Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Armchair Analyst: Tactical preview of USA vs. Paraguay in Copa America


Paraguay are not pushovers. That's the message in the podcast above, that's the message conveyed by the conventional wisdom, that's the message from the performance they gave in a 2-1 loss to Colombia the other day, and that's the message conveyed by their semifinal appearance in the 2015 Copa America.

"A semifinal appearance!" you're thinking. "That sounds like they're better than 'no pushovers.' That sounds like they're pretty damn good!"

Not really. Paraguay have mostly just mastered the art of not being catastrophically bad, and they've done that by being pretty hard to score on (save for the occasional 6-1 drubbing). Yes, they made it to the semifinals of last year's Copa, but they won only one game -- 1-0 over Jamaica -- on the way. Let's give you some more bullet points:

  • They've won one of their last 16 Copa America matches (1-6-9)
  • They have three wins in their last 19 games across all competitions dating back to the end of 2014, going 3-8-8 in that span
  • They are 7-15-13 since the start of 2013
  • Their last win over a team ranked in the FIFA top 40 was in October 2012 against Peru (#37)

Say what you want about Paraguay's knowhow and toughness, but they have a profoundly obvious recent history of not winning. And this is a game they need to win if they want to extend their stay at this particular Copa.

No games at this level are easy. But the USMNT should be just as confident going into Saturday's match against Los Guaranies (7 pm ET; FS1, Univision & UDN) as they were heading into what became a 4-0 drubbing of Costa Rica on Tuesday.

Here's what's up.

What they'll do: Skip the build & boot it long, then try to win second balls

I think Paraguay got a little too much credit for their second-half energy against Colombia and not enough skepticism about the fact that they went down 2-0 in the first place. Like the US they conceded early, like the US they conceded a second, and then -- as in the US game -- Colombia mostly sat back and let them have possession.

With Paraguay, almost none of that possession was back-to-front build, and they simply never got their fullbacks involved on any sorts of overlap. We always talk about how the fullbacks are hybrid players in the modern game, because they both attack and defend. For Paraguay they defend and defend:

That's the passing map from LB Miguel Samudio and RB Bruno Valdez; red lines are incomplete passes, green complete, and yellow are key passes (passes that lead to a shot). Only four touches combined in the final third, and that's from a team pushing numbers forward and desperately chasing the game for 78 minutes.

The story is similar with their central midfield. Paraguay have four guys who push up and six who stay back, like an old-fashioned English side from the '60s or '70s.

So far that hasn't been a great plan, as through 180 minutes they have one goal and are near the bottom of the tournament in shots per game.

But... they're opportunistic. They win their share of first balls in midfield and a whole lot of second balls, which means turnovers are what they live and die for. Everyone's committed.

How to solve it: Cut the supply line between Victor Ayala and Miguel Almiron

The midfield duo from Lanus (you know that team because it's where Diego Valeri played, and where Guillermo Barros Schelotto managed) are the two most inventive players in the squad, and Ayala has a cannon of a shot -- he scored from three counties away vs. Colombia.

As with almost all good players, they work better together than apart, and Paraguay's best moments were when those two and playmaker Oscar Romero were all involved.

Here's the good news:

June 8, 2016

Romero got himself a red card and is gone for this one. Between that and Nestor Ortigoza being omitted from the squad, the US 4-3-3 should absolutely be able to stifle any sort of Paraguayan creativity from the run of play.

What we'll do: Keep the ball on the floor and crush them with speed out wide

For all of the below, I'm assuming the US will come out in the same 4-3-3 with the same XI that we've seen in the first two games. Bear that in mind.

Now, I love a good diagonal ball to the flank, and that's what this game will be begging for from the US. Paraguay will stay compact through the middle, which means we'll have to be willing to stretch them from side-to-side.

Remember this from Michael Bradley against the Netherlands last year?

He'll be on the ball a ton in the very same spot on Saturday, and he needs his wingers to be A) staying wide, and B) pushing forward aggressively. And if the Paraguayan plan is to make certain Bradley can never pick his head up in that spot (and to be clear: THAT SHOULD DEFINITELY BE THEIR PLAN), then either Geoff Cameron or John Brooks has to be ready to receive quick reversals from Bradley then play a similar ball, while either Jermaine Jones or Alejandro Bedoya comes available short for an easy outlet.

Understand I'm not saying "play it long every time!" I'm saying that if the US are to crack Paraguay open from the run of play, it's much more likely to come from something that looks like this rather than any sort of intricate combination play in the final third, since neither Bobby Wood nor Gyasi Zardes is particularly adept at that when played out wide.

How they'll try to solve it: Pin the wingers back and punish sloppiness

Zardes in particular has done as much defensive work as almost anyone for the US. He was second on the team against Costa Rica with a combined 14 interceptions, recoveries & tackles -- the basic defensive stats managers look at. Part of this is because the US shifted to a 4-4-2 after 25 minutes, dragging him deeper and into more of a two-way role. And another part of this is that Jurgen Klinsmann simply asks for a ton of running from his wide players no matter the formation.

The good is that Zardes is willing to do the work, as is Wood. The bad is that neither is exactly precise in their distribution:

June 8, 2016

Some of those missed passes are hoofed clearances, but that's cold comfort since Ayala can turn hoofed clearances into goals. Whoever ends up on the ball back there for the US has to be wary of the danger not only of Paraguay's pressure, but of how wrong a bad clearance can go.

What's it mean for the US?

Paraguay are about as good as Costa Rica, but they'll be more organized and won't go with the slow suicide that is a starting XI without a d-mid. Celso Ortiz is gonna start, and he's gonna be pretty good, which is what he always is. They're gonna be not that sloppy, and they're not gonna take that many risks, and they're gonna be at their most dangerous on set pieces. Paraguay live for those restarts.

The wildcard is Derlis Gonzalez, an ultra-talented winger who played 89 ineffectual minutes against Costa Rica then got rested for the whole game against Colombia. With Romero out he's the one guy who can pull off the sort of individual trickery -- a mazy run or a killer pass -- that this team otherwise lacks.

Even if he starts, that should be absolutely fine for the US. I know Simon said in the video embedded at the top of the page that Paraguay should be favorites, but Simon is a crazy person:

Do not listen to him. The US can keep this game close and compact for the first hour, then punish Paraguay in transition over the final half hour. A win should be expected, and a draw is just fine (if a little bit disappointing).