The U.S. got a much-needed result in World Cup qualifying this weekend with a 1-1 draw with Mexico. The Azteca has long been a house of horrors for the Yanks but in this match, they looked more than a match for the home team. In fact, the U.S. side that was on the pitch looked different from past ones in more ways than one.
The major talking point was the U.S. trotting out a 5-4-1 that with the ball morphed into a 3-4-3. This formation was a drastic departure from the previous match and all of the U.S.’s qualifying matches under Bruce Arena. This plus seven changes to the side led to a heap of praise for Arena for his tactical acumen but some commentators have noted that when previous manager Jurgen Klinsmann tried to go three at the back, he was roundly criticised. Part of that was that (a) he lost to Mexico when he tried a formation switch in 2016 and (b) he didn’t actually know what his formation was, referring to it as a 3-4-3 and a 3-4-1-2.
Was this a perfect example of the ends justifying the means, or another skirmish in the internal U.S. soccer war? A deeper examination of why Arena did what he did shows it was actually neither.
The first difference is that Arena had a 3-4-3 in mind almost from the beginning of this round of qualifiers. When Klinsmann was asked about why he switched to a back 3, he claimed it was to maximise Christian Pulisic’s exposure. He wanted to give the Dortmund player more space to be creative and make plays. In reality, Klinsmann had a hard time settling on a single formation during his U.S. tenure and would change systems in response to a bad result or press criticism.
After the match, Arena admitted that the U.S. had been planning on using the new formation the moment the players showed up for this round. This means regardless of the result against Trinidad & Tobago, the Yanks would be trotting out a new formation in a hostile environment. Unlike the previous regime, Arena dedicated practice time away from the media on the nuances of running the formation, to the point where the U.S. players looked comfortable.
A second difference was how the starters were selected. When in doubt, Klinsmann played his favourites. He had a core group of players like Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman he would call-up and play in big matches regardless of his tactical plan for the match. The result is players like Jones on the wing. Klinsmann bet that players he knew and could manage would overcome the tactical naivete they might have playing out of position.
Arena meanwhile constructed his starting XI based on who would play best in the formation and in Mexico City. Start at the back where Brad Guzan was given the start over Tim Howard, who had been the U.S. #1 keeper. After the match, Arena admitted he started Guzan because he knew the match would feature a high number of goal kicks, and with Tim Howard recovering from a lower body injury Guzan could provide a small advantage with his leg. Paul Arriola was another surprise starter but again Arena went pragmatic. Arriola plays in Liga MX so the environment was familiar and he could take possession on a counter and look across or up for Bobby Wood. Arena could have gone with MLS players he knows are better or bigger names that have more national team experience, but instead went with players who best fit the strategy.
This brings up the biggest difference between Klinsmann and Arena. Klinsmann was tasked with reinventing U.S. Soccer and creating a style for the U.S. national team that was attractive, effective, and utilised the numerous athletes the country produces. As such, he could not just focus on two matches or a single qualifying tournament; he had to have an eye on the present and future. While I’d argue he did neither well, it does create a different dynamic than what Arena has. The former Galaxy manager has one job – win. He doesn’t need to create a U.S. Style or establish a depth chart for the next three World Cups. He needs to qualify for the World Cup and go as far as he can. As such, his view can be on just the two qualifying matches ahead of him and he can prep his players for the present.