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Stat attack: Klinsmann benched Beckerman against Belgium for a reason, and it backfired

Jul 2, 2014, 1:15 PM EDT

A massive thanks to FourFourTwo’s amazing stat app StatsZone for the dashboards in this article.

Jurgen Klinsmann had a pretty clear game plan going into the game with Belgium.

His megaphone was the lineup card, and the message was “Your creativity won’t beat us through the middle.”

By starting Geoff Cameron as midfield cover instead of Kyle Beckerman, Klinsmann surprised many around the country, but it’s not hard to figure out why he did it.

One name quite literally rises above all others in the Belgian midfield: Marouane Fellaini.

With the aerial presence of the Belgian afro roaming the pitch, Klinsmann made a very significant change to the lineup in an attempt to box in the big Manchester United midfielder and keep him at bay.

Beckerman isn’t very good in the air, and this is made abundantly clear in the first few USA matches.  Throughout their first three World Cup games, Beckerman had a total of one headed clearance and was 1/2 in aerial duels. It’s not that he failed miserably at it, but he’s flat out not a jumper, much preferring to have his feet on the ground. To compare, Cameron by far out-jumped Beckerman’s entire tournament against Belgium alone, with five headed clearances and 4/5 in aerial duels.

Knowing the threat Fellaini – and even Axel Witsel, to an extent – poses in the air, Klinsmann chose instead to slot Geoff Cameron into defensive midfield. Essentially a third central defender who has ability on the ball, Cameron was a valid choice to not only lock down Fellaini but also relieve Michael Bradley up front somewhat in the creativity department.

Except, with the added aerial coverage came a massive drop-off in distributive ability, and that was a lethal omission in the US midfield. More on that in a bit.

First, let’s first overview how Cameron’s presence actually worked quite well in both holding Fellaini down in the air and clogging the passing lanes in the middle.

source:  source:

As you can see, there’s a  nice gap in front of the 18-yard box where Cameron patrolled. Fellaini only received five passes in that area all match (the red circle) a positive for the United States.

Witsel had more service in that area, but the US were still successful in scattering him around the pitch, something Russia failed to do during their group-stage match.  As a result, against Russia, Witsel completed all 34 passes he attempted and was an engine against that stout Russian back line.  Against the US, he made a few mistakes in the midfield and overall had less of an influence.

Also interesting, against Russia Fellaini was a favorite target of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois on goal kicks, with the midfielder able to get to the long balls at will.  Courtois hooked up with Fellaini eight times in that match, a staggering amount and major part of his service. Against the United States with Cameron often man-marking Fellaini, he latched onto just twice.

The presence of Cameron did a good job of spreading out the Belgian players, as you can see here on the player influence chart (essentially an overlay of each player’s heatmap).  Against Russia, the Belgian midfielders were clogging the middle and producing centrally, whereas against the United States they themselves were forced spread out, thus decreasing their ability to penetrate.

source:  source:

In addition, Cameron beat Fellaini one-on-one in the air in two of their three recorded midfield duels, which was a positive considering that was the main purpose for his inclusion.

So in this way, Geoff Cameron’s presence was a positive. But there was a downside that proved deadly to the United States.

Without Beckerman’s superior distribution skills, Cameron and others made countless mistakes in the midfield and gave away precious possession much too often.

The most surprising number to come out of this match is the possession split.  Through regulation, the US maintained a 50-50 split of possession with Belgium, despite their ability to pepper Tim Howard‘s goal compared to precious few opportunities for the Americans.  That surprising amount of possession for the US mostly came while attempting to build from the back, which often led to giveaways in the midfield.

A look at Cameron’s passing chart compared with Beckerman’s control of build-up play against Portugal and it’s easy to see how much the Real Salt Lake man was missed.

source:  source:

While Beckerman’s passing doesn’t appear to be all that creative on the chart, there’s one thing that stands out: it’s mistake-free. Pair that with the 42-of-45 performance he put out against Germany, and it’s clear why the US failed to maintain possession against Belgium without him.

66-of-81 is below what the US would like from that position, and you can see countless giveaways in the middle third.

Not only that, but Cameron is scattered across the pitch as he looked to roam further up field. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, considering it allows Michael Bradley – playing out of position farther forward than he is used to – to ease back a bit and cover.

Unfortunately, none of that worked. Cameron didn’t have a single chance created despite relatively positive passing in the final third, and Bradley’s defensive presence was non-existent (0 clearances, 0 interceptions, 2/5 tackling).

This is somewhat harsh on Cameron. Jermaine Jones had a very poor passing performance with plenty of giveaways in the midfield as well, and Graham Zusi was a mess down the right.  But things seemed like they were missing an anchor, and that’s because it was on the bench.

The result of all these giveaways? 39 shots by Belgium, 18 of them on target. Tim Howard got to a record 16 of them, but the onslaught was too much.

Its nearly impossible to fully blame Klinsmann for this outcome; hindsight is 20/20, and his priority on aerial coverage over that of a conservative passing approach is something many would prefer. But in this case, after the match, we see the decision was incorrect.

  1. midtec2005 - Jul 2, 2014 at 1:31 PM

    Thank you for this.

    I couldn’t believe the lineup change…

    • elrey4203 - Jul 3, 2014 at 11:04 AM

      Everyone does realize beckermann had 2 yellow cards from the group play and that meant he was out for the match against belguim? 2 yellows = 1 red, horrible atricle.

      • hogiwan - Jul 3, 2014 at 11:27 AM

        Are you high? He was cautioned once v Germany. There was no second yellow in any of the three group matches.

      • hogiwan - Jul 3, 2014 at 11:29 AM

        Also, to piggy back on that, two yellows = one red, in the same match, yes. Two yellows over the course of group play would result in a suspension due to yellow card accumulation, not a red card. Horrible comment. Lol.

  2. jrocknstuff - Jul 2, 2014 at 1:57 PM

    It was always going to be difficult for Cameron to produce offensively from a midfield position. Defensively he played very well, but offensively he was out of his element. He’s a defender. He is used to playing the ball out of the back and having the midfielders do the work. Creating chances and linking up with attackers has never been his game, especially at Stoke where until this season the game plan was “hit the ball as far up-field as you can and try to draw a foul.”

    Klinsmann bemoaned the fact that we were too passive with the possession, but even with a supposed 4-4-3, he played a defensive line-up. I like Klinsmann, I like his ingenuity, but I can’t fault Cameron for failing to create from a midfield position when he shouldn’t have been there in the first place. He did the job with Fellaini and that’s all I think we could really ask of him.

    • tariencole - Jul 3, 2014 at 10:35 PM

      He plays DMC at Stoke regularly. And isn’t a turnover machine there.

      He’s played DMC for the US before as well, and did it so well in one match many of us, (including myself) were wondering if he might not be better than Jones at it.

      The idea that Cameron can’t complete passes in midfield is…well, the triumph of myopia. Honestly, he did it quite well at Stoke. There was no reason to believe he was *incapable* of keeping possession against Belgium. I think this has more to do with the overall poor quality of game Zusi had, than anything. I’m a SKC fan, and love Zusi, but he had a nightmare against Belgium.

  3. justafan2014 - Jul 2, 2014 at 2:15 PM

    Good post, I couldn’t figure out why beckerman wasn’t in the line up in the first place.

  4. denny65 - Jul 2, 2014 at 2:15 PM

    Did anyone else wonder yesterday why Belgium was starting Bob Ross in midfield?

    • JSG - Jul 2, 2014 at 3:41 PM

      Belgium was going with their Happy Little Trees formation.

      • mlsconvert88888 - Jul 2, 2014 at 5:32 PM

        The ability to turn mistakes into happy little trees and bushes is clutch.

  5. godsholytrousers - Jul 2, 2014 at 2:38 PM

    This was a gamble that got us to extra time and within a missed open net by Wondo of winning in regulation. The gamble didn’t pay off in the end, but it was oh so close.

    I’m a huge Beckerman fan, and would have started him again, but I understand Klinsmann’s decision to have Cameron go up against Side Show Bob.

  6. reformed2012 - Jul 2, 2014 at 2:39 PM

    Should have started Beckerman, park the bus and rely on counters

  7. phillyphannn83 - Jul 2, 2014 at 2:39 PM

    Can’t stand Zusi

  8. reformed2012 - Jul 2, 2014 at 2:41 PM

    In knockout rounds you always aim for winning on PKs

    • scottster63 - Jul 3, 2014 at 10:06 PM

      not always, depends on how the second half plays out. you would never go into a game thinking you have to get to the penalty kick stage imo.

  9. wwsiralexd - Jul 2, 2014 at 2:58 PM

    Yeah, we totally dominated Ghana and Germany when the “anchor” was on the field.

    • godsholytrousers - Jul 2, 2014 at 3:05 PM

      It isn’t about dominating Germany or Ghana, it is about finding ways to win. Anybody thinking that any country can go out and dominate Germany or Ghana, just doesn’t understand the task at hand.

      • wwsiralexd - Jul 2, 2014 at 4:34 PM

        Look, we played way over our head. Every opponent was at least as good or better than we were. If you think if Klinsmann switched one or two players around and got different results, then you are way too optimistic. Our guys have limited skills. We are exactly where we should be.

        If we didn’t get past the first round, it would be a huge disappointment. But if we finish the top eight, it would have been an over-achievement. We are where we should be.

  10. geejon - Jul 2, 2014 at 3:13 PM

    What a dumb article. Starting Cameron did NOT backfire just because Beckerman had better passing stats in previous games than Cameron did yesterday. Americans and their “stats” … this isn’t frickin’ baseball.

    First of all, Cameron’s main job was to mark Fellaini and he did an excellent job of that. Period.

    Secondly, if you’re going to compare Cameron’s passing stats to Beckerman’s and say “oh the Americans didn’t create many chances against Belgium … there must be a connection” … i’ll ask you “how many opportunities did the U.S. create against Germany with Beckerman and his passing in the lineup?”. They created NONE until 1 or 2 half-chances in the last few minutes. They actually looked worse against Germany than Belgium. They couldn’t keep possession in either game and to point at one guy and look at “stats” and say “that’s why” is so ridiculous it makes me wonder how much futbol this writer understands or does he mainly just look at post-game stats thinking he’ll find the answers there.

    What about the Ghana game where Beckerman also played and the U.S. was pinned in their own end the whole game … was that Cameron’s fault too?

    The U.S. doesn’t create many chances because they lack the creativity and technical ability in the middle of the pitch. Losing Altidore made the one guy with such skills (Dempsey) play out of position where he couldn’t drop deep enough to do that. It has nothing to with the passing stats of Geoff Cameron vs Kyle Beckerman.

  11. chesschum - Jul 2, 2014 at 4:27 PM

    Great article, dissecting the Cameron/Beckerman “trade” in accurate detail. I was very surprised by the move, but this shows that it worked better than I thought, although not well enough. It also shows how complex the decisions someone like Klinsmann has to make.

  12. wwsiralexd - Jul 2, 2014 at 4:50 PM

    Here are the stats against Belgium:

    Total shots: 38 – 14. Advantage Belgium.
    Shots on goal: 27 – 9. Advantage Belgium.
    Corners: 19 – 4. Advantage Belgium.
    Saves: 5 – 18. Advantage Belgium.

    You think playing Beckerman would make up all those differences? Are you out of your mind?

    • paperlions - Jul 2, 2014 at 6:05 PM

      Nice strawman.

      No one even suggested the argument you are refuting.

      • wwsiralexd - Jul 2, 2014 at 8:26 PM

        Butt hurt after the loss, huh son? Me too, but there was no “backfiring” here.

    • akehres11 - Jul 3, 2014 at 12:35 PM

      Completely agree. The problem was possession, not defending. The US kept Belgium scoreless for 90 mins, f they had any possession they could of scored against Belgiums shaky defense. None of Belgiums wingers played defense, there was huge holes on the wings for the US to attack, but we couldnt possess the ball. But this guy wants to point out Cameron for his defensive work rather than the real problem which was the attack.

    • pksoccerfan - Jul 3, 2014 at 6:47 PM

      BEST Chance to Score in Regulation: USA. Wondo putting that shot on target is huge. Waited too long. Get that full volley when ball is on way down. None of the stats from ET matter than.

  13. aboutlastnight7 - Jul 2, 2014 at 5:15 PM

    While I think this is an interesting analysis, you can’t conclude it was a mistake since you can’t run the opposite decision through a test. Who’s to say that starting beckerman wouldn’t have led to aerial dominance by Fellaini and Witsel that led to less possession but more direct opportunities in front of our back line?

    You correctly note that Russia was not strong in this area and the result was Fellaini and Witsel dominating the offensive middle of the park. What evidence do we have that the same aerial advantage wouldn’t have led to the same results against the US?

    As I said, love the analysis, but let it stand on it’s own, don’t reach for unsupported conclusions.

    • simonkulberg - Jul 3, 2014 at 7:54 AM

      Also Russia didn`t do too badly against the Belgians. In fact, stats wise they did better than the USA did. Belgium just have a really talented side and it`s hard to beat them.
      Shut down Fellani and you just get hit on the wings instead. Just look at de Bruin sinking the USA almost single handedly for an example. But shut him down and you get hit in the middle by Fellani and Origi. Shut both down and leave Hazard alone on the left. No matter how you approach it defensively, Belgium will find a way to hurt you. Not losing the ball quite so much would have been a good idea though, and it would have led to more US attacks as well.

  14. bradinsocal - Jul 2, 2014 at 6:16 PM

    Excellent analysis. At the end of the day, lack of possession and lack of attacking options did us in. We need to see upgrades in all departments (except GK) in 2018. But it was fun while it lasted!

  15. player169 - Jul 2, 2014 at 8:19 PM

    I think as a whole, the U.S. has a good base on the defensive side for the next WC. If we can develop the offensive midfield and striker roles over the next 4 years, we should take tge next step…

    There is a lot of talent in the pool. Should be fun to watch how things stack up for the positions in the next 4 years.

  16. robtrodes - Jul 2, 2014 at 8:41 PM

    This is a very insightful and interesting analysis. But, I can’t see from it that the decision to go with Cameron was incorrect. Seems like 50-50 to me; Fellaini could have scored a goal going up against Beckerman in the fifth minute and had two assists on balls served up by Courtois in a 4-1 shellacking of the USA if Klinsmann had put him in.

    I’m looking forward to 2016. The Copa America Centennial hosted by the USA, with all the CONMEBOL teams and six CONCACAF teams competing, is going to be an event of UEFA-cup-like proportions. We have a shot at winning that one, too.

  17. gvera7 - Jul 2, 2014 at 10:13 PM

    Landon Donovan

  18. gvera7 - Jul 2, 2014 at 10:16 PM

    For many reasons…especially for the fact that they needed another star player to distract the man marking aspect of the game…it could have created more opportunities for Bradley and Dempsey but instead they were the obvious targets.

  19. doe22us - Jul 3, 2014 at 1:20 PM

    The best thing about the US loosing is to end the ridiculous articles like this that one came across on a daily basis. The US simply doesnt have the talent to compete it is that simple.

  20. warren49 - Jul 3, 2014 at 2:32 PM

    Not only should the US be looking forward to 2018, we should be identifying the 10-12 year olds who need the proper training to be ready for 2022 and beyond. Waiting for these kids to get to, or out of, high school is to wait too long. When people say this country will never embrace the sport, this might be the part that will be the hardest.

  21. scottster63 - Jul 3, 2014 at 10:07 PM

    It would not have made that much of a difference in the end.

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