When the USA take on Wales in the World Cup opener on Monday, they won’t be up against an opponent with extremely complicated tactical principles.
Coached by Rob Page and led by star striker Gareth Bale, Wales have an uncomplicated approach to the game. They line up with five in defence, and while they choose their high-pressing moments, they mostly sit deep, giving up possession and trying to outplay opponents at the break through Bale, fellow attackers Brennan Johnson and Dan James and midfielders to meet Aaron Ramsey.
As Liam Tharme wrote in his Group B tactical preview, among UEFA countries traveling to Qatar, Wales had the last ball possession in World Cup qualifying (48.1 percent). They also put the ball forward faster than most teams, reflecting a directness in attack.
Wales can also cause damage from set pieces, either from direct free-kicks from Bale or from towering striker Kieffer Moore, who stands 6ft-5 and has scored three goals in his last three games before leading the English Premier League club to the World Cup went Bournemouth.
It’s not the most elegant approach, but it works well for tournament play. Wales will be disciplined, difficult to break and will have one of the best big game players around the world in decades in Bale. Defense in Transition is an area that the US needs to be extremely focused on.
Midfielder Tyler Adams, who plays in a high-pressing system at Leeds United where the club’s defenders are often called upon to deal with dangerous transition moments, spoke about the importance of this in a press conference on Thursday.
“When you’re playing against teams that can counter people, you often think you need to give yourself more space and drop a little deeper into different spaces behind,” Adams said. “But for me, especially the way we play at Leeds and here, we’re very aggressive when we attack with the ball. So our defenders sometimes have to be put in situations where they have to defend one against one. In such situations you have to feel comfortable. …
“I think they’re already very focused on that, Gregg has already talked about that you know, ‘rest attack’ as we call it when we have the ball, already thinking about which attackers are a threat and what poses the biggest threat to spaces we have to defend behind. And we know that (Wales) is good at that (transition game) so we certainly have to counter that.”
The tactic could be particularly difficult to solve for the USA, who often struggle to break up teams through sustained possession. On Monday, it will be particularly important for the US to find ways to pull Wales’ three centre-backs out of their positions to create space behind their line, US midfielder Kellyn Acosta told reporters in Qatar on Tuesday.
“With five at the back, they have an extra defender, so it’s one of those things where we have to pull them out,” Acosta said. “We have a numerical advantage in midfield and will of course take advantage of that. So when there are five in the back there are usually three center backs and they will be more aggressive. And so we want them to be overly aggressive in a sense where there will be room at the back.
One of America’s better performances over the past year provides a kind of blueprint for how the Americans are likely to plan to attack Wales. In June’s 3-0 win over Morocco, the USA repeatedly used the same patterns to consistently disorganize Moroccan centre-backs and create space for US attackers.
Much of it revolved around the Christian Pulisic movement. It was also helped by a tweak that saw Yunus Musah drop lower to get to the ball, allowing the other central midfielder, in this case Brenden Aaronson, to stay slightly higher and a shadow down the right flank, which Pulisic gave more room to operate centrally.
The moves began to pay off almost immediately after kick-off.
Here Pulisic checks back to the ball and pulls the Moroccan right centre-back – just off screen but circled in red – out of position and into midfield. That opened up space for Musah, who had flared to the left to run behind the defensive line.
In a way, Pulisic’s setback is about making room for his teammate. But it also enabled the US star to play to one of his strengths: late runs into the box.
Adams sees Musah’s run and the many acres of space and plays it through.
The USA is now in the running.
All Musah has to do is play an early ball onto Ferreira, which slipped between the two remaining centre-backs to give the USA a good view of the goal. Behind Ferreira are both Brenden Aaronson and Pulisic making those late-arriving runs. Both are also in good places to get service.
Instead, Musah carries the ball too long and cuts his right foot. Ferreira keeps his run to stay on the side and that takes away space for Musah to fall back to. Pulisic comes to a crowd at the top of the box. Nevertheless, the ball finally lands on Pulisic’s foot and he just misses a left-footed shot that rolls just wide of the post.
It’s a missed opportunity in a sequence and pattern that, up to a point, worked exactly how the US had hoped.
There was a similar move just minutes later, with a pass that went just slightly past Antonee Robinson’s crotch to set up another good look at goal. Again the move started with Pulisic checking into space in the middle and pulling the Moroccan center back out of position.
Musah has the ball this time. Left-back Robinson sees the gap on the right side of Morocco’s back line thanks to Pulisic’s run and sprints forward to take advantage of it.
Unfortunately, the pass didn’t quite line up with Robinson’s run and was carried about a yard or two too far. He couldn’t collect it in the crotch and therefore couldn’t use his body to stay in front of the recovering Moroccan right-back.
Ferreira makes a run to fill two defenders and the other centre-back focuses on Robinson. Meanwhile, Pulisic has beaten both Moroccan midfielders with his late-arriving run. If the pass had been just a meter further in, Robinson could have attacked the goal and probably found Pulisic. Instead, he had to refocus his run, prompting him to pull the ball back when he got there. That again gave the Moroccan wing a window to make the tackle and end the threat.
The USA are once again inches away from another clear opportunity built around Pulisic, who draws out a centre-back by looking back at the ball in a central position. Although they couldn’t capitalize on goals in those specific scenarios, the move worked as planned and they will no doubt look to repeat it against Wales.
(It’s worth noting that Robinson’s forward run is also a reminder of the areas where U.S. will be vulnerable if they turn them around. As Adams outlined above, it will be crucial for him and other teammates to be aware of this to be gaping when the full-backs are pushing forward. They need to be ready to counter press or cover ground when and if the ball spins.)
“I think it might look a bit similar (like Morocco) in that first game against Wales,” Pulisic said on Wednesday. “I remember we found space to go around such a formation. We’ve been working on that all week and preparing for it as best we can. So we’re going to take the positives from this game and try to bring that into this one.”
The Welsh struggled with just that kind of movement in the first half of their 2-1 defeat by Belgium in the UEFA Nations League on 22 September.
Belgium’s attacking moves are slightly different from what we saw from the US against Morocco, but the design is the same: pull a centre-back off the defensive line to create space in defence. Getting Kevin De Bruyne on the ball and running into space from a slightly lower position in attacking midfield is effective here.
Forward Michy Batshuayi checks back to the ball, dragging right central defender Chris Mepham with him. Winger Eden Hazard fills Welsh right-back Connor Roberts. De Bruyne, meanwhile, starts running into the space he sees as he makes the pass to Batshuayi.
Hazard fakes the ball and when he’s on Batshuayi’s foot, De Bruyne is in a full sprint. It just takes a quick check, a spin and a small pass from the forward to play De Bruyne into space. And there is plenty of space.
The Welsh defenders have a tough decision to make here. Stay with Youri Tielemans’ run into the penalty area or move towards De Bruyne. Rhys Norrington-Davies and right-back Neco Williams sprint straight back to try to take the pass away and limit De Bruyne to a shot from a difficult angle. Luckily for them, De Bruyne, who had scored earlier, actually smudges his shot when Mepham arrives and Norrington-Davies clears it away.
It didn’t end in a goal, but the move created a clear chance for De Bruyne, much like the USA tried to find space against Morocco.
Wales weren’t shy about stacking their box with defenders against Belgium. There were a couple of occasions when Belgium tried to attack at the break, only Wales snapped back and recovered with more than six players in the heart of the box. That left huge gaps between the retreating Welsh defenders and their forwards, who remained stationed further up the pitch.
Belgium was able to use these places several times, mainly through De Bruyne, who arrived late and unmarked at the top of the penalty area. It was from that position that he scored Belgium’s opener and later hit the post from a similar spot.
Pulisic could easily show up in the same area on Monday and getting him on the ball in that position would be a hugely positive result for USA
Finding a result against Wales will be crucial if USA hopes to break out of the group. Not only are the two nations potentially battling for second place in Group B behind favorites England, but only eight of the 73 teams who have lost their opening game at the last six World Cups have made it through to the knockout rounds . A defeat on Monday would be almost fatal for both teams.
“At least I think the American media underestimates Wales,” US coach Gregg Berhalter said this week. “If I look at the Wales squad, it’s basically a Premier League squad. You have Daniel James, he scored against Manchester United the other night; You have Harry Wilson, a first class player; Kieffer Moore; Neco Williams; Brennan Johnson; Gareth Bale; Ben Davis. For me it’s a really good squad, an impressive squad. You’ve been to international competitions, you know what it’s like. It’s going to be a very difficult game.”
(Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)