The speedy American fullback provided width and a dangerous attacking option, but he also left space behind him that Belgium exploited
The U.S. did not have a good game against Belgium. Aside from Howard’s display, the other only other American to have a notable performance was DeAndre Yedlin. The young Seattle homegrown player made a wonderful impact for the Americans from the right fullback position. Two examples from the match exemplified both a strength and weakness of the Americans in the game and throughout the tournament.
On a play in the 41st minute, we saw Yedlin fly down the wing to make a dangerous cross. We loved it. Finally! Then in extra time, we got punished for our greed. On Belgium’s game-winning second goal, Yedlin was caught forward and out of defensive position. The two plays demonstrate a key decision, and opposite outcomes, that influences possession and dominates many games today.
If you want to hold possession, you need numbers around the ball. The person on the ball needs to have options near him to make short, high percentage passes. If no teammates show up to provide an outlet, the player with the ball is likely to try longer passes that are more difficult and allow the defense time to shift into position.
What’s more, if the defense can pressure the player on the ball, he’s likely to put his head down, concentrating on keeping the ball, rather than pick his head up so he can look for options. It’s a prime opportunity for the opposition to win the ball.
We scream obscenities at Michael Bradley, but he needs players close by in order to make good passes. It’s difficult to keep sustained possession without your teammates helping you out.
As an attacking team, then, you need to have as many options around the ball as the opposing team has defenders. From a central position, where most possession begins, you need your wide midfielders to tuck in and a forward to drop back. It creates the majestic triangles that we are always hearing about, giving the player on the ball options in every direction.
On the play shown here, Zusi has tucked in from his wide position to the center circle. Bedoya has come inside with the ball. Dempsey has checked back. Six American players are within 15 yards of the ball. Bedoya connects the pass to Bradley.
If the wide players are coming to the middle to present an option as they do here, though, the team loses width. The defenders can close just as easily still because they don’t have to worry about anyone out wide. They can still squeeze the space and get a numerical advantage. This is what makes outside backs so vital. In today’s game, outside backs provide the width. When the opposition’s wide players come inside to track our own checking players, the outside back can fly into the vacated space. They are the ones who find the space to create trouble. Other players keep possession and suck the opposition in, allowing the outside backs do the damage. Yedlin found himself free on the right flank more than a few times against Belgium.
However, the opportunities for outside backs to get forward can create a problem as well. As Yedlin rushes forward, a space opens up behind him that the opposition can exploit if there’s a turnover. In the game yesterday, the United States gave away possession in the middle of the field while Yedlin was trying to create width, leaving a huge gap on our right side. Belgium, one of the swiftest and most lethal counter attacking teams in the world, punished us for it.
This moment is about more than Yedlin. We want our team to possess, but there is a lot that goes into a team connecting passes. There can be four, five, sometimes more decisions and movements that go into a single pass. In the 41st minute, Yedlin’s movement helped create a chance for the U.S. In extra time, a very similar set of circumstances led to the Belgians finishing off the game.