"They know exactly how to sort of organize themselves behind the ball quickly," Jurgen Klinsmann said in the postgame press conference. "They high pressure right away when you are in possession of the ball. That's why we pretty much didn't have any chance to score."
Klinsmann was talking about Argentina in the wake of their 4-0 win over the US men's national team in the Copa America semifinals on Tuesday night, and he was right. Argentina were supremely organized and absolutely ruthless, and clearly the better team for the full 90 minutes. Even under the best of circumstances the US wouldn't be expected to take them to the wire when they're playing this well. There's a quality gap.
Fine. But... there's always been a quality gap. Why, now, is there an organization gap? Why is there a high pressure gap? Why, after five years in charge, is Klinsmann's US team no more organized than it was when he took over? Why have previous managers all been able to produce teams notable for their ability to stay compact and defend as a unit, while this one fell apart within three minutes against the La Albiceleste?
Please understand, the US have faced teams as good as this version of Argentina before and come out on top. Each of the previous three managers -- Bob Bradley, Bruce Arena and Steve Sampson -- have coached the US to at least one win over a team ranked in the top 10 of the Elo Ratings in an official competition:
This performance was an outlier in the last 30 years of US soccer. But it also felt like an inevitability for some reason I can't quite put my finger on. As Alexi Lalas said on the FS1 postgame, "The US didn't press, but they didn't absorb pressure. When they did try to press it was disjointed."
In lieu of a complete breakdown (which would be, just what, a GIF of a hammer hitting a nail for infinity?) I'm just going to string some brief thoughts together:
• The numbers kind of explain how disorganized the US were: They generated zero shots of any type (on goal or off), and Argentina generated 10 shots. That's not a high number, but the kicker is that they put nine of the 10 on target.
That doesn't happen by accident. That happens when a defense is pulled apart and the attacking group is able to find every seam.
Argentina generated tap-ins. The US made it easy, and while Klinsmann talked about showing Argentina "too much respect" in the postgame, at least part of it has to be chalked up to a team that came in with a questionable (charitably) gameplan.
• The US came out in a 4-4-2 that Argentina unspooled almost immediately. The 4-4-2 mostly went out of style over the last decade (a recent resurgence from Atletico Madrid and Leicester City notwithstanding) because teams that play a three-man central midfield can swamp that part of the pitch, get on the ball, dictate the rhythm and force tempo. Javier Mascherano and Ever Banega thoroughly outclassed their counterparts, Michael Bradley and Kyle Beckerman, and so even if the US backline was heroic, the Yanks were gonna take an L in this one.
• Beckerman and Bradley did not have a good partnership in this one as dual pivots, and pretty constantly left space in between the central midfield and central defense:
This is the danger of breaking up that triangle of Bradley and central defenders John Brooks & Geoff Cameron. The US could've survived a bad outing from Bradley, but not a bad and disorganized outing from that CB/D-mid triangle. Adding Beckerman, a good defensive midfielder and a smart player, actually made the US worse defensively and infinitely more reactive.
• Taking the occasional beating is inevitable no matter who you are. What makes those beatings bearable for the fanbase is knowing that A) young players got meaningful minutes, and B) the coach will learn from his mistakes.
I'll leave the rest of that thought unsaid.
• Ok, maybe not entirely unsaid: Darlington Nagbe'sevents map (passes and recoveries) from his 12 minutes. He didn't get on the ball much, but when he did he was reliable and solid. And he did plenty of work tracking back.
• I don't understand why anybody would ever think a Clint Dempsey/Chris Wondolowski partnership would work up top. The US weren't all that much better in the second half with Gyasi Zardes up top -- and what little improvement there was can probably be chalked up to game states -- but starting two second forwards, neither of whom has any speed to push the defenders deep and keep them honest, was never going to work against any decent & decently prepared team.
It's a basic mistake Klinsmann keeps making. He doesn't seem to be able to assess which players' strengths complement each other, and which make each other worse.
Christian Pulisic could have done better with that final touch -- Opta initially credited him with a shot, but it was pretty clearly a pass. He could have been more selfish.
But he, like Nagbe, never looked out of his depth. Certainly US fans should hope that those two and Jordan Morris are given more high-leverage minutes in the near future. They bring skills other members of the player pool don't have.
• Messi is impossibly great.His free-kick goal is one that folks will replay for a hundred years, and was a worthy record-breaker. I think that, no matter what happens in the final, he is the greatest who has ever played this game.
That said, I hope that Argentina win because I don't think he'll get all that many more opportunities to win a major title with his country.
• Higuain's movement was/is so good. He was the first striker this tournament to force Brooks into multiple errors. No shame in Brooks's game, though -- it happens. And if there's anything the last 12 months shows us, he's able to learn from his mistakes and improve.
• Fabian Johnson had a mostly invisible day, which is better than most of his teammates can say. I still think that it's a mistake to play him in the back since the US badly need his creativity and smarts in attack -- without that sort of thing you can end up with zero shot attempts -- but he deserves credit for the defensive effort he put in. He was much better on that side of the ball this summer than he was in the previous two.
• The third-place game will be on Saturday (8 pm ET; FS1 | Univision | UDN) against either Colombia or Chile, either of whom would be favorites against the US. We'll see what Klinsmann & Co. are able to learn between now and then.