U.S.-Slovenia: Tale of two halves
U.S. coach Bob Bradley rectified his mistakes with two key second-half subs
Slovenia was far stronger in the first half, the U.S. stronger in the second
Bradley has a dilemma in choosing his midfield pairing for Algeria match
Sometimes goals don't tell the full story, but in this case they did.
Slovenia was much the better side in the first half and deservedly swept into a 2-0 lead; the U.S. was much the better side in the second and deservedly came back to draw 2-2 on Friday. The question is whether you choose to blame U.S. coach Bob Bradley for what went wrong in the first half or to praise him for acting so decisively to put it right in the second.
The logic in bringing in Jose Torres for Ricardo Clark, who had done such a fine job in negating England's central midfield in the Americans' opener, was presumably to try to avoid an attritional, muscular contest by giving the U.S. a more cultured passing presence in the center of midfield. It failed dismally, succeeding only in ceding control of the center of the pitch. Slovenia is a side well aware of its own deficiencies, but give it an opportunity and the Slovenians will seize it. After an uneven opening 10 minutes littered with fouls, Slovenia came to dominate midfield and Torres was simply swamped, as Miso Brecko, the Slovenia right back, tore by Clint Dempsey again and again, overmanning on the right and allowing Valter Birsa, Slovenia's right-sided midfielder, freedom.
Birsa was once the golden boy of Slovenian football, earmarked as having a great future, but his star rather waned as he's drifted from Sochaux to Auxerre. He showed here, though, just how dangerous he can be if given the opportunity. He gave the U.S. a warning after nine minutes as he found space on the right to cross for Milivoje Novakovic, who missed his kick under pressure, but four minutes later Birsa was able to drift unmarked into a central area. The ball was worked in-field from the left, and when Birsa received it, 25 yards out with his back to goal, he seemed almost disbelieving of the space he was in as he turned and carefully measured a shot into the corner -- the first goal scored from outside the box in the tournament without the aid of a deflection or a goalkeeping howler.
That area 25-40 yards from goal, just in front of the back four, is what former Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, now in charge of Switzerland, calls the red zone. Put simply, a team cannot allow the opposition space there (and note how all three goals in the first set of games in this group came from that area -- the shots from Dempsey and Robert Koren that went in thanks to goalkeeping errors; Emile Heskey holding off Jay DeMerit to turn the ball through for the onrushing Steven Gerrard). It is there that England tend to look vulnerable when Gerrard and Frank Lampard play together, and without Clark, the U.S. consistently allowed space to open up in that area. There is need either if a holding midfielder, or for the defensive line to step higher. Three minutes before halftime Novakovic capitalized, sliding in Zlatan Ljubijankic to score the second.
At that stage it was hard to imagine how the U.S. could possibly get back into the game. A couple of bursts from Donovan aside, it'd been stodgy and predictable, lacking the crispness and intelligence of Slovenia in possession. Given Slovenia's reputation as a side capable of killing a game when required, the game seemed over. Credit, then, to Bradley, as he sacrificed Torres for the more combative Maurice Edu, and so immediately plugged the key gap (although it emerged again in the final minute as Aleksander Radosavljevic drew a good low save from Tim Howard with a low shot from that same space just outside the box). The introduction of Benny Feilhaber for Robbie Findley was also a success, his ability to drop off Jozy Altidore giving Slovenia's central midfield something to worry about other than picking its opponents apart, and giving the U.S. a less predictable attacking structure.
Perhaps Bradley got lucky with the U.S.' first goal, Bostjan Cesar slipping to allow in Donovan, who finished superbly, conning a tentative Samir Handanovic into thinking he was going to cross before slamming the ball over his right shoulder. The momentum suddenly was with the U.S., and the composure that usually characterizes Slovenia was gone. Although Slovenia continued to threaten from the right, the U.S. was clearly in the ascendant.
The other big change from the first half was the U.S.' willingness to try to exploit Jozy Altidore's physical advantage over Marko Suler, or perhaps Altidore's willingness to battle. The Malian referee Koman Coulibaly was clearly somebody who didn't mind a little wrestling, and the more physical the contest became, the more Altidore prospered.
The U.S.' final substitution, removing Oguchi Onyewu for Herculez Gomez, ended up making little difference, although the switch to three at the back perhaps acted as a rallying cry. A long ball form Donovan, a header down from Altidore, getting the better of Suler again, and Michael Bradley ran on to finish a difficult chance superbly. The move, though, was simplicity itself.
Should it have been even better for the USA? Probably. As Donovan, again the U.S.' most creative player, curled in a sumptuous free kick and Edu finished it off, only to be denied by the referee's whistle. Coulibaly had, to be fair to him, blown very early, long before the ball was in the net, but given what he had allowed to pass earlier in the game, it was hard to see what offense he had spotted; if anything, there appeared from the replay to be two Slovenians holding back U.S. players.
A draw, though, was probably fair, as U.S. muscle hit back against Slovenia's more nuanced approach. The question now for Bradley is what he does in that central area against Algeria. His son is an obvious selection, but does he pair him with Clark again to try to overpower Algeria, does he accept that Algeria are a poorer side than Slovenia and give Torres another go, or does he take the middle ground and play Feilhaber again?
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.