Diamond Thieves

In the World Cup, it’s the U.S. — not England — that will crib from Liverpool’s dynamic midfield formation.

By Thomas Moyles

Liverpool’s resurgence this season was the biggest story in the Premier League. While the Reds ultimately fell just short of claiming their first top-flight championship since 1990, they thrilled soccer watchers with a swashbuckling style that yielded 101 goals in 38 matches. Key to large portions of that success was the use of a diamond midfield formation.

As the World Cup looms, talk of the diamond has continued to rage, but it won’t be Roy Hodgson’s England — with a squad loaded with Liverpool players — that will be using that setup. Rather, it’s Jurgen Klinsmann’s United States that looks like it will be using different versions of that alignment as it attempts to navigate an extremely difficult group.

As Jonathan Wilson notes, the diamond formation is a historical oddity in that it was never part of a larger tactical suite of ideas; rather, it’s something that’s flitted in and out of style over the years without ever dominating a period of time or thematically defining a great team. Most often deployed at the international level by Argentina and Uruguay, the diamond is defined by the position of the midfielders — the middle ‘4' in a 4-4-2 setup. The alignment places a defensive midfielder in front of a traditionally flat back four, two ‘shuttlers’ (or carrileros in Argentinian Spanish) sitting just in front of him and then a single attacking midfielder ahead of them. (In South America, the formation is often noted as a 4-3-1-2, to emphasize that the offensive tip of the diamond — the enganche — is the focal point, the playmaker that needs to be supported by the three midfield players behind him.)

The main strength of the diamond is the ability to dominate the middle of the field with four central players capable of both retaining possession and preventing the opposition from moving the ball through that area. The weakness is the space down the flanks. Where a typical flat 4-4-2 would have both wingers and fullbacks, the narrower diamond will only have fullbacks, creating potential space to be exploited on the outside.

While Liverpool used a number of formations this year, they used the diamond a fair amount, and it featured in a number of their iconic matches, including the evisceration of Manchester United at Old Trafford and the title-race victory at home over Manchester City. In their diamond, several members of England’s setup for this World Cup played key roles.

The base of the formation was captain and icon, Steven Gerrard, formerly a classic all-action English midfielder now forced through age into a deeper role where he acts as a screen for the back four when defending, and as a deep-lying pivot when Liverpool is in possession. While Liverpool featured a number of other players in the shuttling roles, the standout was Jordan Henderson, who changed his own personal narrative from “over-priced dogsbody” to “integral cog in a well-oiled killing machine” over the course of the season. The joke amongst Liverpool supporters is that Henderson has a bit of Forrest Gump to him, that he’s always running, no matter what. And while his tireless effort on defense was key to Liverpool’s play, it was his play going forward that saw a jump, with runs into and around the box often resulting in surprisingly skillful final balls and movement.

The third Englishman to feature prominently in Liverpool’s diamond was 19-year-old Raheem Sterling, a whippet of an attacking player who played both as a shuttler and as the tip of the diamond. In the latter role, he was less of a traditional playmaker and more of a precision missile-strike of an attacking midfielder, showcasing excellent dribbling and finishing skills when a team unwisely allowed space in front of their backline.

Liverpool tries to manage the lack of natural width in the diamond by pushing their fullbacks high up the pitch (while trying to play a high defensive line to reduce space to cover and enable pressing). Glen Johnson and John Flanagan are asked to do a great deal of work, getting forward to support the attack and dropping back to cover the spaces just outside the center-backs on defense.

Four of the Liverpool men mentioned above (all except Flanagan, who was an unused substitute and subsequently didn’t make the final 23-man roster) featured in England’s routine warmup win over Peru. How England lined up under Roy Hodgson, though, was quite different, with something approximately midway between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2, with Gerrard and Henderson sitting as a central midfield pairing and Sterling coming on to play wide in the band of three attackers just behind the center forward.

There are a couple reasons why this should be concerning to England fans. First, Hodgson playing a 34-year-old Gerrard as one of only two deeper central midfielders. Whether in the diamond or in a 4-3-3 at Liverpool, Gerrard has consistently played with two other partners, as his age means he can’t cover as much ground as he used to. Add in the sweltering heat of Brazil and it seems like a recipe for two potential problems — either the midfield will get caught too far upfield and be unable to shield the defense against counterattacks or, perhaps more likely, that we’ll see a repeat of Hodgson’s Euro 2012 England, where the midfield dropped deep in front of the defense in order to deny space to the opposition. Creating a bunker of two lines 20 yards from goal is hard to break down, but also isolates England’s upfield attackers, making it virtually impossible for England to retain the ball or to work it into good attacking positions.

The second problem is that it appears that Hodgson prefers playing Daniel Sturridge and Wayne Rooney together, and while technically Rooney can play as the central man in the “3" in a 4-2-3-1, he tends to drift higher up into a more traditional forward’s role and doesn’t have the greatest recent history of dropping back into midfield to pick up players. This is a problem against teams featuring deep-lying playmakers, the best example of which probably being Andrea Pirlo, who happens to play for England’s first World Cup opponent, Italy.

Meanwhile, across the pond, the U.S.’s preparation for the World Cup has been nothing less than an epochal change. This is the first Cup with coach Jurgen Klinsmann in charge, and the first since 1998 without Landon Donovan, who was controversially left off the squad. As it appears that another of Klinsmann’s decisions is to set the U.S. up in some iteration of a diamond formation, we now may know a bit more about why Donovan was excluded (at least the on-field portion of it). Donovan’s talent can’t be questioned, but his fitness and dedication — two crucial aspects of performing in the diamond — have been in some question during Klinsmann’s reign.

In the first two warmup matches, the U.S. played a fairly traditional version of the diamond, with Michael Bradley in the advanced central position while Jermaine Jones sat deep. Because of their individual skills, the players’ roles in that version were a bit different from Liverpool’s setup. Jones acts as more of a pure destroyer, a player whose primary (and probably secondary and tertiary as well) job is to disrupt the other team through physicality and tenacity. Bradley was asked to be more of a classic pivot, moving the ball around the field and always being available to receive a pass (all the while also triggering the U.S. counterattack).

No sophisticated U.S. watcher thought this plan could work in their group, especially with the lack of traditional “shuttlers” on this U.S. roster. Jones was too exposed as the lone D-mid, Bradley was being asked a Herculean task that more correctly seemed near impossible, and the U.S. had to use two de facto wingers as shuttlers. That made Saturday’s performance against Nigeria all that much more interesting, and probably belies what the U.S. really plans to do in Brazil.

Here’s Jones, on the bottom of the screen, even with Bradley as the U.S. pushes on the counter. Beckerman, still off the screen to the right, shows the depth difference between him and Jones.

In the match in Jacksonville, Klinsmann introduced defensive midfielder Kyle Beckerman as the base of a diamond-ish shape, and moved Jones to the left side of it. This allowed a lot more fluidity as the team moved back and forth between attack and defending. When in possession, Jones pushed up on the left side ahead of more stay-at-home fullback DeMarcus Beasley, with Alejandro Bedoya on the right side playing narrowly and providing cover for the more ambitious runs of Fabian Johnson on that flank.

Early in the match, Jones settles in next to Beckerman as Nigeria moves the ball forward through the midfield.

When defending, Jones backtracked to fill in next to Beckerman, giving the U.S. two dedicated defensive mids to shield the still-gelling back four, with either Clint Dempsey or Jozy Altidore dropping to fill the space opened on the left flank. The net result was the U.S. often had a 4 vs. 3 advantage in the center of the pitch, yet still had two D-Mids to help corral the Nigerian attack. For most of the 90 minutes, the U.S. controlled the encounter.

This interpretation of the diamond is much better for the personnel available to the U.S. It allows Jones to use his fitness, strength and physicality while reducing his relative weaknesses in positional discipline and on-ball distribution. It also makes Bradley’s workload more realistic in the center of the park, knowing there are two guys behind him defending and freeing him more to lead the attack.

It’s also fluid enough that tactical subs fit in nicely, whether the U.S. is ahead or behind in a World Cup match. What will be interesting to watch is how Klinsmann uses his roster in Brazil, as this formation (especially Jones’ role, as it was played on Saturday) requires a lot of running in what will be hot, humid conditions. It’s worth nothing that when Beckerman was withdrawn for Diskerud, the Norwegian-American took Bradley’s place as the offensive tip of the diamond and Bradley moved in front of the defense to play Beckerman’s role as the solid and calm distributor from deep.

However the U.S. applies it, it’s difficult not to feel like the wrong team is considering the diamond. It’s almost like the teams have swapped formations inadvertently, like a body-swap where England wakes up to find that they’re playing with out-and-out wingers while the U.S. are suddenly shoehorning players into a narrow midfield.

If things don’t go well over the next few weeks, you may hear a good deal of “Why aren’t we doing that?” from both sides of the Atlantic.

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