Coming off of their second defeat to Mexico, the USA was looking to get back to their winning ways in an International Friendly versus Uruguay. The Yanks were aiming to put together a solid performance on the pitch and, perhaps more importantly for coach Gregg Berhalter, taking a result away from his first match in three attempts.
In a match which saw the USMNT start on the front foot with just four days rest the expectation would’ve been for Uruguay to press them for 90 minutes. This was not the case as the “Sky Blue” under Óscar Tabárez seemed content dropping off and defending in their half for the majority of the match. The tactics utilised by Uruguay were to defend low in a 4-3-3 and through the pace in their wingers look to hit on the counter. They were effectively asking the USMNT to try and break them down at the risk of committing too many numbers forward and leaving themselves vulnerable to quick transitions.
This tactical analysis will explain how the USMNT were able to control possession but struggled to create quality chances. While Uruguay was able to defend in long spells and exploit open spaces on the counter.
The USA started the game in a 4-3-3 with several changes from their previous match four days prior. The backline remained the same aside from Tim Ream of Fulham slotting in at the LCB position. Also worthy of note was the midfield three made up of all MLS players including Cristian Roldan, Sebastian Lletget, and Jackson Yueill, topped off by the young promising centre-forward Josh Sargent of Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga. Uruguay started in a 4-1-4-1, however, it quickly changed. The Sky Blue were anchored in the midfield by Federico Valverde of Real Madrid and Rodrigo Bentancur of Juventus. They were also missing their top centre-forward, Luis Suarez of Barcelona, to injury. As the game progressed the USA shifted regularly to a 3-4-3 and Uruguay between a 4-3-3 and 4-5-1.
The US in possession
When looking at the match statistics, it’s in agreement with the eye test which tells us the USMNT dominated possession versus Uruguay. With over 60% in both halves, the USA was able to stay on the front foot and attack for the majority of this match. This can be attributed to two different factors.
The first was the USA’s ability early in the match to play through Uruguay’s attempts to press them in their own defensive 3rd. In accordance with Berhalter’s philosophy, the USA did not panic and utilised playing through the early pressure of Uruguay via splitting their centre-backs and keeping the outside-backs wide. This, in turn, created more space centrally allowing their midfielders typically, Yueill, the 6, and Roldan, the 8, to find the ball. With time and space on the ball, both players were able to regularly play forward and initiate attacking sequences.
This sequence, three minutes after the kickoff was pivotal in the USA taking control of possession in this match. Here goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who’s under pressure, plays a pass to right-back Reggie Cannon who’s checking wide to receive the ball and create space centrally. Meanwhile, Roldan is also checking back to provide a passing option for Guzan and Cannon if he receives the ball.
Cannon does well to receive a bouncing ball and heads a pass first time to Roldan who’s checked into the central pocket. With time, Roldan controls the ball and plays back to Guzan alleviating the pressure from Uruguay’s press and the USA maintain the possession.
The ability of the USA to maintain this possession early and under pressure played a critical role in the frequency and manner Uruguay pressed them. Not having success in their press early caused Uruguay to sit defensively and press much less often. Dropping off gave the USA central midfielders and centre-backs more time on the ball, allowing them to dictate the game.
This sequence starts with the centre-back, Ream, on the ball and Uruguay in a passive press from a defensive 4-3-3. Here Ream does a good job of engaging the central pressing player of Uruguay and Yueill recognizes the space being created. Sergiño Dest the USA left-back has occupied the right-wing for Uruguay as well which provides even more space for Yueill to receive the ball.
Here Yueill is able to receive the ball with time and space and find an unmarked Lletget. Lletget being unmarked and having space to receive the ball can be attributed to the run of Roldan. In this sequence, Roldan cycles through the central part the field occupying both central-midfielders for Uruguay. Allowing Lletget to sit in the half-space, receive the pass, and immediately go forward in possession. A situation that occurred regularly in both halves of the match for the US. Still, unfortunately for Berhalter’s men even with the majority of possession, the tactics of Uruguay drew first blood in the 50th minute.
Uruguay on the counter
Uruguay’s ability to defend well in a compact and organised back four allowed them to neutralise a fair amount of the USA’s attacking chances. Their ability to shift quickly from side to side as the ball cycled from the USA’s centre-backs and outside-backs limited the chances for quick overloads. However, the most critical aspect of their success was their quickness in the transition from defending to attacking. Regularly in this match, Uruguay was able to intercept the ball in their own half looked to go forward an engage defenders immediately. This caused the USA to step to the ball while allowing for the other Uruguayan attackers to transition higher up the field. This combined with the USA committing large numbers forward, which was a result of long spells of possession, created several opportunities for the Sky Blue.
The best example of Uruguay on the counter was what produced their goal. Their shape of defending in a 4-3-3 left Brian Rodriguez and Jonathan Rodriguez in high and wide positions. Having just won a defensive header coming from a US cross Uruguay looks to transition as the USA have seven players forward.
In this example, the defensive header has fallen to Giorgian De Arrascaeta with Roldan defending him aggressively. As Arrascaeta holds the ball, Valverde looks to run into the space beyond them, leaving Cannon chasing due to a late reaction. Arrascaeta is able to shake free of Roldan and play Valverde at full speed running at the three remaining USA defenders.
As Valverde begins to dribble, both Brian and Jonathan Rodriguez keep their width as they begin to sprint forward. Creating the massive gap for Valverde to dribble towards centrally. Seeing this causes Yueill to apply pressure as Valverde carries the ball further in the USA’s half. As the pressure comes, Valverde is able to play a well-weighted pass to Rodriguez, who is 1v1 with Arron Long on the left side of the field 18 yards from goal.
From here, Rodriguez comes up with some individual brilliance, wrong-footing Long and hammering a left-footed strike home from 16 yards out. This sequence resulted in the first goal of the game, and even with a decent recovery, the US was unable to deal the with pace and quickness of Uruguay in transition.
USA’s attacking struggles
For the USA, controlling over 60% of possession within this match only yielded one goal. Further analysis shows the USA had over 40 attacks, resulting in just eight total shots. The statistics of this match show possession but little production coming from that possession. A large part of this was certainly due to the ability of Uruguay to defend in a compact and organised manner. However, the bigger issue for the USA was oftentimes they found attacking players in the correct space but wrong body position. Regularly in this match, Sargent, Lletget, and others were able to receive a pass between the defensive and midfield lines. However, their body shape either forced them to play backward or take two or more touches. Poor body position gave Uruguay time to adjust and defend passes slipped behind their backline.
Here, Ream is passing to Lletget, who has checked correctly into the vacant space between the two central Uruguayan players. He chooses to play directly back to Ream because he has a poor first touch and is closed down. In this situation, if Lletget opens his body up to the half-turn it would allow him to receive the pass with his right foot and go forward with his first touch. From there he will be able to engage the next defender and ideally create space for the USA to attack going toward Uruguay’s goal.
This sequence occurred between substitute winger Corey Baird and Yueill. Here Baird checks into the vacant space between the two Uruguayan midfielders but because his body is not on the half-turn it results in him playing backward. Similar to Lletget, if Baird could get his body turned and receive the ball with his front foot, it puts him in a much more dangerous position and requires the Uruguay backline to shift accordingly. That shift would likely create more passing options for him in behind the defensive line.
In this last example, it’s again Baird in a great spot to receive the ball. In this sequence, he receives the ball and takes two touches to then play Roldan, who’s running in behind. José Giménez, the left-centre-back for Uruguay, reads the play and cuts out Baird’s pass. Here if Baird opens his body up to the half-turn he will be able to play Roldan in one touch behind the defensive line of Uruguay. This would limit the time for Gimenez to react and cut out the pass, likely creating a quality attacking chance.
This tactical analysis has explained how the USA were able to control possession in this match and how Uruguay were able to counter that with their own quick transitions. The USMNT showed progress in their ability to keep the ball however, their inability to exploit Uruguay and finish the quality chances they created left them at a draw. Uruguay’s ability to defend for long periods and transition quickly to attack caused problems for Berhalter’s men throughout the entire match. Still, this was an improvement for the USA in defining their style of play. Even with Uruguay missing some key components to their team this will be a welcomed result in three matches for the Stars and Stripes. Undoubtedly, this is an outing the USA will look to build their philosophy from for the future.