Within the span of four days, the US played Guatemala twice.  The outcome was a brutal 2-0 loss followed by a comprehensive 4-0 victory.  However, a blind look at the post-game stats wouldn’t necessarily lead to that conclusion.  The US had 5 shots on target in both games, produced similar expected goal totals in the first game and second game, and passing accuracy in the opposing half was nearly identical.

Enter the higher defensive pressure.

In the home game, it was apparent the US (fighting for its World Cup lives) would force the issue against a deep Guatemala team.  Interestingly enough, Guatemala played far more short passes against this pressure, but were unable to pass midfield.  This is in contrast to the first game, where they played extremely direct from the back.  Here is Guatemala’s passing for the first 15 minutes in each game:

 

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It’s another reminder of how much goals change games.  Though Guatemala played low-percentage passes, they scored off of a corner and a mix-up at the back.  Up 2-0 at home, Guatemala had little incentive to venture forward.

In the home game, a tie would have been a great result for Guatemala.  The US had to force the issue, and with the higher pressure, the US regained possession much more frequently in the attacking half.  Below are the US defensive actions in the Guatemala half during the first 45 minutes.  Tackles won are in green, tackles lost in red, interceptions in blue, and recoveries in yellow.

 

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There’s a virtual wall across the midfield.  What’s so beneficial about this approach is that it ensures numbers forward when the US does win the ball – even Edgar Castillo and Geoff Cameron intercepted passes at midfield.  The 4-3-3 with a dedicated holding midfielder also provided depth and natural passing options that the flat 4-4-2 did not, especially when the team played higher up the field.

This aggressiveness benefited the US on Graham Zusi’s goal.  It is helpful to look at DeAndre Yedlin’s options on the ball.  After receiving the pass from Michael Bradley, Yedlin has four players attacking the box.

Yes, the assist from Gyasi Zardes is unintentional, but what’s important is that there were other attackers surrounding the play to take advantage of the generous deflection.  Compare this to an attack Yedlin launched from midfield at Guatemala.

It’s a great individual play to win the ball, but once Yedlin has possession, Bobby Wood is the only support.  Instead of finding a teammate against an overloaded defense, Yedlin plays a low-percentage ball in to Wood, and the US is lucky to regain possession.  If the US had pressed as a team, there might be two or three options for Yedlin like he had on Zusi’s goal.

Regardless of the formation, I hope to see the proactive defensive shape everywhere but Azteca and San Jose.

 

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