Time does not tend to abide clean lines. It is a ragged, clawed thing that rips through narrative and leaves you gasping at its ruthlessness. There are rarely Hollywood bookends.
The time elapsed between Mexico’s dizzying 2-1 win over the USMNT in Columbus and Sunday night’s 1-1 draw at the Azteca was exact, to the minute – seven months. The time it took from one to the next was practically a lifetime passing underfoot: a coaching change, a shift in resources, a new tack entirely. But it also represented two tactical gambles by two tremendously different coaches against the same eternal foil. And two entirely different results.
A surprise 3-4-3 in Columbus. A surprise 3-4-3 in Mexico City. The former failed and abandoned in a loss on home soil, the latter embraced and used to startlingly effective ends in the belly of the beast. Extenuating circumstances being what they are, perhaps we also understand there was something to this.
To start at the beginning, Jurgen Klinsmann’s embattled tenure with the USMNT was drilling down to its deepest bedrock by the time the Nov. 11 qualifier against Mexico arrived. Klinsmann’s oddball tactical yo-yos were threadbare by then, and his lineup against Mexico near the beginning of the Hex was a thunderbolt of strange. Klinsmann had only run a 3-5-2 in a game situation once in his then 5-year tenure, and even then only for a half. His 3-man back line against Chile early in 2015 had been an enticing project, but he’d seen too much defensive frailty in it and abandoned it on the cutting room floor after 45 minutes. He never again revisited it. Until Columbus 2016.
This was ultimately his lineup, or at least where the average positioning map ultimately told him his XI would finish, tactically.
The problem with this was ultimately multifold. In reality, the USMNT spent little training time with this formation, and there was a reason it appeared disjointed both in its forays forward and in its defensive organization. At the back, the issues largely stemmed from the wanderings of the wingbacks, unarguably the most critical defensive facet in the formation and perhaps the most critical anywhere on the field if this is the sword you choose from the rack. Timmy Chandler had a blinder, and Miguel Layun simply leaned into the space he’d routinely vacate to carve open the U.S’s soft underbelly. Omar Gonzalez’s ensuing defensive rotations were, to put it bluntly, disastrous. Fabian Johnson, instructed by the almost exclusive time he’d spent on the club level in the attacking midfield for Gladbach, was almost entirely uninterested in defensive track-work on the other end. For 30 minutes, until the U.S. switched back to a four-man back line, Carlos Vela worked him into a soft paste.
The middle was perhaps even more of a cyclonic disaster in those 30 minutes. The ideal in a Jermaine Jones/Michael Bradley midfield in an overheated game against a superior possession side is as a sort of hammer-and-anvil, where Bradley drops to apply the workbench while Jones rockets down from wherever he’s drifted to smash possession and restart the attack. This not only didn’t happen, but Jones’ drifting, rudderless ship neither helped the attack nor aided the work in the deepest third. Bradley is hardly perfect, but providing him no easy outlet while Mexico presses its width and targets his areas on pinching possession was a death knell.
The final third, then, was a jumbled mess as a result. Christian Pulisic swung wildly from one end to the other, seeking possession like a man groping for a light switch in the gloomy pre-dawn dark. Jozy Altidore, so prone to unmoor himself from more beneficial areas when the midfield is short-circuiting, dipped ever deeper. And Bobby Wood leaned into center backs with no possession pulling forward.
It didn’t help that Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio, eminently known as The Tinkerer, immediately called the cards in Klinsmann’s hand. Seconds before kickoff, Layun jogged over to Osorio and calmly held up five fingers. After a brief exchange of unspoken communication, Layun nodded, jogged to the left flank and instantly morphed Mexico’s formation from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2. Chandler, the weakest of links, had been the bait, and Klinsmann’s formation chummed the water. Layun tortured Chandler for a half hour before Klinsmann pulled the U.S. out of its tailspin with a formation change. But it was too late. He’d already ceded the first goal.
This was the headache-inducing backdrop for Bruce Arena’s 3-4-3 on Sunday. It invited no small bit of criticism from the public at large, if not for the aching memories of Columbus than for the fact that Klinsmann’s ghost still lingered here. The assumptions carried over, and the notion that Arena tossed this formation out into the ether from a generalized sense of simply knowing in lieu of preparing it deeply was hard to avoid. Five years of expectation dies hard.
And then this.
Bruce Arena on tonight’s #USMNT formation: “We told the team on day one of this camp that we would play that way in this game.”
— U.S. Soccer (@ussoccer) June 12, 2017
And this quote, post-game, offered by a man who played in both games on the poles in Omar Gonzalez.
“I was relieved that I knew that early, for sure,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve had three weeks to prepare for this game. It’s just a different environment, and a different mentality you can take when you know three weeks out when you’re going to play, how you’re going to prepare.
“Sometimes with Jurgen you wouldn’t know until the day of the game,” Gonzalez added. “It’s just stressful, so with Bruce here taking that kind of approach here, it’s been helping out a lot.”
It isn’t as though Klinsmann’s side never practiced the 3-man back line in advance of the Mexico game, but there was never this level of commitment. Arena walked into camp before even facing Trinidad & Tobago – a game that most assuredly did not feature a three-man back line – and threw this formation in the blender. Not as a possibility, but as a certainty.
Here is how they ultimately settled on Sunday.
Three primary differences.
1. The fullbacks weren’t, with the exception of one frankly brilliantly worked break fed off one of the most incredible fueling keeper throws from Memo Ochoa I’ve ever seen, left on islands. DaMarcus Beasley was routinely helped by Tim Ream, who’s played the majority of his recent club minutes as a left back. As Beasley pulled forward – something he didn’t do as much as many feared – Ream calmly floated over to check Vela. Again, with the exception of one fall-down moment it worked spectacularly. The same with Gonzalez and DeAndre Yedlin. Gonzalez hardly had to do any lateral tracking to chase Hirving Lozano, who might be about to move to Europe for $400 million (stay tuned).
2. Kellyn Acosta. He was a stunningly efficient fulcrum in this midfield after about the 40th minute. It took him that long to settle into the match, a possibility that clearly scared Klinsmann enough to stick with Jones this long. The good news was that after some initial flutters, including a nutmeg on the aforementioned goal break, Acosta was among the steadiest players on the field. He also rarely drifted into the Narrow Sea, something Jones has made a dismaying habit of these past few caps. As we expected, Acosta was the pared down Hemingway to Jones’ wordy Faulkner. More Sun Also Rises, less Light in August in the future, please.
3. Geoff Cameron. Look, sometimes it takes a bit of individual Herculean effort to step out of the formation and simply be a bulwark. Cameron had about as good a defensive 90 as I’ve ever seen from a USMNT player in a stage this important. This has little to do with the deployments themselves, but it’s worth noting that Cameron was rarely this supported out of the midfield under Klinsmann. Bradley has, to put it mildly, not looked this comfortable tactically since his dad was on the sideline. Instruction and structure. Two things Klinsmann could not provide with any depth. For some players it hardly mattered. For Bradley, they are the very bedrock of the game itself.
The USMNT had a measure of luck in Mexico City. Mexico was objectively poor in the attacking third, a wanton veil seeming to pull up over their collective eyes as each attack washed over the flipped-back 5-man defense to ultimately peter out and start again. The US deserves its share of the credit for this, of course. This was as shapely and committed a defensive performance as we’ve seen in recent days, and it largely falls on a formation Klinsmann failed to harness in any substantive way.
Arena used its benefits and largely discarded its weak points. Whatever you would say about the performance itself, it produced. And perhaps that’s the ultimate difference between the man that was and the man that is.
I provide you two quotes. I invite you to suppose which represents the Columbus 3-4-3 and which the Mexico City 3-4-3. Perhaps in the end it will tell us more about this match than anything else will.
A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.
Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.