For whom the Bellingham tolls — how the US can beat England…maybe

Can this group best England? It’s possible!

Can this group best England? It’s possible!
Image: Getty Images

The kicking rocks and bemoaning the gods are in the past now for the USMNT. They let two points slip against Wales, while the one they gained is certainly valuable. They’re still very much in the tournament, but the draw against Wales means that the game against England is no longer a free hit. Had they held onto their lead Monday, they could lose against England, beat Iran, and toddle off to the second round. Now merely beating Iran might not be enough, depending on what the other results are.

Had this England game been a “fuck it it’s free cake” event, Gregg Berhalter might have been tempted to let his team loose, try and attack England from jump street, see if they couldn’t catch them by surprise, and shrug off the quite possible thwacking that could result in as England romped through the space behind. Again, the U.S.’s hopes would have been pinned on the Iran game anyway.

And Berhalter may do that anyway, because it’s Berhalter and we can’t say for sure he won’t get a little too brave for his own good to serve his “principles.” Secondly, whatever other plan Gregg might come up with is dependent on the U.S. being defensively sound, and that’s awfully shaky ground indeed. If you had to count on the USMNT keeping a clean sheet above all else, what would your day drinking regimen look like? Maybe a glorious death in a 5-3 is better.

That said, the US’s one goal against Wales came when it could get out on the counter instead of intricate build-up through a packed defense, and most of the midfield and forward line is better conditioned to play on the break at speed than it is trying to unlock a low block in tight windows. So that will play well against the Three Lions. The idea of Pulisic, Weah, Reyna, and Musah getting time and grass to run into is tantalizing.

If this were the older version of England, the U.S. would at least know how exactly they attack. It’s Harry Kane dropping off the front line into midfield, staying out of sight for his opponent’s holding midfielder while drawing a central defender with him into the deep water and out of position, and then pinging balls either out wide to their wingbacks or over the top to their wide forwards.

But this is, supposedly, an unleashed England, who have switched to a back four and having just punted Iran into space by scoring six, they’re going to be feeling their oats. It’s hard to imagine manager Gareth Southgate deviating from Monday’s plan too much. What was so destructive was that England had so much variance to their attack. Sometimes it was Kane dropping deep, but in a 4-3-3, Mason Mount was at the head of the midfield and could take that spot. Or Jude Bellingham, released to do whatever he pleased by the security provided by Declan Rice, could pop up there with four runners ahead of him. Try to close that off and there was still the danger of Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling out wide, supported by Luke Shaw and Kieran Trippier at fullback who both know their way around the attacking third. And if Southgate really wanted to be impolite, he’d bring in Phil Foden for Mount and it’s an even bigger problem.

So what’s the solution? One may be to play more of a 4-2-3-1 instead of the 4-3-3 that Berhalter has used almost exclusively. Who joins Adams as a double-pivot is questionable. If Berhalter trusts Musah’s defensive instincts and effort, he can do it. If there’s any doubt or Musah’s fitness is a concern, bringing in Kellyn Acosta is probably the move. That would also give the US a plus-set piece taker, as Pulisic’s deliveries on Monday made Baby Jesus cry. Having two defensive midfielders would limit the space that Kane can drop into and/or provide more cover against England’s midfielders.

But you can’t beat England or just draw them by simply defending (unless you’re Scotland, who played a back five in the Euros, but that’s not really available to the USMNT). Again, assuming full fitness, Sergiño Dest and Antonee Robinson aren’t really built to be just Alamo their way through 90 minutes (or 107, as FIFA has decreed for this tournament). When the U.S. does get the ball, getting those two fullbacks forward will be a priority, as that would pin back England’s wide forwards too. It’s a balance, a push-and-pull over who gets to take advantage of the space behind. But if you want to score, risks need to be taken.

Getting the fullbacks forward at pace will help whoever starts out wide for the US to come inside and link. Staying out wide and throwing crosses into the box isn’t likely to provide much, as that’s what the England defense is built for (depending on who starts). If this is the spiffy new England that likes to get spicy, that means Declan Rice will be pretty much on his own as the holding midfielder. It’s not a role he can’t do, as he does it excellently, but the space will be on either side of him. Take up enough of it and it’ll keep Bellingham far from goal. This may be why the feeling has been that Gio Reyna was kept in reserve Monday so he can start Friday, whether in place of Weah and coming in from wide or at the head of midfield instead of McKennie. The latter gives the US someone in the middle that Pulisic and Weah or Aaronson can combine with, because it’s not really what McKennie does and the U.S. don’t really have a striker who does it either, despite whatever Jesus Ferreira’s claims may be.

Wherever the US decide to press, either up high or in a mid-block, they have to squeeze in and try to cut off England’s defense from feeding Bellingham or Mount or Foden or whoever. Force them out wide. Keeping numbers in the middle means more bodies that can try to create the turnovers and takeaways to spring counters and breaks. Bellingham still might beat you by dancing through three of your guys, but make him do so at least. And yes, England didn’t have much trouble creating from wide against Iran, but Iran were utter dogshit. If the US is planning on being similar dogshit, none of this matters anyway.

It’s far easier said than done, but the six goals against Iran has clouded the fact that England came into this tournament looking pretty ropey (though all Nations League games should be taken with a 10lb grain of salt given the circumstances). Hungary beat them twice. Germany put three on them in September. Get Stones and Maguire or Dier having to turn and run to cover space and there’s joy to be found. It’s just the other end that’s scary as fuck.

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