During the recent World Cup the newest popular formation was the 4-2-3-1. Don’t you dare call it a 4-5-1 or a 4-3-3! Spain, the Netherlands, and Germany, the top 3 teams in the tournament, all generally played the same 4-2-3-1 attacking formation.
Although two other disappointing teams from South America, Brazil and Argentina, also played the same formation, some of their sub-par performance may have been due to their coaches’ inexplicable tendency to prove that they could win without some of their best players. Maradona left home his best holding midfielder and best fullback (Cambiasso and Zanetti), while Dunga left home at least three of his best attacking options (Ronaldinho, Pato, Diego, etc.).
To a certain extent, teams like Brazil and Argentina can pick and choose from their country’s best players when formulating their squad. Diego Milito scored two goals in the Champions League final for Inter Milan, but nobody would seriously argue that it was a huge mistake to start Real Madrid’s Gonzalo Higuain instead of Milito. Similarly, Ronaldinho’s omission may have been a mistake, but Brazil had Kaka on one wing and Robinho on the other.
Which brings me to the reason why this article is on a website dedicated to the USA Men’s Soccer Team. Simply put, the USMNT does not have the depth or the talent for the coach, whether Bob Bradley or his replacement, to slot players into his preferred formation. Rather, the coach needs to utilize the country’s best players in a formation best suited to their strengths.
For an example from another sport, look at the coaching styles of Pat Riley during the 80s and 90s. With Magic Johnson at point guard, Riley led the Showtime Lakers to multiple titles. When he later became coach of the New York Knicks, Riley immediately recognized that he did not have the personnel to create Showtime 2.0. Instead, he slowed down the game on both ends and created a grind-it-out style that, although abysmal to watch, was very effective. Even though Riley may not have won a title with the Knicks, this was due more to the team’s lack of talent than any mistake in coaching strategy.
Until Charlie Davies works himself back into the national team picture, the best USMNT formation, for several reasons, is the newly-popular 4-2-3-1. Why? First, Jozy Altidore is our only legitimate forward. As we all saw during the World Cup, Robbie Findley is not the answer. Edson Buddle is not the answer (or at least he won’t be in four years). With seemingly all of our forward options getting limited time with their clubs, it doesn’t make sense to play one of them up top just because we always play a 4-4-2. Thus, a primary advantage of adopting the 4-2-3-1 is that the coach does not need to slot a less talented player into the lineup solely because he needs someone at that position.
On a related note, the 4-2-3-1 is a formation that places our best players in their best positions. Our two best attackers, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, are both best used on the wing. However, they are also needed to cut inside to create goal scoring opportunities. The 4-2-3-1 gives those players width but also the opportunity to move inside. Third, our other talented players get a chance in the midfield. For example, Stuart Holden played in the middle of a similar formation just this week for Bolton, looking effective at times. Alternatively, the new coach could place Michael Bradley in the middle of the 3, giving him more opportunity to move forward in attack, while also freeing up spots for true destroyers at DMF such as Maurice Edu, Ricardo Clark, and (possibly) Jermaine Jones.
Finally, this blog has noted before the USMNT’s problem with keeping possession and accurate passing. This may be one part of the solution. By placing another midfielder on the pitch, players will have more options to pass to when under pressure, instead of being forced to attempt a diagonal outlet to one of the two forwards.
Add it all up and you can see why Grant Wahl commented on his blog that he is “really starting to wonder why the U.S. doesn’t play with five mids, especially against the best teams.”