Five Points: USA directs play intelligently, Germany preserves the false nine
JUN 17, 2014 1:35a ET
Day 5 of this compelling tournament carried extra significance for the United States. It marked the start of this World Cup journey and provided a chance to secure a first victory over Ghana in three attempts.
The proceedings lived up to the buildup. This edition of Five Points starts with a look at how the events in Natal proceeded before John Anthony Brooks headed home at the death to claim that cathartic 2-1 triumph.
USA drives the play right to limit Ghana’s effectiveness in attack
Both teams largely understood where this game would unfold. Neither coach wanted to cede ground in the middle. Neither coach thought Kwadwo Asamoah and Fabian Johnson would receive enough freedom to dictate the terms of the game from their marauding fullback positions. The state of play largely left Ghana to direct most of its attacks on the right side through Christian Atsu and Daniel Opare and focus on DaMarcus Beasley at left back.
Atsu and Opare received plenty of supply and tested the defense consistently. He scurried earnestly and traveled through the space conceded by the lopsided diamond in midfield. Jermaine Jones covered in his center-left position pretty well over the course of the day (and he was, in fact, one of the Americans’ best players), but the midfield rotations lacked the sort of sharpness required to blunt the threat entirely.
The balance of the game hung on whether Atsu could conjure something special with the opportunity. He never quite managed it. He completed one out of five crosses (Opare managed just two out of 11 on the overlap, per Opta statistics) and struggled to get behind Beasley (successful despite a lack of support for long stretches). The inability to either deliver behind the line for the active Asamoah Gyan (superbly tracked by Geoff Cameron for most of the day) or reach the byline limited his end product.
Ghana flailed around in its attempts to produce alternatives. Asamoah eventually exerted his impact with his work on Andre Ayew’s equalizer and showed why the Americans spent so much energy steering the game away from him. There were not enough creative movements to elude Kyle Beckerman (wonderful as the consistent presence in front of the back four) or Jones long enough to construct alternate routes through the middle. And the dynamic eventually kept the reeling Americans ahead long enough to set the stage for the grand finish.
Klinsmann must rethink his options moving forward after Altidore injury
Jozy Altidore serves an important purpose for this U.S. side: he offers a touchstone in attack. He holds the ball up well enough, permits other players to run off him, provides an aerial threat and toils earnestly for the cause. He may not always produce the expected goals, but he always contributes something to the team.
Altidore’s first-half departure underscored his importance to the side. Once the burly striker exited with left hamstring strain, the U.S. flailed around in its attempts to retain possession when playing quickly through midfield. Aron Johannsson operated in the channels and searched for space in behind instead of checking into those same areas. And the ball inevitably found its way back to Ghana to come pouring forward once again.
U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann faces a tactical conundrum if Altidore does not recover in time to face Portugal on Sunday. There are no direct replacements in this 23-man squad. There is no mechanism available to drop Altidore and selected someone else in his stead, per FIFA regulations. The best option for the moment involves asking Clint Dempsey to check back regularly and instructing delivery to his feet. Klinsmann will spend the next few days concocting other ideas as the critical date with Portugal approaches and wondering about the potential fallout.
Germany relies on movement to tear apart Portugal
Center forwards have emerged once again as the preferred option at the top level, but Germany provides an example of the continued utility of playing a false nine with the proper pieces in place. Jögi Low named four mobile midfielders and essentially tasked them with figuring out the best way to combine in the attacking half.
It works because Germany can rely on Sami Khedira and Philipp Lahm to sit deep, Mario Götze, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil to interchange intelligently and Thomas Muller to steal into the perfect areas at the perfect times. Muller’s running creates opportunities for others: he is the nominal center forward, but he is more of a roving presence capable of drifting wide and pulling the shape apart for others to exploit.
Consider the buildup to the first goal in the rampant 4-0 victory over the out-of-sorts Portuguese as a sterling example of the effectiveness of the tactics on the day. Müller drifts out wide right to facilitate a series of intricate touches and presents adjustment concerns for the Portuguese. The center backs can’t roam out there to track him. The midfielders and the wingers aren’t tracking back effectively to cut out the threat, either. And the resulting uncertainty about proper coverage creates room for Mario Götze to burst into the channel and draw a penalty when the flummoxed Joao Pereira hauls him down.
By selflessly vacating the usual haunts for a center forward, Müller provides room for others to thrive. His timing then allows him to dart into areas where he can fill the remaining spaces and round off the moves with timely runs and precise finishes. His performance on this day – including the first hat trick at this World Cup – reflects the vital role he plays and underscores the enduring viability of this system when placed in the proper hands.
Nigeria lacks secondary options to break down Iran
There were no mysteries about the task ahead of the Super Eagles. Iran planned to rely on its cohesive shape, sit deeply and wait for the odd chance to counter without sacrificing defensive solidity. Iran manager Carlos Queiroz essentially packed the middle of the field and dared Nigeria to claim the points with service from the wide areas.
It worked perfectly. Nigeria delivered cross after aimless cross (two out of 29 attempts actually connected and both accurate deliveries occurred after the 87th minute), according to Opta statistics) into the penalty area. Any attempts to carve through the dogged Iran rearguard sputtered due to a lack of creativity. The dynamic eventually ensured the first goalless draw of the competition and lulled just about everyone to sleep between the two compelling matches to start and end the day.
Brazil must mind its flanks against Mexico
The marquee match on Day 6 offers a potential problem or two for the hosts. Brazil is the better side, but its primary weakness (forcing the fullbacks to defend) matches up poorly with Mexico’s primary identifying trait (those adventurous wingbacks). The battle for this game will be won or lost in the wide areas. If Mexico can adopt a fairly proactive stance, fill the right defensive spaces to protect the back three and push forward when Brazil is exposed, then El Tri could nick something from the game.
Group H finally kicks off with Belgium and Algeria in Belo Horizonte. Algeria is a better side than most expect, but Belgium should collect the points by keeping the tempo high and relying on that sturdy bank of four to blunt the Algerian counter. Russia will need to monitor the Korea Republic midfield carefully in the nightcap in order to obtain its desired result. If the Russians can disrupt the cadence in the middle third and limit Son Heung-Min on the left, then they should find some room to exploit the fullbacks with quick and tidy work on the break.