By: Colin Reese
From a tactical standpoint, the use of Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan where a central attacking midfielder plays in a 4-2-3-1 formation has made little sense because both players are better suited to play wide in that formation.
If the United States Men’s National Team were to use a 4-1-3-2 system with two strikers, it would make sense for either Dempsey or Donovan to play the second striker role with the other player either playing out left or right in the line of three attacking midfielders.
Formations and positions are fluid in soccer with a little more fluidity present in the attack as opposed to in the defense, but the idea that either Dempsey or Donovan are the main orchestrator and creator in the attack is an illogical concept.
Dempsey and Donovan are the two best American footballers, but that doesn’t mean they should be playing the central attacking midfielder role, which requires a different skill-set than scoring goals or being the target for the playmaker.
While quality passing and scoring opportunities can be created with the combination play of midfielders and strikers that aren’t playmakers, it makes the most sense for Jürgen Klinsmann and the United States to start Donovan and Dempsey out right and left in the line of three attacking midfielders and let them roam free.
The United States is using a 4-2-3-1 formation, but the central attacking midfielder role continues to be described by the American soccer media and fans as the player deployed beneath the striker, but this is once again really a 4-1-3-2 system where a second striker acts as a type of pseudo-playmaker or as just a strike partner with stronger passing skills than the first striker.
Of course, deploying two center forwards is another way to use the 4-1-3-2 system effectively, but using Dempsey or Donovan as a type of Number 10 in the middle of the line of three attacking midfielders really takes away from their ability to make more runs in the final third.
While an actual playmaker would be floating all of the field and the attack, deploying Donovan or Dempsey in that role hinders their ability to be on the receiving end of final balls.
Donovan and Dempsey are certainly effective at giving Jozy Altidore attacking support and players to combine with, but an actual playmaker like Benny Feilhaber, Mix Diskerud, or Joe Corona should be used as the central attacking midfielder.
Klinsmann recently stated that Tim Howard, Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore made up the spine of the USMNT, and if that is the case, then deploying Jones and Bradley behind a line of three attacking midfielders comprised of Donovan, Feilhaber, and Dempsey behing Altidore is an obvious way to surround that spin of players with capable teammates.
Forcing Donovan or Dempsey to play as the central attacking midfielder is nothing less than forcing a square peg into a round hole, and it makes more sense to use a Front Six as follows:
Donovan Feilhaber Dempsey
By letting the two best American players float around in the attack and switch sides whenever they see fit, the United States can stop moving backwards and keep an aspect of Bob Bradley’s formation that made sense.
For a national team that has demonstrated poor passing and possession compared to top national teams and even mid-level national teams, it makes a lot of sense to let a true playmaker orchestrate the attack from the central attacking midfielder role so that Donovan, Dempsey, and Altidore can play their natural positions.
Messing around with Alejandro Bedoya or Graham Zusi out right while Dempsey or Donovan are being used as second strikers where a central attacking midfielder should play is just too illogical and ineffective compared to letting a playmaker be flanked by Donovan and Dempsey with Altidore as the focal point of the attack.
One of the United States’ two best footballers don’t need to be deployed as a playmaker for those two players to perform their best.
Although the following is an oversimplication, Klinsmann’s 4-2-3-1 should be set up so that two defensive midfielders provide defensive coverage deep in the midfield while a central attacking midfielder links the defensive midfielders to the wide attacking midfielders and the striker, but Klinsmann’s version of the 4-2-3-1 formation always lacks the link-up player.
Entertaining the idea that either Donovan or Dempsey can start but not both is an idea that needs to go the way of the Dodo if the United States wants to deploy a strong Front Six made up of players who bring different and complementary qualities to the national team.