Empire XI: Evolution of the Fullback Gives USA Best Chance of Defeating Belgium

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

By CHRISTIAN ARAOS
Staff Writer

No position in football has seen its importance grow as quickly as fullback in recent years. The position’s importance had always been seen as limited to supporting the wingers who would equally contribute in the attack and the defense.  However, with wingers now moving farther up the field with solely attack-minded roles, the fullback has had to cover more ground and involve himself in the team’s attack in order to support the now one-way player.

It is an evolution that has allowed teams to get more numbers in the attack and the US Men’s National Team’s acceptance of this evolution will prove to be decisive in their Round of 16 matchup with Belgium.

Before Andre Schurrle scored in the second minute of extra time against Algeria, Germany had gone 222 minutes without a goal from open play. Like Belgium, Germany is a team that is not fielding natural fullbacks on each side, which has negatively affected their ability to retain possession and create chances. As a result, their opponents have been able to find outlets to clear their defensive third and create chances on the counter. Combine those two factors and it becomes quickly obvious why the unbeaten Germans are not wowing observers even as they enter yet another World Cup Quarterfinal appearance — and why the Belgians’ unblemished group stage record is not being exalted despite it coming from one of the favorites.

Belgium’s Plan A has failed in every match they have played so far as they have relied on substitutes and adjustments to score late goals. The significant factor behind Belgium’s failings has been their inability to turn their dominating possession into goals. Only Marouane Fellaini‘s goal against Algeria, Belgium’s first goal of the tournament, can be seen as the product of Belgium’s buildup play. Every other goal has been scored on the counterattack.

That occurrence speaks to the odd dynamic that exists within this current Belgian squad. This team is not suited to create chances through long buildup play, but their superior attacking talent means opponents are content to let Belgium have the ball and wait for chances on the counter. That is a very dangerous strategy when you do not have fullbacks on the field for two reasons:

1) Converted centerbacks are not going to support the wingers ahead of them in the way the wingers are used to leading to the winger being isolated and losing possession.

2) When the winger loses possession, the defending team will have space to immediately break into since the converted centerback was not farther upfield supporting his winger.

As a result, the fullbacks are retreating back into their flatter defensive line making them vulnerable to through balls and wide counters. Neither Toby Alderweireld or Jan Vertonghen are particularly athletic and adept at closing opponents down farther up the field so there will be plenty of space on the wings for the USA to exploit if they retain their current formation.

The formation question is now one USA Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann is going to have to consider with Jozy Altidore being passed fit for selection. Whether or not Altidore is fit to start remains to be seen, but if Altidore starts, it would likely mean a return to the midfield diamond which may be the way for Klinsmann to get the bulk of his talent on the field.  However, it may cripple the USA’s chances of exploiting Belgium’s lack of fullbacks since there would be no wingers to directly mark Alderweireld and Vertonghen. Keeping Altidore on the bench and Michael Bradley as the most attack-minded midfielder would be cautious tactics from Klinsmann but wingers are vital for the USA to find a goal through a counterattack which would be the most likely way they can score from open play.

Using wingers instead of the diamond also protects the USA’s fullbacks from being isolated against Belgium’s wingers. Since DaMarcus Beasley and Fabian Johnson are average defenders, having wingers to help them as they face Dries Mertens and Eden Hazard, who was called out by Belgium Head Coach Marc Wilmots for his poor play, will be needed. Both Mertens and Hazard will aim to take Beasley and Johnson on and are capable of cutting inside for a shooting opportunity or getting to the byline and cutting a cross back for Romelu Lukaku or an onrushing Kevin De Bruyne to convert.

With wingers like Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi tracking back in support, Mertens and Hazard would have to go 1v2 out wide which would force each of them to work that much harder to influence the attacking play as much as Wilmots demands them to. Additionally with Vertonghen and Alderweireld not providing adequate support for Mertens and Hazard, the USA will have 2v1s to exploit on the flanks and create chances to break from the back.

The ability to create 2v1s on the flanks is the greatest benefit of the evolution of the fullback. The position requires the player to support his winger and if it is done correctly, a team can limit the opponent’s wingers from influencing the match in their attacking third while the team can isolate and exploit a fullback in its attacking third to create chances for itself. Belgium’s fullbacks and wingers have not support each other while the USA’s has and if the Americans make their first World Cup Quarterfinal in 12 years, that difference will be the reason.

Empire XI

1. The Group Stage saw an average of 2.83 goals per game; the most in a World Cup since 1958 and the highest percentage of matches to end a result (not a draw) ever with 83%. The goals per game total in the knockout stages almost always drops since the weaker half of the field has been eliminated and the superior teams simply do not allow as many chances. Through the first six matches, the goals per game total in the knockout stage is already down half a goal to 2.33 goals per game.

2. Mexico were eliminated at the first knockout stage for the sixth consecutive time last Sunday and it can be said that their elimination could have been avoided had they simply kept their foot on the throttle against The Netherlands. Yes, weather played a part but El Tri simply dropped back far too early. Giovani Dos Santos scored less than three minutes into the second half and Mexico subsequently dropped deep and looked to repel the Dutch. In hot conditions, that strategy is as tiring, if not more tiring, than trying to maintain an attacking threat which they lost when Dos Santos was subbed for Javier Aquino.

3. The Dutch will play Costa Rica who converted all five of their penalties against Greece. Penalties remain something of a mystery to outsiders but Los Ticos took all their penalties well aiming for the roof of the net almost every time. Whether or not that was something instructed by Head Coach Jorge Luis Pinto is unknown but he has to know that his most reliable asset in a penalty shootout is his goalkeeper Keylor Navas so Pinto can simply send the message to his team that Navas will make a save or two and present the penalty takers with opportunities to take the lead in the shootout so seize them when you can.

4. Had Arturo Vidal been fit enough to play the entire 120 minutes against Brazil, Chile’s chances in the penalty shootout would have been much higher. Vidal is one of Juventus’ primary penalty takers and is seen as one of the best penalty takers in the world. It is still a proud performance from Chile who will have to be seen as one of the favorites for next year’s Copa America which they are hosting.

5. DC United have parted ways with defender Cristian Fernandez after only half a season after Fernandez said he was unhappy living in the United States. It is a premature end to what had been a successful first season for him at DC United who benefited from his forward forays down the left side.

6. The New York CosmosUS Open Cup run ended terribly for the club who handled a controversial exit as badly as a club can handle a controversial exit. Head Coach Giovanni Savarese completely lost his composure and so did his assistants Alecko Eskandarian and Carlos Llamosa who were ejected along with two players. While they had a right to be frustrated with Referee Ismail Elfath’s decision to not award them a penalty in extra time, the team lost their cool because their coaches lost their cool. The defense that the coaches were protecting their players is a terrible one in that as a coach, the best way to protect your players is to make sure they stay on the field and focus on the task at hand—not trying to turn yourself into a martyr.

7. Particularly disappointing was the postgame reaction in which Eskandarian lashed out a Philadelphia reporter on Twitter and referred to Elfath as “one donkey in the middle.” General rule of thumb when you are a member of something prominent like a professional sports team: if you are still heated from what happened in the game, stay off Twitter.

8. Switching to the USA and their now most famous fan, my friend Emily Hull chatted with Teddy Goalsevelt.  You should give it a read.

9. You get the feeling that the USA are going to need an extra hand in the attack in order to beat Belgium but not right away. Chris Wondolowski and Aron Johannsson have been underutilized options while Jozy Altidore is available to play but it is uncertain whether or not he can start. As mentioned above, Altidore should not start for tactical reasons today but if US Soccer is going to take the time to make such a loud and prepared proclamation of his status like they did on Twitter yesterday, you can say there is a reasonable expectation that Altidore will start.

10. The nervous prospect of a pyrrhic victory is very real for the USA since Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones are both on yellow cards and if either player is suspended for a possible quarterfinal match, then Jurgen Klinsmann would have to readjust his tactics for a third time.

11. A very interesting attack matchup between Argentina and Switzerland in that Argentina will have a new front three with Ezequiel Lavezzi replacing the injured Sergio Aguero which gives them more balanced going forward with Lavezzi adding more width than the more central-minded Aguero. Switzerland may have captured lightning in a bottle by switching towards a 4-4-2 with Xherdan Shaqiri moving into the second striker role, switching with Granit Xhaka who is now on right wing. Shaqiri scored a hat-trick in his first game working underneath Josip Drmic and could have more success against a shaky Argentina defense.