Having left Portugal and Ghana in their wake, Jurgen Klinsmann's team are now aiming to knock much-fancied Belgium out of World Cup 2014 - but getting the midfield balance right will be crucial, as Michael Cox explains...
Coming into World Cup 2014, the USA’s midfield star was obvious. Michael Bradley had been a key part of their previous World Cup campaign under the leadership of his father, Bob, but he’d progressed significantly since then. An 18-month spell with Roma seemed to transform him from a hard-working, willing runner into a top-class footballer, and his transfer to Toronto earlier this year was a significant coup for MLS.
So far in Brazil, however, Bradley hasn’t been at his best. Statistics show the midfielder covered more distance than any other player during the group phase, which is pretty much what we’ve come to expect. “He has covered so much ground, he is all over the place,” coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “The defensive work that Michael puts in is absolutely outstanding. It is one of the reasons why we barely gave away any chances for Germany in that game, Portugal the same way.”
But that’s the old-school Bradley, the Bradley of four years ago. His contributions with the ball have been rather underwhelming, and if the USA are to progress to the quarter-final for the first time since 2002, they’ll need more.
“I am very, very satisfied with Michael in this tournament so far,” Klinsmann continued. “[But] I know that he has another gear in him…if he steps it up another notch, with other players as well, this gives us a big hope getting ready for the knockout stage, because we know that players have not reached their highest spot yet. He is one of them.
“We know that he can add something extra going forward. He also needs to help with the team by shifting higher up. If we can get Michael more into that role behind Clint [Dempsey], I think we are even more dangerous then. So there is more to come.”
It feels like the whole of the United States is hoping that's the case. But how have they managed to collect results, and turn in good performances, if Bradley has been below-par?
Well, one of the most important factors in their displays has been the excellent midfield relationship between Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman, who play just behind Bradley at the base of the midfield.
There’s been a shift in the structure of the midfield since the start of the World Cup. In the pre-tournament friendlies, Klinsmann had experimented with a diamond midfield, which he intended to play throughout the group stage. However, the early injury suffered by Jozy Altidore in the opening match against Ghana forced Klinsmann to re-shape for the USA’s subsequent two games, with no natural replacement. Dempsey became the lone striker, with Bradley pushed up in support, ahead of a midfield four.
This means Jones was brought inside, where he’s formed an excellent relationship with Beckerman in the middle. As well as boasting two of the best haircuts of the tournament, they’ve also been positionally disciplined, strong in the tackle, and capable of moving forward to help the USA dominate possession in spells – although they’ve often become too passive after taking the lead.
The topsy-turvy 2-2 draw against Portugal was a good demonstration of the trio’s displays so far. Beckerman sat at the base of the midfield, but was happy moving out of his position to win the ball – none of his four interceptions took place in the zone you’d expect for a holding midfielder. He kept his distribution neat and tidy, helping his side to build attacks.
Jones, meanwhile, shuttled forward from alongside Beckerman. He’s repeatedly made good ‘third man’ runs forward in advance of Bradley and Dempsey, and has frequently dribbled forward with the ball too.
Bradley has been good in deep positions, as Klinsmann says, but his work in the final third has been disappointing. He often conceded possession with attempted penetrative balls, and was poor when shooting – somehow failing to score when Ricardo Costa blocked a shot on the line, with Beto nowhere to be seen.
Regardless of Bradley’s underperformance, it’s clear the USA have a good structure in midfield, and a fine understanding between the three. The question, of course, is whether Klinsmann shifts back to the diamond if Altidore is available for the second round clash with Belgium. If so, we might find Bradley’s powerful midfield running is more obvious, and he finally shows his quality in the final third.