For a long time now USMNT fans have been clamoring for a solidified “style of play.” Barcelona pioneered the ‘tiki taka’ approach and the Dutch are known for Total Football. I have always argued that this is not a necessity for a national team. Specific styles require specific types of players which are not always available to a national team.
Take note of the Dutch recently. They have had what one might call a golden generation of talent come through their ranks in the last 15 years and what do they have to show for it? Nearly nothing. I would argue part of this was the unnecessary pressure this team felt to play total football. More important than formation or style is that a team is well prepared and ready to carry out a game plan.
Since Bruce Arena has been in charge, having a well-practiced game plan has seemed to become a priority. The USMNT has been playing a 4-1-3-2 at home and a 5-4-1 on the road. Both of these formations require different mentalities and different players.
The 4-1-3-2 is the much more attacking formation and allows Christian Pulisic, who plays in the center of the middle three, the freedom to find space in the center part of the attacking third and high press when the team loses the ball. The reason this is a more attacking formation is that this leaves Michael Bradley on a defensive island and the team vulnerable to counter attacks.
Costa Rica traditionally lines up in 5-4-1 themselves whether at home or on the road. They have speedy wingbacks and a striker, Marco Urena, who is excellent at running the channels. They will defend tightly and hit you quickly on the counter attack.
With Bradley playing as the lone defensive midfielder and Costa Rica looking to hit on the counter attack there are two things that must defensively happen for the USMNT to be successful.
First, the two outside midfielders will have to pick their moments going forward and be quick to get back. I suspect this will be Darlington Nagbe and Alejandro Bedoya. Both have the proper defensive work rate to do this job. Both also are “pass first” midfielders who will be looking to get the ball to Pulisic.
Secondly, the high press of the USMNT’s front three must be successful. My guess is that Bobby Wood will start up top with Jozy Altidore and the aforementioned Christian Pulisic will play underneath them. Bobby Wood is excellent at pressing defenders and working back as demonstrated by a dogged performance at the Azteca during the last set of qualifiers.
Pulisic is also great at the high press as this is a focal point of playing for Dortmund. Success also does not look like always winning the ball back. Success means not allowing the Costa Ricans to move from defense to attack quickly. If you can limit them from moving to the attack from the defense before we have found our shape, the USMNT will not leak a cheap goal.
If the U.S can take care of this defensively, they should be able to win this game. Costa Rica is a really good team and they will punish you for defensive errors. But with a quality high press and good defensive shape from the midfield, the USMNT should be able to limit that.
Offensively, patience will be key. This Costa Rican team will be very compact and Keylor Navas (Real Madrid) is a special goalkeeper. But this American attack is more talented than maybe it’s ever been. Consider this, we have Clint Dempsey and Fabian Johnson coming off the bench most likely. You can introduce Dempsey if you need someone to help break the team down in the middle and you can bring Johnson in if you need some speed on the flank. Patience will buy you a goal at home.