The match reports following Germany’s 1-0, October 2009 win in Moscow don’t talk about formation. If anybody asked Joachim Loew why he deployed Mesut Ozil behind Miroslav Klose, the answer wasn’t important enough to print.
Loew’s post-match responses talk about the relief of qualifying for South Africa, his thoughts on Jerome Boateng’s 69th-minute red card – his team’s overall performance. There was no mention of 4-2-3-1.
Now that 4-2-3-1 has taken over the world (of those who dwell on soccer formations), it’s hard to remember that there was real debate heading into that match at Luzhniki Stadium. Would Loew deploy team captain Michael Ballack in a slightly deeper role, making way for Werder Bremen’s Ozil? Or, needing only a point to maintain their hold on UEFA Group 4’s automatic spot, would Loew stay with the 4-4-2 he used throughout most of World Cup qualifying?
In the days leading up to the match, it was a lively debate. It’s not so interesting now that we’ve seen Ozil develop into a quality player. In October 2009, he had just finished his first season as a regular at Werder Bremen. Still, Loew saw the emergence of a player who had long been a prize of Germany’s development system and decided it was time to make a shift. Not only would Ozil finish his ascension into the senior national team, he would bring a new formation with him.
All of which brings me to the US national teams, both the men’s and women’s, both of which are now playing 4-2-3-1. The US men have been committed to utilizing the system since the 2010 World Cup, and with Pia Sundhage toying with the formation Saturday against Canada, the US women may be embarking on their own dalliance with what seems to be the world’s default formation.
For some, the change has been a long time coming. As both US teams struggled in the run-ups to their World Cups, fans bewildered by Bob Bradley and Sundhage’s reliance on 4-4-2 looked at Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and saw how different implementations of the same idea had led to success, and logically asked why the US wasn’t doing that. Why can’t we play that formation? Questioning is, after all, what fans do when teams don’t meet expectations.
But now that the 4-2-3-1 is being used, we’re starting to see why Bradley and Sundhage had been so reluctant to make the switch initially. You saw the reason as Landon Donovan struggled against Costa Rica. You saw it as Clint Dempsey failed to have an impact against Belgium, and you saw it when Megan Rapinoe failed to have her usual influence when deployed in the middle against Canada.
Clint Dempsey struggled to make an impact against Belgium. (Photo by Paul Sancya/AP Images)
Be it on the men’s or women’s sides, the United States does not have a Mesut Ozil. They don’t have a Wesley Sneijder, Xavi Hernandez, or anybody who profiles to be a US, CONCACAF-version of those players.
Donovan and Dempsey are amongst the best players that the US has ever produced, but neither are players who have significant experience as middle-of-the-park, advanced playmakers. And it may be too much to expect either of them to develop those skills at this stage of their careers.
On the women’s side, none of the key contributors to the team that finished second to Japan can imitate either Kelly Smith or Louisa Necib. A dynamic wide attacker known for her motor, Rapinoe may be one of the last attackers who you’d want in that role on the international stage, especially if it means losing her dynamism out wide.
While forward (and burgeoning utility player) Lauren Cheney has the on-the-ball skills for the role, she has always projected as more of a No. 9 – somebody who would slide into Abby Wambach’s spot as the icon’s influence wanes. However, Cheney may not have the quickness of foot or thought required for that playmaking role.
On Saturday, Cheney was actually deployed one level deeper, playing alongside Carli Lloyd in a deep-lying midfield role. Squint and stare and you can see the logic behind this, as Cheney’s distribution is valuable as an outlet in the middle of the park. Open your eyes and shake your head and a more salient rule will come to mind: You shouldn’t be taking your second-best scorer and moving her farther from goal. Cheney is a forward.
USA forward Lauren Cheney in action against Canada midfielder Kelly Parker. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)
Cheney’s curious deployment is a symptom of what has started out as a flawed process.
On both the men’s and women’s sides, the US seems intent on going 4-2-3-1, though they lack the players to do so. In the process, they risk shoe-horning people into positions that don’t suit their skillsets, places where talented players like Donovan, Dempsey, Rapinoe and Cheney will not be at their best. Inhibiting its most talented players for the sake of formation is not a sacrifice the US is in a position to make.
There’s also a canard in this conversation - the assumption that 4-2-3-1 is the right answer. The answer to what is unclear, though you can see the assumption: The 4-2-3-1 is just good, period. To an extent, that might be true, the flexibility of a base 4-2-3-1 allowing a side to morph into a variety of shapes during the course of a match. That doesn’t mean the formation should be the default answer.
While the top three finishers at the last World Cup all played in a 4-2-3-1 formation, semifinalists Uruguay did not. Oscar Tabarez played with both Diego Forlan and Edinson Cavani in La Celeste’s last three matches in South Africa. This summer in Argentina, Uruguay won the Copa America again playing two strikers, Tabarez using a 4-4-2 to guide a nation of 3.5 million to another major international title.
On the women’s side, the US does not need a major rethink. Having finished second in Germany, the team might be better served to find solutions within Pia Sundhage’s established system. Her team made it to the World Cup final on the back of a series of exceptional individual performances, but unable to mask over some glaring flaws, Sundhage should look for new blood in attack, deep midfield, and at a couple of spots in defense to bring the same successes fans hope to achieve with a change in formation.
But if Sundhage is intent on trying this 4-2-3-1, at least she has Tobin Heath – a young attacking midfielder whose vision, quickness and technical quality make her an ideal fit for the advanced playmaking role. Heath has the talent to be a world class No. 10 by Canada 2015 if she’s given time to grow into the role. Unlike her counterpart on the men’s side, Sundhage can at least see her squad filling all the roles in the new formation.
Jurgen Klinsmann has no such options. The players who might be shoehorned into the playmaker’s role are Donovan, Dempsey, Stu Holden and Freddy Adu. Early returns on Donovan and Dempsey are discouraging, while no formation changes should be predicated on Holden or Adu successfully adapting to new roles. Both should be valuable contributors come Brazil, but neither should be put in a position to make-or-break US fortunes.
Jurgen Klinsmann hands out advice to Landon Donovan during a training session. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
When Germany switched to their 4-2-3-1, they had the talent to make the system work. The US does not. On both the men’s and women’s sides, the program has developed its talent to play roles in a system that lacks an advanced playmaker. If the US wants to start using a No. 10, that process has to start somewhere other than the senior level.
Early results while trying the new system reflect the US’s limited talent. The men have spluttered under Klinsmann. While the movement the new coach’s system demands provides some benefit to working with the formation, the US’s talent is better suited to a 4-3-3, provided the tried-and-true 4-4-2 is going to be shunned.
On the women’s side, the new formation saw the US only draw a Canada team that was missing their best player and breaking in a new coach. Not to mention that the US has a long history of success against its neighbors.
Germany never had such problems during their transition. While they had a couple of matches against Azerbaijan to test their new system, the primetime test of Joachim Loew’s new system qualified the Nationalmannschaft for South Africa 2010.
One third place finish later, the decision was further justified.
Nobody asked him at the time, but if Mesut Ozil had never emerged – if Germany did not have a true, advanced playmaker for their match at the Luzhniki – would Joachim Loew have switched systems? It seems unlikely, but as the US has switched without having somebody to play the Ozil role, we’re getting a vague hint as to how things might have worked for Germany had they switched too soon.