Preface: In addition to writing for TheHeadrush, I also coach high school soccer in the fall and really, really love it. Breaking down and analyzing soccer games is one of my favorite things to do come the fall, so when I watched yesterday’s match between the USA and Italy, I took some notes in order to write a column analyzing the game. Here is what I came up with…
The USA defeated Italy yesterday (USA! USA!) and I thought that I would give some thoughts on just how it was done from a strategic stand point (or at least, what I thought was going on, and hold on to your butts cause it may get a tad pretentious up in here).
The problem for Italy is that once the US went up 1-0, they really, I mean REALLY, packed it in on defense. Why was this so bad for Italy you ask? Because the Italian system of attack was not suited to deal with strong numbers in the box, and down the stretch, the Americans were packed in there like sardines.
But let’s go back a bit and explain just how Italy went about attacking the USA, and how the USA went about attacking the Italians.
Italy’s style of attack was to push the ball down the wings, and then either get deep into the American zone towards the touchline—and in doing so, turning the American defenders inside the box so they’d have to face ball being played across and the man they were marking simultaneously—or pushing the ball out to a wing and have him break on the goal or hit an early cross into the danger zone at the penalty area.
If you look at Italy’s earliest (and maybe best) opportunity to score, this is exactly what happens. They push the ball out wide, the Italian draws one on one defense, beats his defender and hits a cross from just outside the 18. (This starts :35 seconds into the video)
When he strikes the ball, there are three American defenders in the box, as opposed to just two Italian attackers. BUT, there is a third Italian crashing hard from just outside the top of the 18 who has slipped by his American defender (who is trailing).
Guess who the ball goes to? You guessed it. The perfectly timed run by the Italian who slipped by his man who must have fallen asleep.
When he shoots the ball, there are two helpless American defenders on either side of him (neither in front to stop the shot, although one does lunge at him) and two American defenders who are out of position to do anything (one standing flat footed at the six who tried to defense the cross and one at the top of the 18). So, even though the Americans had numbers at the beginning of the play, they didn’t when it counted most because one American got caught “ball watching” and lost his mark.
So, if you followed me this far, in summary: Italy played the ball to their wingers, and looked to score on strategically placed crosses. This was a perfectly fine system of attack early on in the game, but it became less effective as the game wore on, and the American’s changed their defense.
In contrast, America would play the ball to their forwards in a more central position (like the top of the 18), and the forwards would hold onto the ball, post up their defenders, and then try to play the ball off to one of their teammates who was making a supporting run or a through run.
If you look at their goal, (At the 2:08 mark of the video) this is exactly what happens: ball played into Altidore at the center of the 12, Altidore holds off his man and maintains possession, Dempsey holds at the 18 before making a nice run into space and strikes the ball perfectly towards the far post for a goal.
Once the US went up 1-0, they packed their defenders inside the 18 and Italy’s best hope for a goal was either to have one of the American defenders misplay a ball or have an outside attacker get by his mark and take the ball directly at the goal. They really had little chance to score on a pure cross because their attackers would be outnumbered (usually marked 2 vs. 1). Also, remember, the touchline and sidelines are defenders as well, so when you play the ball wide AND you have a numbers disadvantage, you are really playing into the defense’s hands.
One of Italy’s better 2nd half opportunities (3:00 minutes mark of the video) came when their player had the ball at the corner of the 6, drew a RIDICULOUS 5 American defenders (none of whom got the ball) towards him and then dropped the ball back to an unmarked man at around the right side of the 12.
Luckily, his left footed shot went directly to Howard, who made the easy save. But if you pause the ESPN highlight when he makes the save (I am obviously re-watching the highlights as I write this), you will see there are 4 Italian attackers in the box (with one just outside the top of the 18 waiting for some “loose change” as Zumoff would say) compared to 7 US defenders.
So while crossing the ball in a 4 vs. 7 situation has little chance of success, having an attacker hold the ball, draw defenders to him and then lay it off for a teammate has a good chance for success, as was demonstrated by the scoring opportunity.
If you pause the highlight right after the shot, as play resumes (3:10 mark of the video), you will see 5 American defenders compacted into the area of the 18 right in front of the goal, with 1 defender challenging the ball and 2 outside defenders marking off their man on the outsides. So that puts 8 American defenders between Italy and the goal. Now, of course, Italy plays the ball wide and the attacker goes in hard towards goal, and he does have a good chance to score BUT he also has two American defenders between him and the goal. One of whom deflects it wide, and another (make that a third) crashing in towards the goal mirroring the one who hit the ball out. So it was a good scoring opportunity, but he still had to compete with three US defenders and the goalie (it pays to score first).
If you go to the 3:37 mark of the video, you will see another attack that tries to start on the outside and gets thwarted pretty easily. The Italians loft the ball to the outside, the attacker tries to go to goal, but he is quickly closed down by a defender and then has to either shoot (with no angle) or cross to ONE Italian attacker who is marked by THREE US defenders. Not good odds.
At 3:51, the Italians work the ball through to an attacker in the middle of the field, who lays it off to a teammate who quickly finds himself with SIX US defenders surrounding him. Is this bad? Not for Italy. The player holds the ball, finds the open man (again, a US defender was drawn towards the ball and left him wide open) who takes a strike from just outside the 18. He shanks it, yes, but it was a good goal scoring opportunity.
My final point is this: If Italy had attacked American like America was attacking Italy, I think they would’ve had a better chance to score than simply attacking from the outside. You need only look at Altidore’s goal for proof. (again at the 2:08 mark of the video).
3 Italian defenders are marking Altidore when he gets the ball, but numbers don’t matter as much when you are playing with your back to the goal and maintaining possession. Especially since one of the three defenders was the man who was supposed to be marking Dempsey but ended up leaving him to go attack Altidore, which allowed Dempsey to slip free, move into space and score.
When dealing with a team playing in a compact defensive shape, one that will always have a numbers advantage, the best bet is to play the ball to a central player, who will draw defenders to him like gnats to a light, and then find the open man for a shot on goal.