World Cup: Five ways the United States can stun Germany
JUN 25, 2014 3:00p ET
Every last shred of good work from the first two matches hangs in the balance for the United States men's national team ahead of its final Group G encounter against Germany on Thursday.
Silvestre Varela’s late equalizer prevented the United States from clinching a place in the round of 16 on Sunday and shunted the Americans into a position where they must obtain at least a draw to guarantee a place in the knockout round.
The result between Ghana and Portugal could throw the United States a lifeline, but Jürgen Klinsmann and his players will want to control their own fate and snatch the result required to extend their World Cup run for another match.
They must rise to the challenge and subdue the threatening Germans in order to achieve that feat and capitalize on their progress to date. It is by no means an easy assignment, but the United States can complete its task successfully if it adopts the proper mindset, considers these Five Points and performs to its usual standards once again:
Clog the attacking third intelligently
Germany picks teams apart with its work in possession. This group of technicians increases the tempo to a point where most teams cannot cope and relies on its incessant movement to unsettle opposing defenses. The front three -- Mario Götze, Thomas Müller and Mesut Ozil -- interchange constantly and pop up in difficult areas time and time again, while Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos and Philipp Lahmcan supply them with intelligent support from the midfield.
There is no ideal way to combat this sort of vibrant attack, but the best bet involves packing the shape tightly and plugging passing lanes as much as possible. The back four must close off the channels and remain firmly connected. Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones must inhabit the space between the lines and stay compact to shield the defensive efforts. Those measures may not stop Germany, but they will inhibit the ability to combine and prompt them to find alternative and more complex routes to goal.
Communicate constantly to maintain proper defensive coverage
The constant interchanging often confounds opposing defenses. Götze, Müller and Ozil float freely in the attacking third and run at the opposition from a variety of angles. There is no fixed center forward for the two center backs to pick up (unless and until Miroslav Klose emerges from the bench) between them. All three players will take their turns to fill the vacuum and twist the defensive shape into knots.
In order to cope with the mobile approach, USA defenders must maintain their discipline and swap assignments frequently. It requires considerable positional discipline and constant discussion to ensure the shape adapts without crumbling. It is not a particular strength of this group (the tape on Varela's header illustrates the occasional deficit in painful detail), but it must occur in this match. If the United States defense starts chasing players around in a bid to close them down, then it leaves gaps for Kroos to exploit with late runs and provides fissures for the front three to crack wide open with telling passes and runs.
Heap pressure on Khedira and Lahm in central midfield
Both central midfielders will see their share of the ball, but they lack the precision of their counterparts. Khedira and Lahm often play horizontal and backwards passes to maintain possession (and they perform this task well), but they often concede possession when forced to play the ball vertically. Ghana applied pressure to both players early and reaped the benefits by winning the ball in good areas and starting the counter from there.
Expect Michael Bradley to shoulder much of the burden in this department, though Jones will push forward at points as well. Bradley needs to strike the right balance to ensure the desire to win the ball does not prevent him from dropping deeper when the circumstances require. He will also require support from the wingers on either side -- likely Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi, but other players are in the frame if Klinsmann opts for fresher legs -- to direct the play according and restrict the options.
Pick the right times to push the initiative on the break
Germany might present a persistent and potent threat moving forward, but it carries some frailties in defense. Mats Hummels (limited by a thigh injury) and Per Mertesacker can both get caught out for pace. Jerôme Boateng and Benedikt Höwedes are centerbacks masquerading as fullbacks. If Khedira or Lahm are caught on the ball, then the United States can break quickly and pose problems.
Clint Dempsey -- if the current setup persists -- will need to run the channels by himself with Jozy Altidore (hamstring) still unavailable. He isn’t the quickest of lone forwards, but he should look to isolate Mertesacker from time to time in the left channel and use his change of pace to catch out the lumbering centerback. He can also retain the principles he used against Portugal and check deep enough to bring runners into the play when he receives the ball at his feet, too.
Fabian Johnson -- again, only at the right times given the German threat -- will also feature prominently in the efforts. He boasts the pace to charge up from his right back spot and place Höwedes under duress. His preferred route into the attacking third -- starting from deep, staying wide and slicing into the channel -- suits this match nicely, but he must exercise caution and make sure there is cover behind him when he attempts to venture forward.
Understand the demands of the situation and the energy reserves available
Johnson’s predicament underscores the tenuous equilibrium for the United States heading into this final group match. It is an exercise in management first and foremost. One point is enough to carry the United States through. It must pursue the game intelligently -- there is, after all, a benefit to collecting all three points -- without leaving itself exposed defensively.
The margin for error is relatively thin given the exacting demands of playing 90 minutes just four days after toiling through against Portugal in Manaus and the possibility of a potentially crippling Ghanaian victory against the fatigued Portuguese. Klinsmann may contemplate a couple of changes to his starting XI to inject some fresh legs, but the key figures will all remain the same. They must grasp their potential limitations over the course of this game and tweak their approaches accordingly to make sure they retain the necessary spring to cope with the waning stages of this game.
If the United States can adjust its deportment appropriately, limit Germany’s freedom in the attacking third and spring forward at the right times, then it can secure the result required to advance to the Round of 16. It won’t be easy. It won’t be fun. But this American group can produce the performance required to confirm their spot in the knockout round.