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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Albanian federation denounces “extremist acts” of their fans in Italy

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TIRANA, Albania (AP) Albania’s soccer federation has strongly denounced the incident that halted the World Cup Group G qualifier with Italy for nearly nine minutes on Friday.

During the match, which was won by Italy, 2-0, a group calling itself Illyrian Elite threw flares onto the pitch.

“Such totally extremist actions from the grouping Illyrian Elite have nothing to do with the excellent Albanian fans” who were distinguished in the EURO 2016 finals in France for their friendship and camaraderie in their festivities, the statement added.

The federation said an coach Gianni De Biasi also was “upset by the flares,” adding that during five years he has been in charge “I’ve seen something that’s never happened before.”

USMNT: 4 players, including Brooks, Lletget, released; Arriola added

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Hours after his side’s 6-0 thrashing of Honduras to resuscitate dreams of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Bruce Arena announced on Saturday five changes to the U.S. national team roster ahead of Tuesday’s qualifier against Panama.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

John Brooks (sinus infection), Sebastian Lletget (foot), Jordan Morris (knee) and Michael Orozco (knee) were all released back to their club teams, while Club Tijuana midfielder Paul Arriola was added to the squad.

[ MORE: USA 6-0 Honduras | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

Brooks dealt with the sinus infection throughout USMNT camp this past week, as Morris did his knee injury which he picked up last weekend. Lletget left Friday’s win over Honduras in the 18th minute and will undergo further tests to determine the severity of his injury; he was seen leaving the stadium on crutches and wearing a walking boot.

The USMNT’s roster for Tuesday’s qualifier in Panama City, Panama, now stands at 23 players, and reads as follows:

Goalkeepers: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Midfielders: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (LA Galaxy), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)

Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

Rapinoe won’t back down on social issues despite U.S. Soccer policy

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Megan Rapinoe recently earned her spot back in the U.S. Women’s National Team squad ahead of next month’s friendlies against Russia, but the veteran won’t remain silent when it comes to her stance on the social climate of America.

[ MORE: Looking back on USMNT’s big win over Honduras ]

The 31-year-old was scrutinized for joining NFL player Colin Kaepernick in 2016 when they knelt during their respective sporting events, along with dozens of other athletes across the United States.

While Rapinoe admits that the form of protest is up for discussion, she also states that social inequality issues in the U.S. go far beyond that.

“What has surprised me the most, especially post-election, is that people are still sort of arguing against it. It’s really obvious that we have very serious inequality in this country across many different spectrums,” Rapinoe told the Guardian. “Yes, we can talk about the form of protest, or the way it’s done, or this or that. But it’s still not really the conversation that I think we desperately need to have more of in this country.”

A few weeks back, U.S. Soccer announced that it now requires all players that represent the Stars and Stripes to stand when the national anthem is played, and Rapinoe has agreed to do such.

While her days of kneeling on the pitch are in the past, Rapinoe believes she wouldn’t do anything different because she was simply trying to spark discussion amongst the American people.

“I don’t think there’s any perfect way to protest. I think if there was something else being done, something else would have been said about it. I can’t look back and say that I would have done this different, this different or this different.

“I can sleep at night knowing that I genuinely tried to have a really important conversation, or at least tried to open it up. I think I came to it with an open mind, an open heart and tried to get as many people to talk about it as I could.”

Report: Chelsea planning Hazard, Courtois pay raises

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Eden Hazard has returned to his old self under Antonio Conte this season, and now Chelsea is hoping to lock down their star attacker.

[ MORE: Lukaku says decision has been made on Everton future ]

According to the Mirror, the Premier League leaders are planning on offering up a pay raise to Hazard, who has 11 league goals this season for the Blues.

Hazard signed a nearly $250,000 per week deal two seasons ago, but the Belgium international will likely rake in significantly more under the reported deal as Chelsea hopes to keep the 26-year-old away from Spanish giants Real Madrid and others.

The Mirror is also reporting that goalkeeper and Hazard’s Belgian teammate Thibaut Courtois is likely to be handed a raise is salary as well.

The shot-stopper is set be handed a deal roughly in the range of what Hazard is currently making after allowing just 21 goals in 28 PL matches this season.