In the lead-up to the World Cup it seemed as if Jurgen Klinsmann was doing everything he could to find a tactic that would allow him to get the most out of his central midfielders. First it was a diamond midfield with Jermaine Jones playing behind Michael Bradley but that formation was not quite recapturing the magic it had created against Mexico during the Hex. Klinsmann even gave Kyle Beckerman the chance to play as the anchor in that formation but no matter what he did it seemed that Michael Bradley was having to help out with the defending too much and it was limiting his ability to get forward and create chances.
Neither Jones nor Beckerman did enough to lock down the starting spot beside Bradley in the middle of the park but Klinsmann clearly had a lot of faith in the ability of the duo to get the job done. So for the final tune-up match against Nigeria it was the tactics that changed instead of the players. The USMNT came out for that match with more of a triangle in the middle of the park which was a shift away from the diamond they had used in recent games. This time it was the duo of Jones and Beckerman being tasked with anchoring the midfield while Bradley had the freedom to push further up the field to support that attackers. It was a move that worked well against Nigeria and seemed to make the most of the available options in the middle of the park.
It was no surprise to see the trio back together for the opening match of the World Cup against Ghana given the success they enjoyed against Nigeria. With the game being crucial to the USMNT's hopes of getting out of the group there would certainly be a lot of pressure on Jones, Beckerman, and Bradley to help break up any attacks and to maintain possession for the States when they did get it.
The United States got the 2-1 win on Monday but they did not look like the team that Jurgen Klinsmann has been trying to turn them in to. They looked like a traditional American side that relies on resilient defending and making the most of their few chances when they come along. There was no possession, the passing was far from sharp, and the team hardly looked threatening for most of the match while Ghana saw plenty of chances go begging. The Americans were not the better team but there are no points for being better so they can take comfort in the fact that even with a subpar performance they managed to come away with the full three points and are now very much in the mix to move on from a very tough group.
Two of the stars for the Americans on the day were the duo of Jones and Beckerman. Both of them were kept very busy while Ghana was launching attack after attack and they coped well with the heavy work load. They were a big part of why, despite taking 21 shots, Ghana only managed to work Tim Howard on three occasions as every time they looked to shoot there was a body in front of them making it difficult. They also did well to protect the back four and force Ghana to settle for hopeful shots from well outside the 18-yard area.
So the trio managed to do their job on the defensive side of the ball thanks to a Man of the Match performance by Jones and a very good outing from Beckerman. The other half of their job is where they came up wanting a lot of the responsibility for that is going to fall on the shoulders of Bradley. The Americans could not even muster 40% possession and only completed 275 passes during the game with a 73% efficiency. Those numbers will not be good enough for this team to win on most days despite them escaping with the result on Monday.
Jones, who lined up on the right but spent a lot of time dropping centrally to defend, was the best of the bunch getting forward in what was a tireless performance by the Schalke midfielder. Bradley, on the other hand, was not his normal influential self on the attack. His passes seemed to be that little bit off and he seemed to be a bit behind the pace of the game. It was not a typical Bradley performance and it really hurt the US's ability to hold on to the ball for any sort of extended period of time.
A lot of those long range shots that Ghana managed to fire in just happened to come from the zone that Bradley was defending as he often seemed to fail to track his man and stay goal side which allowed for Ghana to get their few open looks on goal in the game. It was the little things like allowing Asamoah Gyan to cut inside a shot, not closing down Sully Muntari with any real conviction, or worst of all failing to cut off the passing lane on the ball in to the box that led to Ghana's goal. These were all plays that Bradley typically makes but was struggling with on Monday as he seemed off on both sides of the ball.
The stats on whoscored.com give Bradley's performance a bit of perspective. He was able to complete 81% of his passes going 35/43. They also have him going 2/5 on long balls in the game as he was often looking to launch quick attacks down the field (why does that sound so familiar). He did lead the Americans in turnovers for the game but other than that his numbers do not paint an awful picture but rather they show that he did not see much of the ball with whoscored recording only 53 total touches for him during the game. The Americans should be worried about the fact that Tim Howard led their team in touches more than they should about Bradley having another poor performance.
Next up for the United States will be a very important game against Portugal. If they can come out of that match with at least a single point it would have them in great position to reach the quarterfinal stage. With the Portuguese coming off a thumping at the hands of Germany it will be interesting to see how they rebound in a game that will be crucial for both squads.
For the Americans, an improved performance by Bradley is going to be a must. That is in large part due to the fact that Jones is going to have his hands full as he is the most likely candidate to be handed the responsibility of trying to mark Christiano Ronaldo. With Jones busy chasing him all over the field it will leave more ground in the middle of the park for Beckerman and Bradley to cover which will be trouble if Bradley defends again like he did against Ghana.
Chances are we will not see another poor performance from Bradley against Portugal but his outing against Ghana was worrying. While the others around him in the midfield rose to the occasion with some of their best work in red, white, and blue he was substantially below his normal standard. If Bradley can get rolling in the next two games in return to his normal level of play while Beckerman and Jones remain reliable it could go a very long way to helping the US makes some noise in this tournament. For now though, they should be happy to have three points despite a subpar effort from one of their most important players.