“Football is a tale of two-halves”, the old cliché couldn’t have been truer than when the USMNT travelled to Honduras for their 3rd round match of World Cup Qualifying. Trailing 1-0 at halftime, the USMNT looked lost. Without ideas in possession, and a poor and uncoordinated pressing structure out of possession. With three subs made at half time, and a change in formation from a 5-2-3 to a 4-3-3, the USMNT managed to turn a dyer first half performance into an extremely important 4-1 victory picking up all three points on the road.
The new formation was not the only halftime change, as the USA also began to pressure higher up the picture and more aggressively. A xG increase from .49 in the first half to 1.54 in the second half helps to tell the story for the Americans offensive improvement, while Honduras first half xG of .82 dropped all the way to .34 in the second half.
The USA also managed to decrease their PPDA (passes per defensive action) from 9.9 in the first half to 7.7 in the second half; a clear indication of their increased pressure.
First Half Issues In Build-Up
It is no secret that under Gregg Berhalter, the USMNT has put a lot of emphasis on building play from the back through short, controlled passing sequences – and coming into a high-pressure environment like the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano is going to test their resolve and ability to do so. One basic principle that most sides trying to implement this style follow – is to offer support to a pressured ball carrier. Multiple times throughout the first half, the midfield and attack was far too disconnected from the back three and did not offer the needed support by showing for the ball to relieve pressure. Midfielders became a bit too static, and the front three at time remained too advanced with little to no movement between the lines. This forced the backline into playing longer balls to relieve the pressure themselves – but with big distances between the lines, second balls became difficult to control.
In the image below, right centre back Miles Robinson receives with his back foot, however he remains orientated towards the sideline and takes his first touch back towards where the pass comes from. In addition he is being pressed from in-to-out towards the sideline and Tyler Adams attempts to direct him to play to the support and switch the play. Instead, John Anthony Brooks remains in the cover shadow of the Honduran striker, and Kellyn Acosta remains static in the midfield without offering immediate vertical support. The red movement arrows are not the positions which they actually take up, but movements which would have helped with progression and maintaining possession. Instead of attempting to play out of the press, Robinson takes the easy way out and plays a long ball up to the frontline.
With such big distances from back-to-front of the USMNT build-up structure, connecting on these types of passes is not an easy task. While stretching the opposition backline with depth is necessary, the space between the lines which that creates should also be occupied. In this particular situation there is no one occupying that space and Robinson´s pass is cut out by Honduras, and possession is lost just like that.
A similar situation shown below – in the first image Robinson plays up to the feet of Acosta who is showing for the ball this time. However, the central center back Brooks, is not taking out any depth and offering himself as a passing alternative opposite of Robinson; if Brooks was to receive the ball in this situation he would have little to no time on the ball, this would not be as big of an issue if the left center back, Mckenzie, was dropped a bit deeper. Instead, he has pushed into the midfield and Bello is pushed up all the way in the attacking line.
Acosta, who is immediately pressured from behind upon receiving, plays a one touch pass back to Robinson. Brooks has put himself into an even worse receiving position now by continuing to push forward, and Mckenzie is still not within sight on the left, leaving Robinson really no other option than to play support to Turner who simply plays a long ball up to the attack where possession is lost once again.
Structural Problems With First Half Pressing
In the first half, the USMNT defended predominately out of a 5-2-3 mid-block. A few problems occurred with this structure which I will highlight below. Anytime a team presses with a front three, the distances between those players is extremely important; if they do not remain tight it becomes very easy for the opposition to play through the lines and eliminate three players with one pass. This is typically why when teams who play a 4-3-3 often defend from a 4-5-1 structure when defending from a mid-block – by dropping their wingers outside of the midfield trio.
In the below image, Honduras is building play from the back utilising a back four structure (something important to remember for the 2nd half), they use two centre backs and push the fullbacks high to the outside of the American midfield duo. The big distances between the front three allows for Honduras to easily bypass the first line of pressure into the midfield, on top of this, the distance between the front three and the double pivot is also too big, allowing for the Honduran midfield to receive on the half-turn and carry the ball forward.
Opposition players facing goal with the ball at their feet is not good, something which should be avoided and prevented in a much better manner. This particularly holds true when the US defensive shape is only offering two players in central areas, with both wingbacks holding shape in the back five.
Below is a great picture showing the structural problems which occur when the midfield gets overloaded due the backline holding shape with five, and the front three being bypassed so easily.
Another example below where the USA is setup in their 5-2-3 mid-block. Again, we see the distances between the front three is quite large, allowing for Honduras to play through the lines and bypass the first line of pressure. Without all the context it is hard to come to any exact conclusions, but in this set up with just two players covering the entire width of the midfield, it would typically be better to remain tight with the front three and force the opposition around the block, where the wingbacks would be able to jump and pressure the opposition wide players. Instead, the gaps between the front three are wide enough for Honduras to play through, and the American double pivot is overloaded in the midfield making it relatively easy for Honduras to receive. Once again I am going to highlight the Hondurans use of a back four to build play here, giving them a 4v3 overload against the USA first line of pressure.
While analysing goals as isolated situations does not always offer the best insight, interestingly enough the goal conceded by the USMNT came as a result of the aforementioned structural problems.
Again, here we see Honduras building with their two centre backs in this sequence, and a very disjointed and disconnected press from the American front three.
The frontline is easily bypassed, and Honduras are facing goal between the lines in the midfield as pictured below.
What this means, is once again the double pivot gets overloaded centrally due to the lack of support from the wingbacks who are hesitant to join the midfield; in turn forcing Brooks to jump from the backline and pressure in the midfield. This decision from Brooks is not necessarily the wrong one, however the execution and intensity of the pressure is simply not good enough to prevent Honduras from creating chaos in the American structure and in the end getting in behind the backline to score the opener.
Second Half Switches
Not only did the USA change to a 4-3-3 formation as mentioned above, but Honduras also made some halftime adjustments. While playing with a somewhat fluid backline in the first half – at times building with three and at times building with four, it became a more rigid back three in the second half. This change along with the USA´s new found aggressive pressing approach, made the circumstances for them to break the first line of pressure much increasingly difficult.
Below we can see a decent example of this change. Though the front three of the US is still relatively wide, they are now essentially pressing man to man, meaning the passing lanes between them are no longer quite as straight forward. This is due to Honduras no longer having the numerical advantage of the back four in build up.
The extra man in the American midfield means that the numerical superiority for the Hondurans in the midfield also no longer exists, making it easier for the attacking midfielders to step into pressure and prevent the Honduran midfielders from receiving on the half-turn if the first line of pressure was broken, as seen below. A a bit more context to follow in the next highlighted sequence.
Adding a third player to the midfield in the second half, meant that at times when the US lines were played through, they had an extra body in behind to pressure the Honduras players before they were able to attack the American backline, and force them into decisions on who should step out to pressure, when they should step out to pressure and how they should cover behind that pressure.
Here, the line is broken, but the staggered positioning of the American midfield allows for Sands to quickly recover and pressure the Honduran midfielder before he is allowed a clear run the the backline.
This allows for the back four to remain intact and compact, without having to make as many quick decisions in their positioning and leave the comfort of the backline.
More Central Options
With Honduras beginning to lose a bit of energy in their press, along with the US having an extra passing option centrally, finding the free man in the build became a simpler task. It seemed to be fairly evident that most of the American players were more comfortable in the standard 4-3-3 formation. They appeared to understand their roles better as well as make rotations and movements which looked more natural then when they were attempting to create and occupy space in the 5-2-3 shape.
Here, with the four man backline and three central midfielders, their was a bit more room for rotations and dynamic runs compared to the more static nature of a formation which uses wingbacks. Pictured below is a really nice attacking pattern where the US were able to build play from the back finding the free man through quick passing patterns.
The ability for the US to make off-the-ball runs increased their ability to find players with third man movements, in turn breaking the press with more options around the ball carrier. Continuing the above sequence, again we see the off ball movement and understanding of roles in the 4-3-3 allowed for more freedom in the build up.
Below we can see another example of a more proactive midfield approach in order to progress the ball. With Sebastian Lletget playing a support pass to Mckenzie, then both Lletget and Adams dropping to receive on either side, it not only gave Mckenzie an additional forward option, but also meant that the Honduran defender had to choose between the two.
Lletget drops down to the left side receiving again from Mckenzie and opens to face goal,
and with both Adams and Lletget dropping to overload the press, left back Antonee Robinson becomes the free man up the sideline where he too is also able to receive on the half-turn with time and space on the ball.
In a match in which by most accounts, the USMNT had a poor performance – it was interesting to take a look at the shortcomings of the first half system along with the tactical adjustments of the second half. Personnel and structural issues were clearly there to be seen, however the adjustments made in the second half appeared to be spot on.