alongside Altidore has been rather anonymous. Robbie Findley had little to show for against England, and was awful against Slovenia. His core strength—blistering pace—can be neutralized rather easily on this level, where sound defending and positioning are the norm, not the exception. He has prematurely ended more attacks than he’s started, and its telling that his stat line reads two yellow cards (one admittedly awful), zero shots, and one foul taken. His pace can make him a factor off the bench, but he’s yet to make a defined impact on a match.
Herculez Gomez provides a nice spark off the bench, but he had his share of trouble in the first half against the muscular Algerians, failing to put away his only real chance to score. Likewise, Edson Buddle also provides an option, but he and Altidore are too similar to effectively coexist for 70 minutes, and he didn’t look particularly sharp against Algeria, either.
The fact is, the United States attack has been most fluid (the second halves against Slovenia and Algeria) when a fifth midfielder has been inserted, allowing Dempsey to play as a theoretical second striker. Dempsey is more effective coming off the wing, but that’s not reason enough to preclude a position next to Altidore. Playing Dempsey up top effectively gives you a five-man midfield, since he’ll tend to drop back (almost like a false nine) to help with the build-up and link play. Furthermore, it allows Bradley to play one of the other talented midfielders, who can add to the attack and help ensure Ghana doesn’t dominate the middle third of the pitch.
Frankly, I don’t know what Bradley will do. I expect to see Maurice Edu playing alongside Michael Bradley, providing a necessary physical presence and a slick touch. Beyond that, I’m really not sure which direction he’ll turn. I believe the best bet is to play Dempsey as the second forward, inserting one of the four remaining attacking midfielders on the left, and keeping Donovan on the right. The Americans have become adept at running the attack down the right side, so there’s no reason to change that by moving Donovan (which would seen to rule Stuart Holden out of a starting spot, given his penchant for the right side). Either way, we’re in for a heckuva match.