Prolonged possession a must for U.S.
One of the most common Sunday League rallying cries makes absolutely no sense to a first-time viewer of football. "Still nil-nil, lads" is the call, made immediately after a goal has been scored.
The concept is relatively simple. At some point, "still nil-nil" became a shortened form of saying "Despite the fact we've just scored, we shouldn't let that affect our game plan. We should continue with our starting approach, which resulted in us going ahead in the first place."
That's something of a mouthful, however, and so it's "still nil-nil." But only when it's not. If the score is 0-0, no one needs reminding that it's still 0-0.
Among Jurgen Klinsmann's various methods of preparing his U.S. side -- the rigorous scouting of opponents, the high-quality physical preparation and the effective use of different formations -- maybe he's neglected a vital part. When the United States go ahead, there's no one screaming to the players that it's "still nil-nil."
The U.S. games against Ghana and Portugal were highly eventful, with the "game state" changing every time a goal was scored. In the 2-1 win over Ghana, the U.S. went ahead, then Ghana drew level, then the Yanks were ahead again. Including the starting 0-0 scoreline (which didn't last long), there were four different game states. Similarly, the draw against Portugal saw five different game states -- 0-0, 0-1, 1-1, 2-1, 2-2 -- although the last goal was scored so late that there was barely any play at 2-2.
When the game state changes, the approach of both sides inevitably changes too. The Americans' problem, however, is that they have been too easily affected by this, especially when they've gone ahead.
An easy, if basic, way to measure this is by considering the possession statistics during the various changes in game state. For example, when the U.S. were leading 1-0 against Ghana for 81 minutes, they had just 38 percent of the possession. When Ghana equalised, the U.S. suddenly sprung into life, and in the buildup to John Brooks' famous header, they had 59 percent of the ball. But once the goal was scored, it immediately dropped back down to 28 percent. When needed, they could dominate the game, but they were too submissive when ahead and invited lots of pressure.
There was a similar situation in the Portugal game. At 0-0, the U.S. started with a respectable 40 percent of possession but quickly went behind and were forced to dominate. At 1-0 down, they had exactly 50 percent of the ball, and when spurred on by Jermaine Jones' thunderbolt, the U.S. recorded 52 percent of possession in the buildup to Clint Dempsey's goal. But then, at 2-1 up, they had just 21 percent of possession.
The pattern is obvious. The U.S. have proved capable of competing against, and dominating, very good sides. But whenever they go ahead, they become too passive. If you can outplay Ghana and Portugal, it seems silly to retreat into your shell merely because you're leading.
It's inevitable that teams dominate more when they require a goal, but not to this extent. The U.S. are perfectly capable of retaining possession to put themselves ahead, but they have yet to prove they can retain possession to ensure they remain ahead.
The point isn't that the U.S. should always attempt to dominate possession. At this World Cup, there has been little correlation between possession and results, so sitting back and defending deep is a perfectly reasonable strategy.
The problem is that the Yanks aren't particularly suited to this style of play. They defend extremely narrow in midfield and force the opposition out wide but then appear nervous when defending crosses.
That was particularly obvious against Portugal -- see Geoff Cameron's mistake for Nani's opener and the fact Cristiano Ronaldo crossed for Silvestre Varela's late equaliser. Against Germany, too, there was a big problem when Jerome Boateng received the ball out wide, with Thomas Muller allowed a golden chance in this respect and Omar Gonzalez producing a Cameron-esque slice when trying to clear.
Nor, in fact, are the U.S. suited to counterattacking. The ball carriers like Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya have performed competently, but no more. Michael Bradley, who has excelled at club level over the past three years with his ability to convert defence into attack smoothly, has covered a lot of ground but contributed little in possession. Up front, the absence of Jozy Altidore means the U.S. don't really have an out-ball -- no one to hold it up, no one to sprint in behind. They're just not suited to being a reactive side. They're more suited to playing high up the pitch, passing the ball well and getting the full-backs forward.
When the U.S. play football, they have been excellent. When they purely defend, they are never entirely confident. In the group phase, they allowed the opposition 55 shots -- along with Ecuador, more than any other side in the competition. It seems strange when you consider how much quality the U.S. have shown and their ability to (in spells) outplay Ghana and Portugal quite comfortably.
They're capable of outplaying Belgium too, and considering Belgium's tendency to start matches slowly and depend on late strikes from substitutes, it wouldn't be surprising if the U.S. went ahead in their round of 16 clash on Tuesday in Salvador. If that happens, the call from the bench should be simple: Still nil-nil, lads!
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.