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Arena tactics work to perfection in tie with Mexico

Photo by Isaiah J. Downing/USA Today Sports

When Bruce Arena began his second tenure in January, he was given one simple task: get the U.S. Men’s National Team to Russia and the 2018 World Cup. At the time, it was an uphill battle. Winless through two World Cup qualifying games, the U.S. was at the bottom of the Hexagonal table, low on confidence and even lower on points.

Sunday’s tie with Mexico was perhaps the best result so far of the Arena 2.0 Era, and the preparation for that result began all the way back when Arena first began his quest to guide the USMNT back into the World Cup qualifying mix.

Arena shocked many on Sunday afternoon, deploying a lineup featuring a whopping seven new starters. It was a neccesity, but still a surprising one. Heading to the Azteca with what was essentially an entirely new lineup was a surprise, but Arena says it could have been even more drastic. The USMNT boss says he originally considered making 11 changes before narrowing it down to between seven and nine, opting for the former on gameday. Facing major altitude and just two full days of rest, Arena knew playing the same XI would be suicide, especially at the Azteca.

What was less of a surprise, though, was the formation Arena arranged those seven new players in. The U.S. emerged with three centerbacks, playing in a very similar system to the one that Mexico all but destroyed back in November’s match in Columbus. It was an expected decision, and it was also one that was a long time coming.

“In January or February, I decided to do that,” Arena said of the formation. “I tossed it around with our coaches and they were probably not real supportive of the idea since they don’t have enough experience in that formation, I was pretty confident we could implement that. We have very good centerbacks. That’s a key to that system. We worked real hard preparing the team to do it. Mexico does an unbelievable job in their spacing. They stretch you out and like to open you up and attack the gaps between your backline if you’re playing a back four and we protected those spaces.

“We call the system a 3-4-3 to a 5-2-2-1 or whatever you want to call it. But somehow, we add up to 10. That’s what it is.”

Arena joked that he wasn’t smart enough to begin practicing the formation back in January camp or even during March qualifiers. However, the two-week training camp in the buildup to Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico was loaded with separate sets of drills. There were some done with Trinidad & Tobago in mind as the U.S. worked on playing a more traditional four-at-the-back set. Then, there were some done with an eye towards Mexico and defending a vicious El Tri attack.

Paul Arriola says that Arena pulled each player aside at breakfast a few days before the match. During the meetings he explained exactly what role he saw them playing. He told them what match they should focus on and what their job would be when they were given their chance on the field.

Arena also told them what to expect. Mexico was going to have the ball. They were going to fire in crosses that, in theory, the three centerbacks could swat away. The U.S., meanwhile, would have to take their chances as they came while keeping things tight and disciplined on the defensive end.

“We worked a lot,” said captain Michael Bradley. “We spent a lot of time working on two different things. One with the idea of Trinidad and one with the idea of Mexico. Over the course of two weeks, every guy in training, we had a training game or two, every guy had a good amount of time in terms of understanding responsibilities, knowing what was going to need to go into it. Obviously Bruce laid out things early on in terms of his idea of how we wanted to go about the two games. You always know that things can change but ultimately we stuck to exactly what he wanted to do. We take four really really important points.

“We had the lineup and we knew what our jobs were,” added defender Geoff Cameron, “And we did that. We implemented it perfectly.”

Cameron added that it wasn’t just the defense that was called upon. Bradley and his midfield partner, Kellyn Acosta, were forced into covering plenty of ground while protecting the backline. Christian Pulisic and Paul Arriola were asked to track back and press forward in equal measure, testing their defensive abilities throughout. Bobby Wood, devoid of much service, was a workhorse throughout, pressuring Mexico’s backline into making mistakes.

Is the system a one-off or something more consistent? It remains to be seen. The U.S. certainly has the roster to deploy it due to the wealth of centerback options and Sunday’s performance showed that the rest of the team can fall in as well. Typically attacking players like Pulisic and Arriola can track back and help out in a pinch while someone like Fabian Johnson could also be a good fit for the formation.

Now, though, the U.S. looks ahead. The Gold Cup will bring a new level of experimentation with what is expected to be a largely inexperienced roster. This current USMNT group? They likely won’t be back until September’s qualifiers.

But, when those qualifiers begin, Arena and the U.S. will enter with confidence in the group and a system that helped them earn a historic point at one of the game’s most intimidating venues.

“We did everything right over the course of two weeks in terms of the way we prepared, Bradley said. “The work on the field, the arrangements that were made off the field that were made in terms of adjustments to altitude. We did everything we could.”

“We worked as hard as we could to get adjusted and try to level the playing field a little bit when we came here,” Arena added. “We know you can never really do that, but we certainly benefited with the things we did over the last two weeks.”


  1. Maintain your defensive shape against a team that will play possession and wide; limit the exposure and thus the risk while playing defensively. Move quickly and directly into attack when the best opportunities present themselves. We do not possess the ball as well as Mexico. Even through the years we were winning all the games in Columbus, that was true. It reminds me of Atletico Madrid who puts as much effort, training, and tactical thought into their defensive shape and counter as possession teams do on their attack.

  2. Actually for the first 20 min the US was taking it to Mexico, hence the sub by Osorio. Nobody makes a first half sub unless you’re getting your butt kicked. After the sub and Vela’s goal (which came on a counter where US almost scored), the game was more even. Mexico started controlling more possession in the 2nd half, and around the 70 min mark or so, the US was reeling and Mexico had the US pinned back, but still couldn’t break the defense down. At that point, with fatigue setting in, it did feel like the US was going to try and weather the storm and get out with a draw. But to say the US came in intending to park the bus for the whole game is not at all the way I saw it.

    • I think you should probably go back and watch it again. Sustained possession was never the intention from the opening minutes. With the early goal the US certainly pushed for a second but most of those attacks in the first 20 minutes were two or three man attacks. Once we got caught on the counter there were a lot of clearances and hopes that Wood could beat two defenders for a ball. Even in the first twenty minutes most of the attacks stemmed from a hopeful ball wide to Arriola or Pulisic.

      It got us the result that we needed, but we were never in control, and their sub was to add an offensive fullback not because we were kicking their butts, but because we were putting so many behind the ball they needed someone who could cross better.

  3. In every soccer match, the manger has to ask, what does our opponent do well, what do we do well, and what can we do to take away their strengths and highlight our strengths. Arena did that to a t in this game. By my count mexico for all their possession had 3 good chance, and a half chance. The US had 4 chances. That is pretty amazing given mexico had 70%+ of possession and is a compliment to how the team was set up defensively.

    Coming off 2 days rest and playing in Azteca with mexico having spent the week there and having been able to rest their stars in the game before was going to be a disaster if the US tried to match mexico in throwing numbers forward. With that scenario, it makes sense to simply acknowledge that mexico was going to have the bulk of possession and plan accordingly. Once that point is given all the other decisions flow logically from it. Set up the game so Mexico’s wide players can’t beat their markers and clog the middle so Chichirito can’t find pockets to run into. Maintain your shape, use fresh players who can run for 90, and trust that you have enough skill to capitalize on the chances you will generate from turnovers and set pieces. If Wood doesn’t wiff on his swing we are probably talking about a US win instead of a tie.

    • Exactly. I often think many of those commenting on here don’t have a realistic understanding of what it takes to get a result on the road in Concacaf. This isn’t a video game.

      • Did Mexico bunker in in Columbus? The belief is that the US development had progressed to a point where we didn’t need to play that type of style even in Mexico. The match last night seems to prove that, that is not the case.

        I think it was a good result and really have no trouble with the formation, however, would Bruce be getting all the accolades today if Bradley hadn’t scored one of the best goals by a USMNT player in recent memory. If Mexico scores first or the Hererra free kick goes in and the go up 2-1 the US would have been in huge trouble.

    • It’s not rocket science or brain surgery, so it doesn’t take a genius to figure this out and the US has done this many times before, so it’s not original. 4 years ago Jamaica earned a 0-0 draw in Mexico the same way. People are making way too much over this.

  4. Arena is badly selling his side short if he thinks a tactic that results in 26% possession is necessary. There is no reason why a 4-3-3 side fronting Bundesliga attackers Pulisic-Wood-FJ supported by Acosta-Nagbe and Yedlin (from the fullback spot) couldn’t maintain possession (and defend) higher up the field. US needs to stop playing to its opponent and start imposing itself. This team will get killed bunkering like last night against an opponent better than Mexico — and was 3 inches of a free kick away from losing.

    • Yeah and it was six inches away from winning. Arena doesn’t care about style of play, he cares about results. The reason he had the team play the way they did last night is because they knew that Mexico wasn’t good enough to break them down consistently. Against a better opponent he probably uses a different strategy. Possession numbers are irrelevant. The only numbers that matter are chances and goals and in those metrics the game was an even match.

    • The goal here was to give up possession, limit el Tri’s chances, and hit Mexico on the counter. It worked. The U.S. had more shots on goal. Those of you talking about playing a possession oriented match vs Mexico in Azteca haven’t paid much attention to how the game is played in qualifiers. It’s not about possession stats. It’s about points. The U.S. got a point on the road against the hottest team in Concacaf. Mission accomplished.

      • I know what Arena was thinking — he didn’t think we could take an attack to Mexico. He is wrong. Someday I hope playing to get a point on the road against CONCACAF teams will be seen as a standard that sets the bar too low.

  5. I would have liked to see Dempsey on instead of Altidore. I absolutely appreciate everything that Jozy brings to the table, and I saw what Bruce was doing with that sub, but I think Dempsey would have brought a spark. He was already had a chip on his shoulder for having his goal stolen by CP and then being subbed out early against T&T. I could have seen Dempsey use that to take the game on his shoulders and will a goal to happen at the end there. This was a big game, and he is a big game player.

    I can’t tell if this is Dempsey being pushed down on Bruce’s pecking order, or if it was just Arena making his plan to deal with Mexico and sticking with it.

    • I think you are wrong on that one, with US only really getting long ball opportunities at that point Jozy was the right choice. He won several areal challenges including the one that lead to CP’s shot. If we were getting runs at the backline like in the first half I could see your thought, but the way the game was at that point Dempsey was not the right choice.

      • Jozy was absolutely brought on to be a target forward, like you said he did well out there, and I’m happy with what he brought. I just think that during that same stretch of game there could have easily been a scenario where Dempsey & Pulisic run out a Dempsey/Martins style break away on the Mexican back line.

  6. so the entire media is now genuflecting over arenas tactics? Two banks of defenders parking the bus and the team unable to string a few passes going forward. Gimme a break. They got a point but that was painful to watch.

  7. I was critical of the Ives and Ryan with their predictions of formation and lineup. I was so wrong and anxious after seeing the actual lineup and formation. It worked for a tie and a much needed point.

    Hats off to Arena and his foresight. He really took a chance but the players bought in and built on his confidence. Prepared almost as if the US had a 1a team and a 1b team. Arena’s foresight hopefully goes beyond last night and 1a will see five in the back against Costa Rica.

    Scary and tense whenever you see a team get compact with 10 behind the ball. Everyone especially the back five played discipline and big in the area they defended. Yet, like any futbol match all it takes is one goal to change things. The first 20 minutes was great and the US picked there spots going forward. Both teams had some chances but the US was really reeling around the 60ish/70 minute mark.

    Arena has the USMNT going in the right direction. He really seems to understand the abilities and talent of the players avaible. A rarity considering the depth available moving forward.

  8. C’on now. Jamming nine players in your defensive third is hardly the work of genius but it does show the kind of confidence you have in your program. In this case, not much.

      • Panda

        I have to disagree with you. It can be and is both…..funny and sad.

        Anyone CAN jam 9 guys back. But they still need to be organized.
        Anyone CAN jam 9 guys back, but can they get scoring opportunities? The answer was yes and many last night. Rob, is completely wrong, it was very well done by Arena.

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