The U.S. Men’s National Team fell to Italy in a heartbreaking 1-0 loss on Tuesday. Dave Sarachan introduced a 3-5-2 system for the USMNT that largely did not work. But the system itself, and Sarachan as an extension, should not be blamed.
The U.S. Men’s National Team brought their 2018 endeavours to a close on Tuesday night with a heartbreaking 1-0 defeat to Italy thanks to a last-gasp Matteo Politano strike after some masterful play by Marco Verratti to first initiate the move from the halfway line and the orchestrate it on the edge of the 18-yard box.
It was nothing that Italy did not deserve. They were by far the better team for almost all of the game, controlling the patterns of play with smart play in possession and suffocating pressure off the ball.
Italy out-shot the USMNT 17 to three, forced Ethan Horvath into five saves, and surrendered just one shot on target. This was a dominating performance from Italy, and a concerning one on the part of the U.S.
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It would be easy to blame Dave Sarachan for introducing a 3-5-2 system that looked awkward among his players. And there were plenty of instances in which Italy were able to exploit the U.S.’ lack of cohesion, especially defensively. But this lack of connection, and the domination that Italy largely enjoyed, should not purely be put down to the system in and of itself. Rather, it was the execution of the system.
Playing defensively, as Sarachan undoubtedly did here, is no bad thing. Sometimes, managers must be practical and admit that their teams have a disparity in quality in comparison to their opponents and plan accordingly. That is what Sarachan did here, which is not necessarily a problem. The problem came in how the players executed it.
Specifically, there was some confusion in wide spaces, between the wingbacks and centre-backs. This is the primary vulnerability of the back-three. Should the centre-backs shift out wide and cover the space or should the wingbacks drop deep and adopt more a back-five? Either tactic is fine, if performed correctly, but when they are conflated and confused, as they were here, it can become problematic.
Another key to playing with this system is that the team must pose a threat on the counter-attack. It is crucial that the team is able to pose a threat on the counter-attack when actually in possession. From turnovers and breaks in play, the defensive team must threaten the space in behind the opposition.
The U.S. were utterly unable to do that. Josh Sargent and Christian Pulisic were largely isolated, starved of service, while the midfield three, especially Marky Delgado and Kellyn Acosta, could not get up and support the front two with runs from deep. But none of this is the system’s fault, or, by extension, Sarachan’s fault.
It is merely the product of not having time to properly prepare and install a well-understood and cohesive gameplan. Sarachan, being an interim manager, coming to the end of his tenure, does not have the position, the power or the time to put in these type of preparations. But, again, that is not his fault.
The 3-5-2 system and defensive philosophy did not work here. But that does not mean that they are to blame per se. It was the execution of the plan, not the plan itself.