Monday, June 27, 2011

Deconstructing the 4-2 Gold Cup debacle at Rose Bowl

I am an avid follower of the sport known worldwide as football and in the US as soccer. While I grew up playing and following the sport of cricket, I essentially gave it up when I moved from the home of the world champions to a country where the word is more commonly understood to mean a member of the Gryllidae family. About ten years ago, I became a certified soccer referee, and over the next few years I got quite good at it; however, as my kids' involvement in soccer became more serious over the years, my weekend role has turned into that of a chauffeur, while my interest has evolved into analyzing the finer technical and tactical points of the game. Coincidentally, this is also the period when data-driven methods became mainstream in the analysis of team sports. Somewhat late to this trend, soccer is busy catching up with it as well. [Aside: Some of the excellent soccer sites with this flavor include Jonathan Wilson's articles on The Guardian, Tim Hill's Blog, Bob Evans' blog on refereeing, The Guardian's Chalkboards, the occasional analytical article on NYT's Goal blog, etc.]

That was a long pre-amble. This post is my analysis of the defeat of the US Men's National Team at the hands of (feet of?) Mexico in the final match of the CONCACAF Gold Cup in front of a largely pro-Mexican crowd of over 90,000 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA. The popular soccer press and the blogosphere are rife with knee-jerk reactions lambasting defender Jonathan Bernstein, calling for a replacement to coach Bob Bradley, and even questioning the credibility of USSF President Sunil Gulati. In this post, I will attempt to portray with evidence what went wrong with the US defense, and how the US allowed the Mexicans to score four goals after leading the game 2-0 a mere 23 minutes into the game.

I am not saying that Bornstein had a great game or that Bradley's tactical choices were masterful; I am merely pointing out that blaming the last defender or the positional counterpart of the goalscorer is an easy and lazy way to react to a loss. It is understandable when casual fans do this, but it pains me that two days after the final, not one soccer writer has attempted to really analyze this rather excellent soccer match from a technical perspective. Hence this humble attempt at providing such an analysis.

As far as analyses of soccer matches go, please note that this is the "easy" kind of analysis -- breaking down what happened in a 30-second span of play and explaining who was at "fault" -- as opposed to the more difficult analysis that explains what happened over the course of 90 minutes or over the course of a season why a certain player or certain team is successful. Read Tim Hill's blog for various examples of such brilliant analysis.

The analysis below uses snapshots from this YouTube video and this one of game highlights, mostly from the latter. My original analysis was conducted with DVR from HD transmission, with replays and pauses, apologies if the video snapshots don't adequately express the ideas. I am grateful to Aravind Sivakumar, with whom this analysis was conducted jointly; he is also the one who knows a thing or two about actually playing soccer on the field rather than from the armchair.

Goal #1 for Mexico: The score is 2-0 in favor of the US, Mexico has a throw-in about ten yards from the halfway line on their defensive side. A second after the throw-in, here's the picture:

Couple of seconds later, the ball is played into the center of the field:

This picture tells us several things, some of which point out what went wrong:
Chicharito, only Mexico's most dangerous player, is left unmarked in the middle of the park -- he has occupied what is often considered the "soft underbelly" of a defensive formation, the space between the holding midfielder(s) and the centerbacks. The person nearest him is Michael Bradley, who is actually not goal-side of him, but is more or less marking the referee. The other holding midfielder, Jermaine Jones, is on the attacking side of the halfway line. The centerbacks have Gio Dos Santos covered, and Bornstein is loosely marking Barrera, the eventual goalscorer. A fundamental rule of defending in soccer is that at any transition, the midfielders, especially the defensive ones, get goal-side of the player in their zone. Jones and Bradley failed to do this. Admittedly, Chicharito is a forward, and thus nominally the responsibility of the centerbacks; and admittedly, Jones has the two central midfielders in front of him. That brings me to my next point: the goalkeeper and the centerbacks, who are the ones responsible for organizing the defense, completely failed in their jobs -- either to get one of the midfielders to drop and mark Chicharito, or to have one of the centerbacks step up so as not to allow him space and time. It appears that Bocanegra and Goodson, the centerbacks, had pushed up enough to keep Dos Santos offside at this moment.

The next picture shows that Bradley caught up to Chicharito a second later, but not before he could play the killer pass to Barrera; as this picture illustrates, by this time, Goodson starts running back, and keeps Dos Santos onside, not that it matters. Captain Bocanegra is more or less ball-watching, instead of providing cover for Goodson and Bornstein, or heading in the direction of the space between himself and Bornstein/Barrera, the most likely place for Chicharito to play the through ball.

At this point, it was a hopeless cause for the US defense. Chicharito carved the space between Bocanegra and Bornstein nearly right in the middle with a well-weightd ball, and Barrera completed a lovely goal. Was Bornstein guilty here? Sure, he was -- he didn't stay tight on Barrera, he was on the inside as opposed to goal-side so once the ball is past him, the attacker is behind him and he has no hope of making a tackle or interception. My point, however, is that the US failed in basic defensive organization at a rather "safe" point in the game -- leading by two goals, with a transition from a throw-in in the opponent's defensive half, with plenty of time to get someone to deny Chicharito time and space. In my estimate, the "blame" for this goal is on Bradley, Bocanegra, and Bornstein, in that order, let's say 0.5 for Bradley, 0.25 each for the other two.

Goal #2 for Mexico:

It begins like this, a long ball is played from the central midfield towards the right touchline. Giovani Dos Santos is the recipient, and I can't identify the passer (Torrado or Castro). There are two US players in front of the passer -- Jermaine Jones and one more player, not sure who it is. Michael Bradley is in the central circle, and behind him is Andres Guardado, another live-wire player in the Mexican National Team.

Now Dos Santos has the ball at his feet, and is looking to dribble in:

A few points are noteworthy here: Bornstein is successful in the first and foremost aspect of defending: delaying (the other two are denying and destroying, more on that in a moment). He gets goal-side of the attacker, and is in position to proceed to the next two aspects. He has excellent cover too: Bocanegra is moving in, and Goodson is providing cover to both Bornstein and Lichaj on the other side (who has his eyes on Chicharito). Jones is making a sharp run into the box (he's near the penalty arc), and Bradley, eyes on the ball, is heading in the general direction. Between the two of them, Bradley and Jones are lacking organization: who will pick up Guardado, who is by now a few steps ahead of Bradley (and close to the referee in the picture), and whether the other attacker (Barrera?) outside the box is Jones' responsibility or Bocanegra's. Bocanegra is in a good position, able to provide cover for Bornstein, or to take this other attacker, should Dos Santos lay it off to him. The confusion continues for Bradley and Jones, though, as can be seen in the next picture, a fraction of a second before Dos Santos takes his shot:

By this point, Lichaj has done an excellent job of staying goal-side of Chicharito, and keeping him tightly marked. Jones is still confused and ball-watching, Bradley is ball-watching and scrambling in the general direction of Guardado. Dos Santos takes the shot, which Lichaj steps up and intercepts, but let's see where the rest of the cast of characters are:

Bradley still hasn't gotten goal-side of Guardado, and neither has Goodson. Jones continues his general moral support in the area, without specifically taking on any responsibility. At this point, it's over. The ball spills to Guardado, who makes no mistake. Chicharito's general soccer awareness is simply brilliant here: realizing that he's offside, and that any involvement by him would nullify what is clearly heading to be the equalizer, he not only avoids any contact with the ball, but ensures that his non-contact is perceptibly obvious.

So who's to blame for Goal #2? At this level of play, any attacker worth his salt will be able to beat a defender with one cut (as Dos Santos executes with his outside left foot to get space from Bornstein), so while Bornstein didn't successfully deny or destroy the shot, he is not entirely at fault. Bocanegra did absolutely nothing to position himself to intercept the ball, or to otherwise organize the defense. Goodson's case is even more interesting -- he was not the first line of defense against any of the attackers, and the least "occupied"; naturally, it was his job to ensure that Guardado was picked up properly either by Jones or by Bradley, and when neither did so, by himself. Bradley's defending was comical: when the lead pass was played, Guardado was a few steps behind Bradley, and Bradley had no one else to mark; yet, he failed to get goal-side of Guardado for the rest of the play. Let's chalk this one up to Bradley, Jones, Goodson, Bocanegra, and Bornstein, in that order, and respectively, for 0.3, 0.2, 0.2, 0.2, and 0.1 points each. I wouldn't blame Howard for this one, though I wish he had done better.

As an interesting aside, four names you didn't see in the analysis of Goal #2 are: Donovan, Dempsey, Adu, and Bedoya, the four attacking players for the US. Normally, the US plays a solid defensive game -- the outside forwards / wingers work their tails off in tracking down and helping the fullbacks. It was stunning to see that Bornstein and Lichaj didn't get any support, especially since Lichaj was marking Chicharito in this play. It is even more painful (for the US fan, that is) when we consider that the US was leading at this point, and some basic tactical discipline was crucial. I suspect, but can't remember, that this was a counterattack, which is why Bedoya and Dempsey (the wingers/outside forwards at this point) didn't have time to drop back.

On to Goal #3:
The ball is played from the touchline to one of the central midfielders for Mexico, Adu tries to put some pressure on the player, but he's looking to make a long pass across the halfway line. You'll see Bradley near the referee, he has the other central midfielder in front of him; Bedoya appears to be the US player on the far side. Can't tell if it was a Mexico throw-in, or if Clint Dempsey (the US player on the near-side touchline) was dispossessed of the ball. In either case, it's a transition, and we see Jones not goal-side of anyone in particular, which is kinda OK especially if the US had possession a second or two earlier.

But let's see how this develops.

I think it's Dos Santos who receives the ball; Bornstein is scrambling to quickly get goal-side of him. Barrera (the Mexican player second-closest to the ball) is starting to make a run towards and beyond Bocanegra. Goodson has Chicharito behind him, but Lichaj appears to be headed to help mark Chicharito. In all of this, no one seems to play any attention to Guardado, whom we see at the top of the center circle.

I love the next snapshot for how many things it tells us about great attacking and good defending in soccer:

Barrera is headed towards goal, Bocanegra keeps him on the inside, somewhat questionably. Guardado has his arms stretched wide, and he wants the ball passed to him across the swath of space left open in the middle by Jones, who is facing the ball, and not dropping in to cover Guardado's possible run into the middle. It isn't clear if he got instructions from Howard and Bocanegra about having to pick up Guardado's run; for now he just seems completely ineffective, especially if Dos Santos makes a slightly diagonal pass into the triangle between Jones, Chicharito, and Barrera, a pass for Guardado to run into. However, Dos Santos has other ideas but, as we shall see, Guardado will still get his wish. If Guardado's run into that space, asking for the ball, is brilliant, Chicharito's positioning is simply genius. He is directly on the straight line between Goodson and Lichaj; he's got Lichaj in two minds. If Chicharito is further inside, he would be Goodson's mark, and Lichaj could focus on Guardado's run, but Lichaj has to be open to the possibility that Chicharito will make an outside run, in which case he, and not the centerback Goodson, would be the man to mark him. This keeps Lichaj undecided (for now), allowing Guardado to continue his run unchecked.

The next picture introduces a new character into the picture, the player that Bradley was previously goal-side of. Dos Santos has lobbed the ball over Bornstein, and Bocanegra is about to intercept it with a header; Bradley's mark has outrun him and entered the screen between Jones and Guardado:

Bocanegra heads the ball down, Bradley has sprinted and has noticed that Guardado is the man about to receive the ball, and has a chance of getting goal-side of him. In the meanwhile, Chicharito decides to go inside, and Goodson, correctly, decides to be the cover man (since there is now a chance that Guardado might receive the ball and run straight toward the goal), and leaves Lichaj to pick up Chicharito:

For inexplicable reasons, Bradley twists his run, and goes behind Guardado, allowing him to trap the ball with his chest, and bring it forward with his momentum, leaving us with this:

Notice that with respect to the previous picture, two very subtle things happen: Bocanegra, aware that Guardado has successfully trapped the ball in the center, moves in toward the middle to offer cover for Goodson, and, at the same time, Barrera instinctively shuffles a couple of steps away from the middle, creating a lane 3-5 yards wide for Guardado to stroke the ball into. He does that, and Barrera pulls off a fantastic strike (outside of the right foot) to the far post.

Oh, and Jones was an eyewitness to all of it. Not much else.

What should've happened? Seeing the acres of space in front of him, Goodson should've decided early on that Chicharito was Lichaj's responsibility, and screamed at Bradley to hand off his mark to Jones and go pick up Guardado instead. There was ample opportunity for executing that. There were two players to be picked up during this attack -- the player that Bradley was marking (Torrado or Castro), and Guardado. Unfortunately, Jones and Guardado were on either side of Bradley, so it called for a switch of responsibilities: Jones to take over Bradley's man, and Bradley to press Guardado. In the seven or so seconds, Goodson, Howard and Bradley failed to execute this. Jones, as the player with no immediate responsibility, could've, should've initiated the switch, but he was caught ball-watching. Bocanegra, as captain and the most-experienced defender, couldn't be involved in organizing the defense because he had his hands full with the initial clearing header and tracking Barrera. Add to this tricky situation the fact that Chicharito and Barrera played with impeccable instincts, and it's hard to blame anyone too much. If anyone, I'd go with Jones as the main culprit here, for the full 1.0 in the points system.

And finally that magic goal by Dos Santos. This goal was significant for an important reason: until then, the score was 3-2, and the US was just one goal away from getting back into the game. But this sublime goal put the US mentally out of the game. It started with a tussle near the corner flag, where Chicharito was trying to burn some time, and Bocanegra was fighting to win the ball (and he did that successfully). While the tussle was going on, another Mexican attacker (Zavala, who came on for Barrera, I think) got there, along with his marker Bornstein. Jones left his mark, Torrado, and went to the corner flag as well, to lend extra support and hopefully win the ball for the US. Lichaj has Guardado to mark, Goodson picked up Torrado, and Bradley dropped deep into the box, marking Dos Santos. All very well so far, except that we have an extra defender near the corner flag, and the ball gets kicked toward the box, where Torrado accepts it gratefully. This extra defender means that Bradley's mark, Castro, is likely lurking unmarked, but that turns out not to be a problem. Situation reasonably under control, and Bocanegra is already back near the box:

Goodson's positioning couldn't be better: he's cutting Torrado's angle toward the middle, and Howard should be responsible for any attempt at a near-post shot on goal. What he fails to account for is the fact that Bradley is going to let Dos Santos behind him and Torrado is going to play a simple pass on the outside, behind Goodson, not a pass splitting the defense:

By any stretch of imagination, Bradley should get to this ball first, but Howard calls for it, and charges out, leaving Bradley to do the only thing he can do: get on the goal line, in case Howard fails to save. This he starts to do:

However, the call by Howard turns out to be wrong, and Dos Santos gets to the ball first, with six US defenders in the box with him (from the nearest to the furthest: Jones, Bocanegra, Goodson, and Lichaj, besides Howard and Bradley). Of course, he scores, beating Lichaj, who gamely gets to the far post and tries to head it off, after first easily beating Jones and Bocanegra. Jones' mechanics, as he tries to defend this play, are laughable, and Bocanegra's defending isn't much better. We'll give this one primarily to Howard, for 0.6 points, with Bocanegra and Jones with 0.2 points each.

In sum total on the points system, we have Jones at 1.4, Bradley at 0.8, Bocanegra at 0.65, Howard at 0.6, Bornstein at 0.35 and Goodson at 0.2.

To me this analysis says a few things.

It's time for Bocanegra to be left out of the MNT. He shares at least part of the blame for three of the four goals; as the most experienced defender and captain, we should expect better. Given the recent sloppy performances of Onyewu and newbie Tim Ream, we are really, really thin at the centerback position, but Goodson's performance is a silver lining. Perhaps he will play the role of the experienced defender for the next World Cup cycle. Also, it is important to qualify for the next Olympics and identify the most promising young central defenders (Ream, Opara, et al.).

Michael Bradley had a poor game, and Jermaine Jones had a horrible game, two facts not called out adequately in the mainstream media and popular soccer blogs. In all four goals, we don't see the midfield working as a unit/tandem; the lack of understanding and communication they demonstrated was deplorable.

Bob Bradley didn't get through to Michael and Jermaine Jones adequately at half-time. He didn't put enough support for Lichaj (who was dealing with one or the other of Chicharito and Guardado, two of Mexico's most dangerous players) into his game plan for the second half. By contrast, the Mexican coach had a clear adjustment: any time Freddy Adu got the ball with space, he was closed down by two defenders, forcing him to make a tame back pass.

Finally, I hope that we see more technical and tactical analyses in the US soccer media, rather than have blogs turn into talk shows where somebody is always calling for the coach's head.