U.S. faces mirror image in Slovenia
The U.S. and Slovenia are very similar stylistically with 4-4-2 formations
Slovenia prefers to set up deep defensively and rely on the counterattack
Slovenia's creativity comes mostly from wide men, Valter Birsa and Andraz Kirm
For the U.S., Friday's match will be like looking in a mirror -- at least from a tactical point of view. Slovenia, like the Americans, plays a basic 4-4-2, has a style based more in physique than technique, keeps its wide midfielders narrow and has a big man/quick man center-forward pairing. Both even have an attacking right back, and each would rank its goalkeeper among the best two or three players in the team.
The second World Cup game for both teams will be intense and intriguing, but it is unlikely to be pretty. In fact, it's likely to resemble nothing so much as an English league match from the late 1980s.
Slovenia's strengths, without question, are its defense and its team ethic. It is blessed with a remarkable mental strength and faith in its method, as was apparent against Algeria on Sunday. That was a game Slovenia knew that realistically it had to win to have any chance of making the knockouts. It began badly, as Algeria bossed possession and had the couple of early chances, but Slovenia didn't panic, persisted in its method, and by halftime had gained control of the midfield. Slowly, the life was stifled from Algeria, and it panicked, Abdelkader Ghezzal being sent off for two of the dumbest offenses you're ever likely to see. Remorselessly, Slovenia's grip tightened, and while Robert Koren's goal may have resulted from the second-worst goalkeeping error of the tournament, and may not even have resulted from a protracted spell of pressure, there was still a sense that it had been coming.
This is how Slovenia does things: minimalistically. Its persistence should never be underestimated. Of the 20 goals it scored in World Cup qualifying, seven came after the 80th minute. The most significant of those was Nejc Pecnik's 88th-minute strike against Russia in the first leg of their playoff. The Russians had swept into a 2-0 lead, and they looked comfortable. Thoughts were perhaps already turning to high-altitude training, and continuing the Guus Hiddink-inspired rise of the Russian game; then suddenly Slovenia had an away goal, and a World Cup playoff that had looked all but won was in the balance. The psychological blow proved decisive, and although Russia was unlucky to have Alexander Kerzhakov sent off in the second leg in Maribor, it never found any rhythm in losing 1-0 and going out on away goals.
Slovenia is not a great team. It may be able to dismantle a side like San Marino, as it did in qualifying, or Qatar, as it did in its preparations for the World Cup, but it cannot take the initiative against a better side. It sits deep and looks to break a potential siege with quick counterattacking sallies. It is awkward rather than gifted. An awareness of its limitations, allied to rigorous organization and a resolute mentality, makes them an awkward opponent for anybody, although it should be said that historically it has tended to perform better against more technical opposition.
The setup is simple. Bostjan Cesar and Marko Suler are reliable center backs, although neither is huge, and the suspicion must be that Jozy Altidore can cause them problems. The two fullbacks are similarly solid rather than spectacular, with Miso Brecko, the right back, more adventurous than Bojan Jokic on the other flank. Jokic, presumably, will take responsibility for dealing with Landon Donovan, and will be relatively happy to sit deep, but the key battle could be that between Brecko and Clint Dempsey. Brecko is not a fullback who will try to drive Dempsey back and try to take him out of the game as an attacking force, but Dempsey must be aware of Brecko's occasional sallies.
Robert Koren and Aleksander Radosavljevic sit deep in the midfield, offering a defensive shield. Neither, though, is a clogger, and it was Radosavljevic's passing ability that secured his place in the team at the expense of the more robust Andrej Komac, who remains an option from the bench to shore things up. It is the shape, rather than the combative attributes of any individual, that gives Slovenia its defensive strength.
For Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark, this will be a very different contest to the one against England. Then, their job was essentially to sit deep and prevent Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard from taking charge, something that, after the first five minutes, they did admirably. Koren and Radosavljevic, though, will not look to press on, and the midfield could become something of a standoff, with both sides looking to prevent the other from taking the initiative rather than looking to take it themselves.
Bradley and Clark will also have to be aware of Zlatko Dedic, who buzzes behind Milivoje Novakovic, the target man, often dropping deep. Oguchi Onyewu was generally excellent on Saturday, but he can't afford to follow Dedic as he was sucked into following Wayne Rooney for the England goal, even if Koren is less of an attacking threat from deep than Gerrard. Novakovic himself is strong in the air and holds the ball up well, but given the way the U.S. defense handled Emile Heskey's bulk -- the goal aside -- that shouldn't be too much of a concern.
Like the U.S., Slovenia's only real creativity comes from the wide midfielders, Valter Birsa and Andraz Kirm. Both tend to tuck in when Slovenia is out of possession, pulling wider when the ball is won, while still looking to cut in on the diagonal -- just as Donovan and Dempsey do. They also tend to switch during games, occasionally playing as orthodox wide men and looking to swing in crosses, but more usually playing as inside-out wingers. That can be an attacking move -- as when Lionel Messi floats in-field onto his left foot for Barcelona -- but here, as a goal tally of five between them in 61 appearances suggests, it's more defensive, to keep the midfield compact and narrow.
The probability is that the center will be crowded on Friday, with all eight midfielders and possibly Dedic battling in the same space. It's likely to be attritional and unpleasant, a battle of will as much as ability. There won't be any sweeping 20-pass flurries or brilliant slaloming dribbles; aesthetes should probably turn away. Art, though, comes in many guises, and just because it isn't beautiful doesn't mean it isn't soccer.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.