United States-Russia: What we learned from Wednesday’s draw

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A 2-2 draw might slightly flatter Jurgen Klinsmann’s team, but a road draw against a quality European team is always a good result for the United States.

Tim Howard and Michael Bradley were the stars of this one, which went all kinds of sideways in the feeble first 30 minutes. But the U.S. gamely regrouped, providing room for Bradley to hit a fabulous equalizer and later for late sub Mix Diskerud to claim a late leveler once the Americans had slipped behind again.

Here are the important, early elements we can take away from Wednesday’s draw with Russia in Krasnodar.

(MORE: Man of the Match, Michael Bradley)

This is not Guatemala or Antigua or …

We have all spent so much time over the last few months analyzing matches, dissecting the collective performance and the individual abilities in varying situations. But here’s the rub:

The games are getting more difficult. So are the choices.

The lesser CONCACAF teams have been dispatched. The opposition in World Cup qualifiers ahead will be closer to Russian in terms of collective ability. And they will ruthlessly punish mistakes – just like Wednesday.

Young Danny Williams, for instance, seems to have taken hold of the central, holding midfield position. And he has previously performed those duties adequately against … Guatemala and against Antigua and Barbuda, etc.  But these are better players, faster, stronger, more tactically astute. And under the guidance of better managers. Fabio Capello may not have gotten it done for England, but he’s certainly got something between his soccer ears.

Wednesday, the young midfielder looked overwhelmed.

Here’s another good “for instance:” We saw Eddie Johnson excel in a wide role, roughly the same role where Herculez Gomez failed to make an imprint in the first-half Wednesday. But we simply cannot make too much of Johnson’s performance against such unequal competition.

In some ways, we can take a lot of what we learned in the last qualifying round and toss it out. The stakes are rising – and so is the quality of opposition.

Center backs. We are still talking about center backs …

Geoff Cameron did enough in his latest start centrally. We can nitpick here and there – a few too many “thump aways” that needed be controlled and spun into attacker starters, for instance. But generally, Cameron was solid against a quality bunch.

Past that? Just not good enough – to the point of being alarming

The midfield shape and performance left the American back line with lots to do, admittedly. (More on that below.) Still …

Carlos Bocanegra started but soon left injured. Coming in cold was no easy assignment for Clarence Goodson, but he was still erring late in the match, after plenty of time to warm up, adjust and take control.

Rather, he gave the ball away too much, sometimes too casually, lost his position too often and gave away a potentially devastating penalty kick (at a moment when Howard seemed to have the situation covered).

Is Goodson still the U.S. third choice center back? That’s probably the bigger question. Omar Gonzalez, not available for this one due to MLS playoffs, cannot get back into the U.S. fold quickly enough.

The three-man midfield still a work in progress.

Results have been mixed, at best, when Jurgen Klinsmann deploys some version of a 4-3-3, using three across the middle who are more or less defensive-minded. It seems to work at home when Bradley’s starting positions are slightly more advanced, where he can perform a little more as a playmaker and linker, a little less as a redundant defensive screener.

(Actually, the three man midfield probably isn’t going to work at all , in any form or alignment lean, if Bradley isn’t in the mix. Again, I say, he’s the most important U.S. man these days, not Clint Dempsey, not Landon Donovan and not Howard.)

(MORE: Video of Bradley’s breakthrough goal)

But on the road, when all three midfielders are saddled with heavy defensive duty, it tends to fall apart. As we saw in some of the qualifiers, the shape and organization can get shoddy. Where is the pressure and where is the support? Who is tracking whom? Who is organizing?

Williams, for his talent and potential, may not be the commanding presence to hold things together and ask teammates to be accountable. And we can ask questions about whether he gets too timid in the 50-50 challenges.

Distribution out of the back looks untidy — but some of that is down to midfield shape, where outlets seem less available than they should be. It seems to be all improvisation, less plan and pattern.

Important point here: Maurice Edu certainly has his flaws as a midfielder. But the moment he replaced Williams in the second half, things began to look more settled and organized. He wasn’t getting drawn out of position as Williams was.

He looked like the leader that Williams, 23, isn’t quite ready to be.

(MORE to come from ProSoccerTalk, including thoughts on Josh Gatt, who earned his first U.S. cap Wednesday)

Arnautovic’s agent: Player wants UEFA Champions League action ASAP

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“There are options. And we are probing.”

So are the ominous words of Danijel Arnautovic, the brother and agent of West Ham United striker Marko Arnautovic, in saying the player wants to play in the Champions League as soon as possible.

[ MORE: England-USMNT preview ]

The Austrian forward, 29, is combustible but industrious as a player, and his brother says he nearly left West Ham for a Champions League club in the summer. And, again, they are probing.

This one day after admitting he’s been playing hurt for the Hammers. That’s sure to drive his value up, up, up.

Here’s Danijel Arnautovic, from Metro:

“He’s a big part of West Ham’s team but I think it’s possible to tease out more of him. For that to happen, he has to play for a top team. Marko is ready for the next step. A player like him should not play against relegation. He should play for the international spots. Marko is really enjoying playing for West Ham. He loves that club and the fans. But there is still that feeling, that this cannot be the end. And everybody should understand that.”

Marko Arnautovic’s two most productive seasons have come in the last three years, with 11-goal campaigns for Stoke City (2015-16) and West Ham (2017-18), but he’s on his way to better with five goals in 10 PL matches so far this season.

He could certainly be more productive with top service, but the Irons are growing into the sort of side which can get him further up the goal charts.

That said, they are unlikely to play in the Champions League any time soon, and Marko Arnautovic would be 31 going into the UCL campaign should they make a run up the table next season.

Men In Blazers Podcast: Taking in Chelsea-Everton; Manchester Derby, MLS

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Rog and Davo relive their English Excellent Adventure, including taking in El Blazerico live and in-person. Plus, the Manchester Derby and MLS.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

Subscribe to the podcast OR to update your iTunes subscriptions ]

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Fulham makes the difficult choice to break from Jokanovic and its past

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172 days ago. That’s how long ago Fulham was celebrating its first-ever win at Wembley, capping maybe the greatest five-month stretch in club history. The Whites were headed back to the Premier League, a feat that seemed more and more unreachable as the months in the Championship dragged on.

Slavisa Jokanovic was at the center of it all. He was hailed as a visionary. He was hailed as a calculated risk-taker. He was hailed as a manager who took an ideal and made it a reality.

172 days is the time it took for all of that to come crashing down. On Wednesday, Fulham – sitting bottom of the Premier League – unceremoniously replaced Jokanovic with another dreamer, another visionary in Claudio Ranieri, the man who did the impossible with Leicester City.

[ MORE: Rooney to captain England vs USA ]

Many fans are furious. How could they so quickly forget what Jokanovic brought this club? How could they tear down what he so tirelessly built up?

The reality of the situation, however, is clear: Fulham has not only sunk to the bottom of the Premier League table, they have been flat out terrible. Statistically, they claim ownership to the worst defense in the European top 5 leagues, but it’s about so much more than that. The squad lacks any semblance of ambition, energy, or purpose on the pitch; the players have appeared utterly devoid of life, a husk of their former selves. The same team that led the Championship in both possession and completed passes the previous two seasons was so thoroughly beaten by Huddersfield Town earlier this month, that it’s clear the past is just that – an unrecognizable memory evaporated into the annals of club history to take its place alongside Johnny Haynes, Bobby Robson, and the 2010 Europa League run.

Fulham’s Championship playoff triumph in May is fresh in the minds of fans, yet suddenly seems like a distant memory (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images).

Which is why, despite the sting of cutting ties with someone so dear to the fans and team, the club made the right decision moving on from Slavisa Jokanovic. The manager is most certainly not the only one to shoulder blame for the club’s horrendous start to its Premier League campaign, but he’s most certainly part of the crew. Jokanovic was caught between what worked last season and what he knew had to change, continually flip-flopping between loyalty to the players who brought him Wembley glory and the ones who were poised to bring the club into the new era. Jokanovic was partial to players like Kevin McDonald, Stefan Johansen, and Denis Odoi – who were critical to last season’s triumph but clearly not up to Premier League standards – with disastrous consequences.

As a result of his inability to resolve the internal struggle he faced, expensive new players like Andre Zambo Anguissa and Alfie Mawson struggled to mesh with their new teammates and it showed on the pitch. Fulham central defensive partnership was a carnival turnstile – they haven’t started the same center-backs in consecutive league matches since mid-September. The decomposition continued to manifest on the field as players became more discouraged with the results, coming to a head in the Huddersfield loss. The team that had led the Championship in every possession-based statistical category the year before was beaten in shots and attacking third passes by a team that hadn’t scored a home goal in over 650 minutes. Fulham, as they were know, had faded into nothingness.

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings for Week 12 ]

Undoubtedly, others share the blame. The players have looked disinterested and unmotivated over the past month, happy to pass the ball square around the midfield like zombies, without direction or purpose. Recruitment chair Tony Khan, who led Fulham to a massive summer spending spree of $126 million, seems to have missed on a couple of big-money buys like Anguissa and Mawson, while Jean-Michael Seri has cooled after a hot start. Khan built the Championship juggernaut with a statistical approach that led to shrewd purchases in the midfield and on the wing, but in the Premier League, his targets have struggled to make a serious impact as Jokanovic trended towards his more tenured players. In addition, the attitude on the pitch has been nothing short of pathetic, as the players have shown little fight when falling behind, and never has a collective lack of confidence been more apparent.

Still, those deficiencies fall back – at least somewhat – on the manager. Jokanovic proved unable to motivate a fractured and disjointed squad, beating the same drum week after week and throwing his players under the bus for their tainted attitude. He also showed an inability to adapt to a new situation, a naively egotistical approach in hoping to replicate last season’s possession-based tactical model against even Champions League sides at the top of the table. That not only saw his tactics beaten to a pulp week after week, but it also lent to a favoring of tenured players more suitable to his tactical approach rather than allowing the newer – and theoretically better – players a chance to break into the side. As a result, the team was shredded on a weekly basis as Tony Khan was resigned to watching his prized acquisitions rot either on the bench or in a squad with clear defects.

In the end, a change was painful yet necessary. Letting loose the triumphs of last year so fresh in the memory was a difficult one to swallow. Even owner Shad Khan said in his letter to fans, “I wasn’t anticipating having to make this announcement related to Slavisa and wish the circumstances were such that I didn’t have to.” Yet here the club is, with just one win in 12 and a mountain to climb. Jokanovic, for all his successes at Craven Cottage, was never going to provide the immediate on-field change this club needs so desperately, instead determined to plow through the oncoming wave with his feet buried in the sand. If the necessary points weren’t going to come against Cardiff City, Bournemouth, and Huddersfield, they weren’t going to appear against anyone else.

Jokanovic will always be remembered fondly by those at and around Fulham FC, but the only decision moving forward was to cut him loose. It was now or never for the Whites, as desperate as any in the Premier League in mid-November.

England v USMNT preview

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  • First time England, USA meet since 2010 World Cup
  • Rooney to wear no.10 jersey for England, captain side
  • Christian Pulisic to return for USMNT

The U.S. national team continue their gruelling set of friendly matches in 2018 by facing No.5 ranked England at Wembley on Thursday.

[ MORE: Pulisic ready to lead USMNT ]  

To thicken the plot around this game, Wayne Rooney is coming out of retirement for one final game for England as the Three Lions’ all-time record goalscorer will make his 120th and final appearance. Rooney, 33, will come on as a second half sub and wear the captains armband, his famous number 10 jersey and also receive a guard of honor.

[ MORE: USMNT’s star trio align at Wembley ]  

The USMNT”s interim head coach Dave Sarachan will likely take charge of his final two matches for the U.S. against England and then Italy next Tuesday, with Gregg Berhalter widely expected to take charge in the coming weeks. On the pitch, Christian Pulisic will play for the U.S. national team for the first time since May and just the second time in the past 13 months.


Team news

England will start with Fabian Delph, who will captain the team, while the likes of Jadon Sancho and Callum Wilson are also expected to start with the Three Lions facing a crucial UEFA Nations League clash against Croatia on Sunday.

Antonee Robinson is the latest USMNT player to miss the friendlies against England and Italy through injury. The Everton defender (on loan at Wigan) rolled his ankle in training and the English born left back will not feature in either game. Josh Sargent trained on his own on Wednesday at Wembley and was described as “day-to-day” by Sarachan.


What they’re saying

Dave Sarachan on his message for the young USMNT players: “The message will be the same: enjoy the moment, play without fear, compete. Have 90 minutes of football that is something you will remember. They are not afraid and they are excited for the same reason.”

Gareth Southgate on England’s competition for places: “I think we have put young players in whatever situation it has been. We played young players in the World Cup and in Seville last month so it doesn’t really matter what the situation is. If the players are good enough we will play them. That competition for places is really intense and we need that because the challenge since the World Cup has been embraced by the players and we have had some good results against some top teams.”


Prediction

The U.S. national team will come up against a weakened England side on Thursday and that will enhance their chances of causing a huge upset. That said, England are in the top five of the world rankings for a reason and even their so-called “B team” will be a huge test for the young USMNT. A 3-1 win to England, with Rooney wrapping up the victory with a goal off the bench, seems about right.