Bob Bradley faces some tough choices over how to approach England on June 12. Strong late performances by some players, such as DaMarcus Beasley, Jose Francisco Torres, among others, have given Bradley some strategic and tactical options for how to approach England. Who Bradley chooses to play will tell us a lot about the strategy being employed by the U.S. and about Bradley as a manager.
When talking about who Bob Bradley should select to start, there is a tendency to say he should simply select the 'best' player at each position. But his selection isn't or shouldn't be about who is necessarily best. It should be about which players advance the overall game plan, since different players offer different tactical qualities and weaknesses. Therefore, the players selected should reflect that. And the different tactics that Bradley can employ are also dependent on the strategies.
There are a few things, however, that we know. We know we will be in a 4-4-2. We are pretty clear on 9 of the starters against England-- Tim Howard, Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and likely Jay Demerit and Steve Cherundolo (it could be Jonathan Spector, but this makes little difference on how we play tactically). This leaves just two spots up for grabs. The central midfield partner for Bradley and the player who takes the spot left open by Donovan and Dempsey-- this could be either left or right midfield or up top depending on where they play. This decision becomes more complicated given that Michael Bradley can play a more defensive-holding role in central midfield or can play in a more advanced, central-midfield role.
Normally one would figure out what strategy to employ and then figure out the tactics to achieve that strategy. But in this case, lets see what the tactical options are available and then assess the strategic implications.
Neutralize England's right side: Having watched the Spurs countless times this year, England's right midfielder Aaron Lennon can simply change a game. Lennon was the reason why Jermain Defoe was one of the Premier League's leading scorers and then fell into a deep slump in the second half of the season when Lennon was out injured. Now the injury may mean that Lennon is not as in form as last fall, but his pace doesn't rely on form. Worryingly, our likely left back, Carlos Bocanegra, is simply slow. Whoever Bradley puts at left midfield will therefore have a lot of defending to do, especially since Glen Johnson, England's right back, can get forward with pace as well. If you are looking for the best defensive option at left midfield it would be DaMarcus Beasley. Beasley has wheels and is a very good defensive player. His weaknesses are on the ball, as his touch is not the smoothest and his passing is not that insightful. He would provide pace on a potential counterattack.
The two other options are to play Landon Donovan at left midfield, as he has the pace and the defensive chops to give cover. But the danger here is that this will make our best attacking player essentially a defender. Alternatively, Jose Francisco Torres is left-footed and great on the ball. Benny Feilhaber has similar qualities. Dempsey frequently plays there for Fulham. However, the problem with these players is that they have a tendency to come inside and move centrally, potentially leaving Lennon in space.
Clog the middle: Maurice Edu has been impressive in his defensive capabilities and his calmness on the ball in a holding midfield role-- much more so than Ricardo Clark. Edu, playing in Scotland, adds another athletic physical presence to our midfield. He would play the deep-lying holding role to shield the backline, deny passes into Wayne Rooney, and to get after England's creative midfielders-- Frank Lampard and whoever he partners with. Along with Edu, Bradley would play a bit further up and know that he has the cover Edu would seek to deliver higher pressure in attempting to knock England's possession and launch counterattacks. This worked to great effect against Italy in the first half of the Confederations Cup as Bradley pressured Italy high, creating turnovers and counterattacks. Additionally, Bradley is effective at getting into the box and is a proven goal scorer if given the license to get forward.
However, the disadvantage to this pairing is that neither Edu nor Bradley are particularly creative players, and with these two together one could see the U.S. not holding onto the ball as effectively as if there were a Torres or a Feilhaber in the middle. But defensively, this would make life pretty tough in the middle of the park for Frank Lampard.
Possess the ball: In international football, possession is critical. The U.S. team now has some midfielders that are calm on the ball and adept passers. If Bradley sought to focus on controlling possession, he could play two of the three between Jose Francisco Torres, Benny Feilhaber, and Stuart Holden out wide and in the center of midfield. This would put either Donovan or Dempsey wide and up top and put Michael Bradley in the holding role. England has also demonstrated a weakness in being able to win back the ball against teams solid in possession.
Get forward: Bradley could chose to play a second striker paired with Altidore (Robbie Findley, Edson Buddle, or Hercules Gomez). This would put Donovan and Dempsey on the flanks and would seek to emulate the success that they had at the Confederations Cup. This would leave a slot open in the midfield, allowing Bradley to choose between a creative player or defensive player.
Nullify England: DaMarcus Beasley at left midfield, Maurice Edu at defensive midfield. This is the most defensive approach, as it neutralizes the right and clogs the midfield. This game plan is about making life very hard on England and nullifying their most clear attacking routes, which involve Aaron Lennon raiding down the right wing and playing through the middle with Lampard, Gerrard and Rooney. Donovan could be placed on the right to provide more coverage against Ashley Cole's marauding runs. And Dempsey, along with Altidore, would provide additional muscle to hold up the ball, easing pressure on our defense. Defensively, I think this is the strongest team. With Donovan and Beasley on the flanks there is pace to get forward on counters. However, with Dempsey at striker, the U.S. doesn't really have that player to stretch the defense. This team would also suffer in possession with a lack of a creative player in the central midfield. Alternatively, Donovan could start up top in the hole paired with Altidore.
Balanced Approach: This would involve making the defensive concession by either deploying Beasley to nullify the right or Edu to clog the middle. That would mean we are seeking to take away one of England's strengths, but are also focused on getting forward or trying to control possession. One option would be two strikers up front, placing Dempsey wide right and Donovan on the left to help against Lennon. Edu could be deployed to provide defensive cover.
Get After'Em. The best defense is a good offense. This would involve two strikers up top (either Buddle, Gomez or Findley), Donovan and Dempsey out wide and a creative central midfielder (Feilhaber, Torres or Holden) paired with Bradley. This team could possess the ball and would be dangerous getting forward, but it could also find itself defensively exposed.
Which would I chose? I tend to find myself leaning toward the nullify England strategy. I am scared to death of Aaron Lennon against Bocanegra, and I think Beasley, given a largely defensive role, could work to neutralize the threat. He can also get forward and has the World Cup experience, which counts for a lot. I also like the idea of Bradley having the freedom to break up the play further up field and to get forward into the box. I think I would have Dempsey at right midfield, and I would play Donovan in the hole both to provide an outlet for possession and to serve as someone with pace that can run at England's center backs.
In general I think this is a very tough call, and I don't think I would second guess Bradley for pursuing any of these approaches. But whatever options he decides it will tell us a lot about his mentality and approach as a coach.