When the U.S. national team came out in what appeared to be a 3-5-2 formation against Mexico little more than a week ago, many fans and analysts were surprised. In the past two years, the Americans hadn’t played more than a single half in such a system and bringing it out in a World Cup qualifier seemed ill-advised.
But manager Jurgen Klinsmann revealed on Sunday that the system was built around one player: 18-year-old Christian Pulisic.
"I read the papers and there’s a lot of talk about our first 25 minutes against Mexico, where we chose the 3-4-1-2 formation," Klinsmann said in a Facebook Q&A, changing the way he previously referred to the formation, now calling it a 3-4-1-2. "Then we switched after 25 minutes to the 4-4-2 because it didn’t work the way we wanted it. But there was a reason for going into that formation and that was simply Christian Pulisic."
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The formation, which turned out to be a disaster in a 2-1 loss at home to Mexico, looked like a 3-5-2 formation in action, but Klinsmann corrected reporters after the match, telling them it was a 3-4-3. Now he is a calling it a 3-4-1-2, but whatever it is called, the Americans struggled with it as they looked unsure of their positioning. It left spaces for Mexico to exploit, which they did, scoring in just the 21st minute and forcing the U.S. onto their back foot.
But Klinsmann clarified on Sunday that the aim of using the system was to give Pulisic, arguably the brightest creative talent on the USMNT, all the freedom to attack. Pulisic mainly plays as a winger in the Bundesliga, where he uses the width of the field to cross and attack from the flanks, although he has been given freedom to roam centrally at times. In Klinsmann’s 3-4-1-2, Pulisic was positioned centrally.
"With that formation, four midfielders spread out over the whole width of the field and then having Christian as the one behind Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood, we hope that gives him so much freedom to roam and to hurt Mexico at specific times, similar to what he does at Borussia Dortmund," Klinsmann continued. "We trained that before and it went really well in training."
"But the problem was, after 10-12 minutes in the game, we were not able to put pressure on their attacking midfielders. In most of the cases it was Giovani Dos Santos who we gave too much space and then when you can’t cover that space and shift fast enough to make things tight for Mexico, then you get in trouble. That’s why they had chances in the beginning of the game, they scored the goal, and we realized, let’s go back to our traditional 4-4-2 formation."
Switching back to a familiar 4-4-2 worked. The players understood their roles and managed to equalize. And Pulisic, pushed onto the wing in the 4-4-2, still managed to look not only very dangerous, but like the best player on the pitch.
Whether Klinsmann will bring back the formation or give Pulisic a more dedicated central role remains to be seen, but the USMNT coach added on Sunday that he wants the USMNT to have multiple tactical game plans as they look ahead to the 2018 World Cup.
"When you go towards the World Cup, it’s really really important that you have different systems in your pocket, that you know you can go from 3-5-2 to a 3-4-3 or a 4-4-2," he said. "The system is not necessarily really important, it’s the way the players are connected on the field, doing their attacking movements but especially having their discipline defensively to make the space as tight as possible for opponents."