The U.S. men’s national team gathered at Nashville’s Geodis Park on Monday to prepare for Ghana (Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. ET, TNT/Telemundo) — but also to process a masterclass.
They sat in a locker room and dissected Saturday’s 3-1 loss to Germany. What they discussed, head coach Gregg Berhalter said soon after the Monday film session ended, was “trying to extract what we learned from this game.”
Berhalter delved into those lessons, and his team’s various downfalls against Deutschland, at a pre-training news conference Monday. He began with the USMNT’s most glaring flaw.
“The organization of defending in and around the penalty box has to be there,” Berhalter said. “It’s not about the back four. It’s about collectiveness. It’s about seven players, eight players getting into position, having those good lines that’s difficult to break through.” Against Germany, he explained, “our lines weren’t connected enough and weren’t clear enough.”
He didn’t pinpoint specific moments or players. But a rewatch of the game revealed plenty. Without the ball, the U.S. set up in a 4-2-4, before switching to a 4-3-3 after 19 minutes. Both shapes, however, frequently crumbled. Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah, the two central midfielders, got pulled all the way to the sidelines. And the U.S. got exposed.
“I think we got a little bit too man-orientated on their attacking midfielders,” Berhalter said. “We want our midfielders with a nice, strong connection with each other. And we didn’t always have that.”
Take, for example, an unremarkable sequence in the 17th minute. Germany’s Jamal Musiala made an off-ball, in-to-out run toward the right wing; McKennie followed him, rupturing the U.S. shape, and vacating one of the most dangerous areas on a soccer field.
Those central areas, even “Zone 14” at the top of the penalty area, were alarmingly vacant even when Germany established possession deep in the American half and the USMNT retreated. McKennie and Musah had a strange tendency to sink all the way back in line with defenders, turning the 4-2-4 or 4-3-3 into a 6-?-?.
This, Berhalter indicated, was about both discipline and communication.
“We had times where we had midfielders moving on to the back line; there’s a big gap in front of the back line because of that,” he said. “And examples where midfielders are tracking attacking mids running through, where center backs can pick ’em up. I think it was somewhat of lack of communication that led to that.”
Berhalter and players also spoke about defensive transition. They blamed, in part, sloppiness on the ball that left the U.S. scrambling to recover. “At the end of the day, if you give the ball away too quick when you’re trying to get into [your attacking] shape, it’s a recipe for disaster,” defender Tim Ream explained after Saturday’s game.
But Berhalter also touched on rest defense — the players’ positioning while in possession to be able to cope with counters when possession is lost.
“There are moments where we have a corner attack, or an offensive threat, and they end up coming down to our end,” Berhalter said Monday. “And that’s positioning while attacking.”
At the attacking end, the U.S. was decent. But midfielders, wingers and fullbacks all missed opportunities to feed Folarin Balogun, their new recruit who’s already an expert making runs off the back shoulders of defenders, and quick darts into space. Gio Reyna found him once. But others missed him. In the 22nd minute, he seemed to fume at Musah for not identifying his run and feeding him.
“Germany, they had one weakness, I think: some pace in the back line. And we didn’t exploit that enough with Balo,” Berhalter said.
Instead, they sometimes resorted to safe passes — to the same side of the field, rather than cross-field, so they “got locked into one side,” Berhalter said.
They also resorted to low-percentage crosses. “In and around the penalty box, I think there was too often early crosses, when we didn’t have numbers in the penalty box,” Berhalter said. “And I think that’s the time where we have them a little bit on the ropes, a little bit back, and we need to take advantage of maintaining the ball, waiting for the right opening to exploit. And I think we crossed the ball and let them off the hook too easily.”
The U.S. has, at times, been cross-heavy under Berhalter by design. With Balogun up top, that will have to change. Balogun doesn’t feast on aerial service. He’s much more so a menace with the ball on the ground, slotted into his path as he slithers around opposing center backs, as he did in June against Canada.
“Balo is extremely dangerous when we have controlled possession in and around the penalty box, making those small little runs behind the back line,” Berhalter said. “And also buildup from midfield — when we’re at midfield, the ability to stretch the field and get behind the back line.”
The USMNT must get accustomed to looking for him. Only Reyna, so far, has proven capable of supplying him. Others will have to get on the same page.
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