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Michael Thomas tactically analyses Argentina’s fine victory over the USA in the Copa America 2016 semi final match.
The centenary edition of the Copa America, a special tournament played in the USA with a greater number of teams has seen some fantastic offensive football, and many shocks. Brazil were sent home early, and the teams that have done well have uniformly been the ones that have been able to express and execute their plans perfectly on the field. A record breaking Messi led his team into this tough semi final against the home team. USA have been on an upward tangent under Klinsmann, and this was to be their great opportunity to leave a real mark.
United States of America (4-4-2): Guzan, Brooks, Cameron, Yedlin, Johnson, Bradley, Beckerman (Birnbaum 60′), Zusi, Zardes, Wondolowski (Pulisic 45′), Dempsey (Nagbe 78′)
Argentina (4-3-3): Romero, Otamendi, Funes Mori, Mercado, Rojo (Cuesta 84′), Mascherano, Fernandez (Biglia 59′), Banega, Lavezzi (Lamela 67′), Higuain, Messi
Without suspended first team players Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya and Bobby Wood, Jürgen Klinsmann was presented with a selection dilemma. The U.S. manager lined up a conventional 4-4-2 with Dempsey joined up front by overmatched Chris Wondolowski while Graham Zusi replaced Bedoya on the left flank and defensive stopper Kyle Beckerman joined Michael Bradly in the middle of the field.
Unlike in previous matches, Zardes remained deep on the right side and did not move up the flank when the opposition possessed the ball in their own third. Klinsmann seemed to want the two forwards to follow the Argentine center halves when they possessed in their own half and drop in behind the ball once the Argentines advanced past midfield. Meanwhile, he instructed the back line to maintain a high line and force the Argentines to play through a congested middle third of the pitch.
Klinsmann’s approach was fraught with a major structural weakness. Dempsey and Wondolowski are both 33 and neither has the pace or the motor to drop deep and spring forward. As a result, the duo tended to remain forward allowing a large gap to open between the second and third line.
Tata Martino exploited this weakness with an entirely comprehensive solution. The former Barcelona manager deployed the internationally-revered Barcelona 4-3-3 with Mascherano playing the Sergio Busquets role, Ezequiel Lavezzi playing as an inverted winger on the left side and Messi playing as a right forward.
As is customary at Barcelona, Martino instructed his two full backs, Gabriel Mercado and Marcus Rojo, to push extremely high up their flanks while advising Mascherano to drop in betwen the center halves to form a situational back three. Ever Banega lined up as the 6 on the left side but constantly drifted wide and left into the half left half space. These smart moevement patterns allowed Argentina to create 3 v 2 matchups across the backline and on the left side.
With his forwards outnumbered and unlikely to ever create any effective pressure on the Argentine back line, Klinsmann could have either had them drop much deeper and attempt to bunker or instructed the very energetic Gyasi Zardes to push onto the forward line and thus create a 3 v 3. He chose not to change at all, so the American forwards neither successfully pressed the back line nor provided additional midfield cover.
This absence of pressure and the large amount of space between the second and third American lines allowed the Argentines plenty of time and space to pick out long range, incisive passes.
In the graphic below, Banega moves deep into the left half space and receives the ball. Dempsey and Wondolowski are positioned high up the pitch and seem uninterested in providing any defensive support. Rojo’s advanced positioning on the left flank has drawn Yedlin forward allowing
Argentina to outnumber the American backline 4 v 3. As a result, Banega has time to place an accurate diagonal ball behind the American line.
The Americans failed to make any defensive adjustments over the course of the game and essentially invited the Argentines to continue dropping aerial passes in behind their high line. The clever forward trio of Messi, Higuaín and Lavezzi feasted on these opportunities by rotating across the back line and initiating clever runs in behind the bewildered American defenders
As good as the Argentines were at creating opportunities, they were equally excellent recovering the ball whenever they lost it. Their extremely advanced positioning and tendency to play long, vertical passes resulted in the Americans usually recovering the ball deep in their own territory. However, the Argentine forwards’ constant rotation resulted in them not always finding themselves positioned close enough to the ball to prevent the Americans from breaking into the second line.
Mascherano brilliantly solved this problem by moving from deep positions to quickly close down the player with the ball while his teammates located the ball near players to mark.
This Argentinian pressure stifled the US backline and forced a constant stream of turnovers in dangerous positions within the US third. As a result, the Americans spent most of the evening trying to clear from their deep in their own half, and were never able to establish any sort of offensive fluency. So comprehensive was the Argentine victory that they finished 4-0 winners without even allowing the Americans a single shot.
Tata Martino’s Argentine side is perhaps the one team in this tournament that actually plays like an elite European club. Not only is the side constructed with capable and versatile players at every position, but the manager has installed an elegant and nuanced system for controlling the match.
Nevertheless, Klinsmann could have kept this a much closer contest by recognizing the Argentinians’ superiority and attempting to park the bus. The Americans are unquestionably a top 15 team in the world, but the gulf between the truly elite international squads and the upstart Americans is still as wide as it has ever been.
Written by Michael Thomas