It was suggested in The Guardian last Thursday that “The US men’s national team is still searching for a coherent style. If they perform well at the Copa, it will be in spite of, not thanks to, their coach”. The opening match of the Copa America Centenario only served to reinforce that notion.
A 2-0 defeat to Colombia left the hosts already in a precarious position considering the strength of their group, and it wasn’t just the superior quality of their opponents’ players which made the difference; the US hardly helped themselves with an incoherent tactical approach to the match.
The hosts started up in a 4-3-3 in which the narrowness of the wide men and failure of the full backs to overlap proving to be a decisive factor, while Colombia’s 4-2-3-1 was compact and packed with creative options.
The opening exchanges were lively and dominated by Colombia. The USA’s high line and failure to press effectively put them into discomfort as the away side looked to exploit the pace of their front line and work the ball in behind. Juan Cuadrado was the obvious target down the right side, getting beyond Fabian Johnson on a couple of occasions, although the more profitable route, and one which continued after the change in the game’s nature following the opener, was down the left channel when Carlos Bacca managed to isolate Geoff Cameron. James Rodriguez enjoying the opportunity to indulge his desire to slide a killer ball in behind the defender, who coped well with the test but was regularly at full extension to keep the striker at bay.
The opening goal was an appropriate reward for the questions Los Cafeteros asked, although it came in an unexpected manner, from a set piece. Jurgen Klinsmann would have hoped his side enjoyed a muscular advantage from set plays, but a near post run by Bacca was enough to disrupt his side’s organisation from a left-sided corner and allow Christian Zapater to connect with a powerful volley from fifteen yards which Brad Guzan perhaps ought to have got a hand to.
The problem for the USA as the game changed after the goal was that they almost looked like they were geared up to winning and capitalising on set pieces rather than creating in open play. Colombia dropped back after the goal and set themselves up as a very solid defensive block, with the two central midfielders sitting in front of a back four which played very narrow in an attempt to reduce space through the middle.
Jose Peckerman will have been thrilled to have seen Klinsmann’s side play right into their hands, operating with a startling lack of width. They won a succession of free kicks in the middle of the field and sent their big centre backs up, but to no avail: Michael Bradley’s deliveries teased but nothing came of them, and both Clint Dempsey and Johnson hit hopeful shots into the wall.
Asked to take the game to their opponents, the hosts looked bereft of ideas. The front three played in a remarkably narrow shape, with Gyasi Zardes so keen to cut in from the right that he often popped up beyond Dempsey in the left channel. The USA played quite a vertical passing game, hoping to get early service to the front three before Colombia could settle, and to be fair they played quite a few snappy passes in to the feet of Dempsey. However, the Colombians were swift to swarm around him and reduce the possibility of such early service leading to anything, with Daniel Torres particularly lively.
Dempsey, hardly an out-and-out centre forward, naturally drifted off the front to offer himself as a target, leaving the narrow front three continually lacking shape and a central focus, and long balls over the top to exploit the pace of Zardes and Bobby Wood tended to be delivered from too deep and therefore overhit.
The obvious solution was to send the two attack-minded full backs higher up the pitch, but neither DeAndre Yedlin or Johnson seemed to be given the green light until quite late in the half, despite the fact that Cuadrado’s trademark lack of interest in tracking back meant the left flank was particularly inviting.
If Bradley had dropped back to split the centre backs, perhaps the overlap might have been easier to facilitate, but instead he was encouraged to push up with the energetic Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya, which not only left the full backs reluctant to push on, but also created a natural problem when the USA tried to pass the ball out from the back. Rodriguez and Bacca merely had to passively take up an advanced position when the centre backs got the ball, and the hosts found it difficult to pass their way out from the back, leading to the centre backs passing among themselves before eventually surrendering possession with hopeful long passes.
Meanwhile, the compact Colombia side looked dangerous on the break, Klinsmann being shown how overlapping full backs could open things up by the way Farid Diaz and particularly Santiago Arias made judicious forays to stretch his defence. The second goal came courtesy of a contested handball decision in the box against Yedlin, and the Americans looked sunk.
Klinsmann needed to react in the second half, but what alterations he made were subtle, and so were the results. The front three widened out a bit, with Zardes sometimes dropping off to make the shape look almost like a hybrid 4-4-2/4-3-3, but they were still ineffective. Indeed, the opening period of the half was completely dominated by Colombia (they enjoyed 75.9% possession in the opening five minutes of the half), and although the Americans did manage to enjoy an increasing amount of possession as the half wore on, they created little and the dominant feature of the period was Colombia’s confident ability to protect the ball.
Klinsmann made substitutions, but they did little to alter the shape, energy or purposefulness of the side. There was a chance to see prodigy Christian Pulisic, but it was too much to ask the seventeen year-old turn around this out-of-control oil tanker as it lurched towards defeat. Indeed, Klinsmann admitted himself that it would be a mistake to ask too much of the youngster before the match; this was asking the impossible of him.
For Colombia, the only cloud was a shoulder injury suffered by Rodriguez, ironically sustained as he fell following a dive to buy a free kick. His replacement by a more defensive option showed that Peckerman was looking to hold onto what he had, and the late introduction of Carlos Sanchez, the ultimate one dimensional defensive midfielder (I don’t mean that as an insult, by the way!) merely illustrated that fact further. But there was no need to be cautious. This game felt over once his side had scored.
That Thursday Guardian column described Klinsmann’s USA as “tactically chaotic, inconsistent, frequently embarrassing, and lumbers along as if borne by the force of America’s size and the public’s expectations alone, constantly threatening to fall apart at the seams, flirting with disgrace on a semi-annual basis”. This performance fitted the bill perfectly, but might have been the opening act of Klinsmann’s final semi-annual embarrassment.