Posted by: mdegeorge | November 16, 2011

Glimmer of hope emerges from fog of Ljubljana

The exclamation “eureka” is said to have been coined by Archimedes centuries ago. You have to wonder if, being so close to the Greek peninsula Tuesday, United States head coach Jurgen Klinsmann uttered those three enlightened syllables at some point in the first half of his USA team’s 3-2 triumph over Slovenia.

It remains to be seen if Klinsmann can boast the ancient Greek renaissance man’s claim to move the world if given a suitable place to stand. But after some badly needed signs of offensive life that resulted from formation tweaks Tuesday, the German coach has to at least feel a bit better about his ability to move his team toward a World Cup.

It wasn't on the order of the World Cup triumph over Algeria, but Jozy Altidore and the US attack got a much needed reason celebrate Tuesday against Slovenia. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The numbers were not pretty in the Klinsmann era: 1-4-1 with a mere two goals in six matches in charge. And while the result against the Green Dragons is little more than window dressing to cap one of the national team’s worst years in over a decade, it’s much needed relief even for a coach insistent that he’s not yet at the point at which results matter

“It looked much better,” Klinsmann said after the game. “It’s a process, and that process, besides results, is going really well.”

For one of the first times in his stint, the results and the process both bore fruits. Switching to a 4-4-2 formation, by far the most logical arrangement for this team, the Red, White and Blue produced a veritable offensive bonanza in the first half. Each member of the strike pairing found the scoresheet – Edson Buddle in the 9th minute and Jozy Altidore on a penalty in the 43rd – while Clint Dempsey, also in an advanced role as the head of the midfield diamond, got on the board in the 41st minute.

It should be painfully evident to Klinsmann at this point in his tenure and with a lengthy break to stew over his options that the formation the deployed against Slovenia is the one best suited for his team’s needs. The five-man midfield crutch upon which he, and Bob Bradley at the end of his reign, has been leaning upon makes selection easier given the glut of midfield options and relative paucity of choices for strikers.

But the offensive creativity shown by the US Tuesday has been in rare supply. The first goal is part and parcel. The opening arose from a Slovenian error at the back, but it was caused by pressure applied by the front-running trio. It was purely a numbers game: Three Slovenian defenders and goalkeeper Samir Handanovic were outworked by three US attackers and forced under pressure, allowing Buddle to pounce. The Ingolstadt striker still had plenty to do with the loose ball, and it was an excellent finish.

Not all the news was positive, as the defense was sliced open on several occasions, including a torrid stretch early in the second half when the Green Dragons pulled a goal back after peppering Tim Howard’s net, finding the crossbar and post on successive moves before Tim Matavz finally found the back of the net for a second time on the night.

Some of the defensive shortcomings are attributable to the change in formation, leaving just one holding midfielder perched in front of the back four as opposed to the two present in former 4-5-1 formations. But for a team that has lost four 1-0 decisions in the last four months, the offensive needs far outpace the defensive concerns. Continuity on the back line, where selection is much more stable than in the ever-changing midfield, is much easier to come by simply with time. And the two goals allowed only make seven concessions in seven matches with Klinsmann in charge, a total that should yield far more than two wins were it not for such an anemic offense.

The story of Tuesday was offense: It was the problem coming in, and hope that resolution could be on the horizon was provided. Altidore looked much livelier with a partner up top, and Buddle proved himself again to be an able scorer in his nation’s colors. The ability of those two to develop a rapport could produce a prolific pairing. Altidore and the US were most successful when they had a second striker like Charlie Davies to run off the balls being flagged down by Altidore, something Buddle doesn’t do much of. But as the two get more playing time together, those types of tendencies can be developed and refined.

As for the midfield, the diamond formation is what Klinsmann must tailor the available personnel too, not the other way around. Dempsey is ideal as the modified trequartista: Defensively, he’s responsible enough to track back and slow attacks, while the role gives him the ability to possess the ball in dangerous areas and forces him to stay high up on the pitch and involved in the attack.

Fabian Johnson showed himself well in his first start and looks like an able candidate to fill a wing position. Along with Landon Donovan, who still must be first choice on the left side, Brek Shea, Sasha Klejstan, Stuart Holden (when healthy) and others, there are plenty able to fill that role. The narrowness of the formation also allows intervention by the fullbacks, which Timmy Chandler and Steve Cherundolo did well Tuesday.

The question that arises in the 4-4-2, and I suspect a reason why Klinsmann was so reticent to deploy it, is the question of the central midfield role. The midfield diamond reduces the number of players deployed from what is arguable the team’s deepest position to just one. Klinsmann tried to mitigate that by using Michael Bradley in the right side of midfield, and the Chievo Verona man acquitted himself well there. That role would also seem well-suited for Jermaine Jones, who made a brief substitute appearance.

Kyle Beckerman, however, looked ineffectual and tentative at times in the deep-lying role. It would be interesting to see this formation with a more aggressive central player, perhaps Bradley (as he’s likely to be displaced whenever Donovan returns in favor of Shea, or when healthy, Holden) or Maurice Edu holding.

Questions certainly remain after the first half-year of the Klinsmann era. Before Tuesday, the only definitive results had been about who wasn’t of national team caliber.

At least Klinsmann and his crew can head back to the drawing board in the new year with new direction, one with at least a bit of success behind it.

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