Tactical preview: USMNT will struggle if England midfield restriction policy
England v USMNT is a game with many underlying narratives and there is likely to be a fascinating tactical battle on display.
This will be the third meeting between the two sides at a World Cup — with all of them taking place in the group stages. USA produced a shock 1-0 win in Brazil in 1950 and the teams drew 1-1 at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Both teams went out in the group stages in 1950, while the USA finished above England, with both sides going through, in 2010.
Here are the four tactical areas where The Athletic Expects to see the game won or lost.
(1) Shape and wide area battles
US manager Gregg Berhalter sticks quite religiously to his 4-3-3, which against Wales saw Tyler Adams as the deepest of the midfield triangle.
To the left of him was teenager Yunus Musah, who kept pulling wide left to allow left-back Antonee Robinson to play in a more advanced space given that he is the best crosser in the team.
The pass network below shows how Robinson was involved in an attacking sense during the first 49 minutes. He played very high up the pitch and the blueness of his dot and the lines extending from it reflect a player who was highly involved in possession.
Robinson had the most passes in the third final of any American against Wales (23) and the second most crosses (six).
Viewing this rotation on the grab below, the full-back asymmetry is clear, with Adams deepest of the midfield three (blue dots).
But these rotations are also due to how passive and organized Wales are — under Berhalter the US have consistently struggled to break down defensively solid opponents.
Gareth Southgate generally wants England to press but a slightly more measured approach, which allows Berhalter’s side to play more expansively, would open spaces to hit them in transition.
The biggest reason for the US’s struggles against set defenses is that it restricts the space Christian Pulisic has to operate in.
As a result, he has to drop deeper to become an option and has his back to goal when he does receive passes (see grab above). Anyone who has watched Pulisic knows his game is about exploiting big spaces and driving at opposition defenses with space to play into.
Southgate’s decision to start with a 4-3-3 for England’s opener versus Iran was more of a talking point — England have switched between a back three and back four in their last two major tournaments, but this move was seen as attacking by his standards .
Declan Rice was the single pivot and he allowed Mason Mount and particularly Jude Bellingham to roam as ‘free No 8s’ between the lines.
England bossed the game, with 77.3 per cent possession and 34 sequences of nine or more passes in open play.
The US will want significantly more of the ball than Iran, so Southgate could tweak personnel to move to a double pivot, perhaps bringing in Kalvin Phillips or Jordan Henderson to add midfield security.
And while central midfield naturally feels like the area that needs to be controlled to win the game, both sides have key threats in wide areas, with Luke Shaw (left-back) and Kieran Trippier (right-back) pivotal in breaking Iran down from the wings.
Wales’ back five prevented them from being overloaded when the US pushed their full-backs forward, and given that the wide spaces are key, it would not be a surprise to see England adopt a back five without the ball before transitioning to a back four when they have it.
(2) USA’s transition game and England’s counter-press
“If we look at what Christian (Pulisic) can bring to the USA at this World Cup, from a purely tactical perspective, he’s best in space,” wrote Leeds head coach Jesse Marsch in his exclusive column for The Athletic.
So in transition moments and when he can be on the run and use his combination of agility, speed and technical ability, that’s when he’s able to be at his best.
We could see more of that in the England game.
Marsch was vindicated inside the first half against Wales — this probably feels like a familiar pattern for US fans, controlling the game with possession and wide area rotations (see above), only to score from a vertical attack against a disorganised defence.
The goal originates from a launched Wales goal kick, with the US winning the first two aerial duels, leading to Pulisic receiving Weston McKennie’s knockdown.
The Chelsea winger drives forward into space, with right-winger Timothy Weah positioned in Neco Williams’ blind spot.
He doesn’t dribble far but crucially Pulisic engages center-back Ben Davies and therefore gives Weah the time to make his perfectly arced run inside Williams, and the 22-year-old finishes with aplomb.
Pulisic came out as the top American ball carrier. He dribbled the ball 432 metres, almost 100 more than his next-best countryman, also making the most carries of 10+ metres.
“With the players, we’ve talked all week about setting the right tone and the right intent in our performance. That came through the way that we counter-pressed the ball,” said Southgate after the Iran win.
Rarely is any defensive performance a focus when scoring six in a World Cup game, but England were well positioned and responded well to possession losses to prevent Iran from transitioning quickly and made rapid regains.
An example can be seen within six minutes. Trippier attempts to find Saka but his pass is blocked.
Iran defender Majid Hosseini recovers the ball but instantly Trippier and Saka start to press, which is important because they come from both sides.
Trippier cuts off an easy forward pass down the line and the England midfielders move in (see Mount on grab below) to stop anything central. Saka tackles Hosseini and then shows good control and restraint to force him back…
…and eventually, England have Iran penned in, forcing Hosseini to kick the ball out of play.
The counter-press will not need to look this extreme and will be more essential in preventing counter-attacks than being a tool to regain possession, but if England can eliminate or reduce the US’s transition threat, it should help them control the game.
(3) England’s build-up play
Southgate’s reflections on England’s approach play against Iran were particularly interesting for a side that usually desire so much control. “We mixed our game up, we didn’t just play in front of the opponent, we constantly had runs in behind. We have to be that way and mix the game.”
Jordan Pickford’s pass map reflects this, with plenty of launched passes into the opposition half but a number of shorter ones, too, either out to the right or into the pivot.
The US press in a narrow 4-3-3, with their two wingers (yellow dots on grab below) close to the No. 9, who tends to sit on the opposition defensive midfield before pressing the back line.
Wales built up in their 3-5-2 against the US with a single pivot, so were matched three versus three against the press.
Naturally, this leaves space out wide for teams to play around the press, though Wales failed to exploit this effectively.
Outside centre-back Joe Rodon passes around Pulisic to wing-back Connor Roberts (white arrow), who bounces inside to Gareth Bale with one touch (blue arrow)…
… even though Bale miscontrols it, left-back Robinson was forced to jump onto Roberts and the knock-on effect is that center-back Tim Ream steps out to engage Bale.
This vacates space in-behind that can be exploited with a clever passing pattern or better execution. Given England’s attacking success against Iran was underpinned by adventurous full-backs, exploiting these wide spaces could be key in unlocking the defence.
The US center-backs particularly struggled to defend against Kieffer Moore (6ft 5in) in the second half.
He was able to pin Ream to control a long ball and then play through Brennan Johnson, who made a run beyond from deep.
This looks particularly similar to Harry Kane’s role in the build-up to the third goal against Iran, though the England captain is an injury doubt for the clash with USA.
He pins center-back Rouzbeh Cheshmi and the ball ends up with Bellingham, who finds Kane’s diagonal run…
…and he can cross for Sterling to score.
Even if Callum Wilson starts ahead of Kane, England should still look to target the centre-backs and have runners beyond them, as well as exploit the lack of wide-area coverage in the US press.
(4) Set pieces
England scored the most set-piece goals (13) in European qualifying and they showed against Iran how threatening they are from dead-ball situations, notably from out-swinging corners.
Harry Maguire headed against the bar from a Trippier corner from the right before Saka doubled England’s lead with a volley following a Maguire knockdown from Shaw’s out-swinging delivery from the left. The below video works in the UK:
And this video works in the USA:
– FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 21, 2022
Comparatively, the US looked at their most vulnerable against Wales when defending set pieces. Excluding the penalty, the two best Welsh chances of the game came from consecutive set pieces with both being heads. This video works in the UK:
And this video works in the USA:
PENALTY FOR WALES pic.twitter.com/B0aL5DasgW
– FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 21, 2022
(Main graphic — photo: Getty Images/design: Eamonn Dalton)