When the United States’ lineup came out for Friday’s World Cup qualifier against Mexico, more than a few eyebrows were raised. Jurgen Klinsmann seemed to be trying to out-coach Mexico’s Juan Carlos Osorio, but in the end, he out-coached himself.
Klinsmann opted not to go with a familiar 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 formation that the USMNT was comfortable with. He went with a 3-5-2, which saw three center backs in defense and a crowded midfield. The problem was, no one really knew what they were doing and it was a complete mess. The result was a 2-1 loss after an early deficit that left the USMNT chasing.
The Americans struggled with possession, left gaps all over the field and seemed unsure of their positioning at the start. They conceded a goal in the 21st minute, but a shot off the post before that could’ve doubled Mexico’s lead. In what was tantamount to admission of a coaching error, Klinsmann had his players shift to a 4-4-2 around the half hour mark and they instantly looked more organized on both sides of the ball.
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Of course, it’s not hard to see what Klinsmann was going for. Going into this match, it seemed like the Americans would want to use a formation to boost their numbers in the midfield, which in the past has meant switching to a lone striker 4-2-3-1. But the quagmire is that the USMNT tends to play better with two strikers up top, too. Klinsmann seemed to think a 3-5-2 was the way to get the best of both systems.
Despite that, Klinsmann picked the exact wrong time to try out the formation. It’s not a formation that the USMNT has used with any sort of regularity as a team and it’s mostly an unfamiliar system for the players on the USMNT. None of them generally play like that for their club teams and it’s not the easiest system to learn on the fly either. It’s a tactical approach that has merit and is seen more in Liga MX or Serie A, but it’s not an approach that can learned in short order.
For Klinsmann to force an unfamiliar system in a match of huge importance against a technically superior team was setting up his players up to fail. Most telling was perhaps captain Michael Bradley’s post-game comments.
"They’re a good team. The way they space themselves out, they do a few things tactically that means you have to have clear ideas about how you’re going to go about dealing with it," he told FS1’s Jenny Taft. "In the second half, by virtue of rearranging ourselves a little bit, we were able to get after them a little more."
Asked specifically about the formation’s role in the loss in a follow-up question, Bradley again suggested that once they switched to a 4-4-2 around the half-hour mark, they played better.
"Like I said, tactically they do some interesting things, they space themselves out in good ways," he said. "It means that things have to be very clear so that when you go to close down, so you’re not stepping out of one space and leaving things wide open. And I thought as we got to the end of the first half and into the second half, that got better."
Klinsmann told reporters that players "didn’t get into the 1v1 battles we expected them to" so he switched to a 4-4-2 to correct the problems he saw.
"We trained [the formation] and it went really well in training," Klinsmann said. "But the key in that system, your central midfielders need to get into these 1v1 battles but that’s something that was not happening the first 25, 30 minutes. Neither Michael Bradley nor Jermaine Jones got in these battles and [Mexico’s] players could roam and that gave us difficulties."
Going back to a traditional 4-2-2 worked. Christian Pulisic was dynamic throughout, but looked more comfortable and sure of where he belonged once he moved to the flank. The back line was less exposed and Mexico didn’t have as many chances once the USMNT defense could line up in four. It was just a better, more organized approach.
It should be noted, Klinsmann told reporters afterward that the starting formation was a 3-4-3, not a 3-5-2 – but that certainly was not how it looked in action. If there was a third forward, it was unclear who that was supposed to be – Klinsmann later said it was Pulisic – but maybe that was indicative of how messy the execution was.
Klinsmann’s decision isn’t the only reason why the U.S. lost. After all, they switched after 30 minutes and eventually got level, only to lose on a late set piece. But getting off on the back foot made things tough on the U.S. – they started things off chasing the game, and that came down to the manager’s tactics at the start.
Whether it was a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3, the bottom line is that the players looked woefully uncomfortable trying to make it work. It was an extra challenge in a match that already had plenty, due to poor timing from Klinsmann to try out the new system. If Klinsmann wants to boost his numbers in the midfield, he may simply need to figure out another way to do it going forward.