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Michael Thomas provides detailed tactical insight on the Copa America group stage match between USA and Paraguay.
Most football fans accept that top national sides play at a lower level than their elite club counterparts. National team managers don’t get to build their rosters through the transfer market or conduct regularly training sessions with the players, so they tend to utilize a basic strategy that incorporates the best qualities of the available players.
Perhaps no game better demonstrates this trend than the United States vs. Paraguay. Both teams desperately needed a positive result but lacked a player with the technical nous to regularly create chances. The result was a cagey slugfest reminiscent of a 1990s English Premier League match.
United States of America (4-4-2): Guzan; Brooks, Cameron, Yedlin, Johnson, Bradley, Jones, Bedoya (Zusi 75’), Zardes, Wood (Beckerman 83’), Dempsey (Orozco 50’)
Paraguay (4-4-2): Villar; Gomez, Balbuena (Iturbe 46’), Da Silva, Samudio (Rojas 55’), Ayala, Ortiz, González, Almirón, Sanabria (Benitez 63’), Lezcano
Both sides lined up in traditional 4-4-2 formations bearing no resemblance to hip, compact variants of recent vintage Atlético Madrid and Leicester City. Each side had two forwards who remained high up the pitch and a nominal 6 who dropped deep into an 8 role when his team was in possession. Michael Bradley played the deep-lying role for the United States while Víctor Ayala did the same for Paraguay.
The Paraguayans required a win in order to maintain their hopes of advancing, so their forward and direct approach was not surprising. However, while they did a decent job of advancing into the final third, they were generally unable to access prime shooting locations in the middle of the box.
La Albirroja tended to resort to Ayala wide angle crosses into the box from both set pieces and open play. While these crosses did occasionally find a striker’s forehead, they were unable to find any quality opportunities between the aerially dominant John Brooks and Geoff Cameron.
However, the Americans were unwilling to sit back and defend throughout the first half and moved enough players forward to provide Paraguay with a couple of fantastic opportunities to score through counters.
On 11’ minutes, Geoff Cameron moves up the right flank, intercepts a pass and attempts to play a through ball into the box. His pass is deflected and cleared to Derlis Gonzalez who tucks in from the right wing and steps past Fabian Johnson.
With two players having remained high up the pitch, Gonzalez leads a 3 vs. 1 break with clear passing angles to a player on his right and left. Brooks, the last defender, positions himself perfectly by remaining central until the instant Gonzalez release the ball to his Almirón on his left. Brooks then slides to his right and uses his long legs to deflect Almirón’s cross away.
On 45’ minutes, the Gyasi Zardes moves high up from his left wing position in an attempt to win a header from a long clearance. He is unsuccessful and fails to track back quickly enough. Sanabria cleverly drifts wide into this open space and has plenty of time to look up and pick out a through ball to Lezcano.
The Paraguayans outshot the Americans 19 to 7, but the Yanks created several good opportunities through driving runs on the counter. Gyasi Zardes perhaps best represented his team by offering unrelenting effort and intensity throughout the entire match while also demonstrating obvious technical limitations.
The only goal of the match is rather unremarkable as Zardes collects the ball and runs determinedly up the left wing. His marker remains tight, but LA Galaxy man persists and is somehow able to squeeze a slow roller across the box to Dempsey who capitalizes on Paraguay’s poor defending by powering it into the net.
Later in the match however, Bobby Wood does brilliantly to turn his defender and create enough time and space for an incisive forward pass. Zardes tirelessly blows past Da Silva and collects the through ball with only Villar between him and the goal. Yet instead of shooting from a prime location, Zardes takes two touches and allows a defender to dispossess him.
With Paraguay returning from halftime needing at least two goals to maintain any chance at advancing it seemed inevitable that the Americans would gradually concede territory until bunkering deep in their own half for the last 10-15 minutes. A DeAndre Yedlin minute of madness which resulted in two quick yellows hastened this transition.
Jürgen Klinsmann quickly sacrificed Dempsey for Michael Orozco and retreated into a very defensive 4-4-1. While a man advantage so early in the second half should have presented Paraguay with a fantastic opportunity, it complicated the situation by forcing La Albirroja to power through a full 45 minutes of intense bunkering.
Ramón Díaz responded by pushing his full backs extremely high and wide in an attempt to stretch the American lines. This approach did manage to occasionally draw an American winger off of the second defensive line onto the first defensive line leaving only three second line players, but the Paraguayans only once experienced success with this approach.
On 81’, the advancing fullback pulls Zardes off of the second line leaving Bradley in the middle with Jones to his right. With Jones as cover and no one between him and the first line, Bradley should be able to step out and close down Almirón, but the Paraguayan drives past him into the box where he tees up Benitez for a close range shot. Guzan does extremely well to close down the point blank shot and even better to knock away Almirón’s rebound shot.
The Paraguayans created few other good scoring opportunities as they remained too focused on creating width and not focused enough on using their man advantage to access the middle of the field. In fact, they allowed the US to literally construct a dome protecting the interior space between their lines.
And on the rare occasions when they did manage to establish numeric superiority in central positions, the Paraguayans failed to recognize the opportunities and create quality chances.
In the graphic below, the Americans have just completed a rare venture forward and Bradley is outnumbered 2 to 1 with Jones still high up the field. If Almirón can pick up his head and locate through ball to his right, Paraguay will have 3 vs. 2 forcing Brooks to choose between following his mark or charging the dribbler.
However, the winger fails to make the connection and drives straight ahead where Bedoya and Bradley can quickly close him down from opposite sides.
This match proved to be a tactically primitive contest between two sides desperate to score often but lacking the quality to do so. Nevertheless, the Americans played extremely well with 10 men throughout the second half once again proving their enduring resilience in the group stages of major tournaments.
They advance to a quarterfinals matchup against Ecuador at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, one of the two loudest stadiums in the world, with the backing of the most numerous and vocal band of supporters in the country. The Americans will likely be favored to earn a second victory over Ecuador in as many months and advance to the semifinals.
Written by Michael Thomas