August 2013, Featured

Streaking Into Sarajevo: TYAC US-Bosnia and Herzegovina Preview

The US take their winning streak to Sarajevo tomorrow, where a strong Bosnia team led by Edin Dzeko await.

The US take their winning streak to Sarajevo tomorrow, where a strong Bosnia team led by Edin Dzeko await.

Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon

It’s upon us again, the worst international date on the FIFA calendar. Does anyone understand why Sepp Blatter and his boys keep scheduling an international friendly window three days before the world’s most popular soccer league kicks off its season? I’m pretty sure there’s no oil money vested in the continued existence of the mid-August friendly date.

That said, there’s a great argument to be made that the US and Bosnia are the two hottest national teams in the world right now. I know the Brazilians might have something to say about that, but their match with Switzerland can’t hold a candle to the USA/Bosnia matchup. Who would have thought that the match in Sarajevo would ever be the pick of the international calendar, even on the worst FIFA date of the year?

But that’s enough basking in it for one post, time to break it down.

We’ll offer the usuals before we delve into the particulars.

The Series: First Meeting. This does not include potential matches with Yugoslavia, who the United States played in the 1998 World Cup.

Weather: Upper 70’s with rain in the forecast and muggy. About a 6.5 on the Fabian Johnson Misery Index. (You’ll recall that being a nod to the fact that Johnson admittedly hates hot weather).

Aron Johansson makes his one-time switch to the United States tomorrow, among other things...

Aron Johansson makes his one-time switch to the United States tomorrow, among other things…

Jon Levy on What to watch for from the Yanks:

As you probably already know, the Yanks are riding the longest winning streak in national team history. They’ve won eleven in a row, and that remarkable streak spans both a crucial run in World Cup Qualifying and a dominant Gold Cup in which a largely different group of players brought home the CONCACAF championship in style. Now the US brings a different group of players to Sarajevo too, one heavily based in Europe, but what’s manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s goal in this match?

Klinsmann’s named a squad with a mix of players from both of the World Cup Qualifying and Gold Cup teams; oh, and he’s thrown in newcomers Aron Jóhannson, John Anthony Brooks, and Bobby Wood. Normally in a match like this, we’d write about how all the American manager should be concerned with is evaluating players and seeing who fits where in his system. But now the US is riding a winning streak of historic significance, so does Klinsmann prioritize getting the win, or answering important questions about some of his players? It’s a good question, and it’s the type of problem that top level national teams don’t blink at. What would Italy or France do? They’d be confident they could win on both fronts, and usually they’d be right. I’m not saying the US is there yet, but finding a way to win even while building chemistry with new players is a rung on the ladder the USMNT is trying to climb.

Michael Bradley will have his hands full tomorrow night.

Michael Bradley will have his hands full tomorrow night.

Expect the US to try and establish the same style that’s been key to the winning streak. Quick ball movement to keep possession and get the ball up-field, a high line when possible, and searching balls in the final third rather than trying to setup the perfect chance. I just hope we get to see Aron Jóhannson in front of goal, but instead we’ll probably get 90 minutes of Danny Williams at multiple positions. (That was a joke. Sort of.)

Tactically, we’ll start in the middle because that’s where this match will start and end for the United States.  Zvjezdan Misimović  mans the center and has the most caps, but Michael Bradley’s teammate Miralem Pjanić pulls the strings in the midfield for the Golden Lilies (yes, the Golden Lilies) 4-2-3-1 and he’s adept at finding space and forcing the issue in the midfield zone, releasing quickly to left-side runner Senad Lulić and the constantly moving back shoulder right side forward Vedad Ibišević of Stuttgart. Stuttgart is a thinking-man’s Rodolfo Zelaya, who troubled the US with his deep-lying, find pockets of space at the edge of the final third movements in the Gold Cup quarterfinals, and he’s probably Pjanić’s favorite target on the break. The key for the Americans will be Bradley tracking Pjanić’s breaks, especially when Bosnia and Herzegovina break up American forays forward and quickly cycle the ball through “6” Elvir Rahimic. Rahimic won’t score goals, but he’s the teeth and the primary shield for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s backline (more on that in a moment.) Jermaine Jones’ primary responsibility will be to  make life difficult on Zvjezdan Misimović  when the Golden Lilies are in the early stages of build-ups: you know that Pjanić is going to be moving and finding space– you want to make it hard for him to receive the ball by pushing the line of confrontation forward. Greece was able to do this on their home soil with very good success, utilizing Vassilis Torossidis to push Bosnia and Herzegovina further back in the midfield zone before they could distribute forward. Torossidis, it should be noted, also plays with Pjanić at Roma and like Michael Bradley, he understood the importance of executing this task in World Cup qualifying. Bosnia and Herzegovina did win the rematch 3-1 in Sarajevo– but that match was the only fixture where the Golden Lilies did not get all three points.

So you want a raise because your buddy is getting paid, do you? Tomorrow's a good showing ground.

So you want a raise because your buddy is getting paid, do you? Tomorrow’s a good showing ground.

When the US possess the ball, they need to do what Greece did- which is attack the Bosnian right flank (American left) relentlessly. Helping matters, it would appear that Ermin Bičakčić, who like John Anthony Brooks is a dual German national, will be making his debut tomorrow evening. Bičakčić is a huge downgrade from Mensur Mujdža, the technically gifted right back Bosnia and Herzegovina field and the US should look to exploit his nervousness and caution early and often. Fab and Eddie Johnson have shown an effective overlap and partnership in the past and the US would do well to distribute quickly to that side of the field when it gains possession, especially when Pjanić has drifted deep into the attacking zone.

The right side should be some combination of Ale Bedoya, Joe Corona and Mix Diskerud– and here there is more good news- Sejad Selijovic, a Hoffenheim midfielder, has manned this spot for Sefat Sušić of late and he’s more attacker than defender– think a less well-seasoned DaMarcus Beasley. This is a big opportunity for one of these three Gold Cup heroes to make a huge impression on Jurgen Klinsmann by catching the Hoffenheim man out on the break. Jermaine Jones would do well to look for this sort of opportunity early in the match– this could keep the American plan– we’ll call it “Greek replication”– less predictable. It should be noted that Greece attacked Mensur Mujdža with abandon in both fixtures, but the Americans have the ability, and the pace, to challenge both flanks Wednesday evening.

Up top, Jozy Altidore and newcomer Aron Jóhannson should both see some duty, but this might be a fine match to try two forwards and give Terrence Boyd a run-out. Joe Corona seems ill-suited to bang against captain Emir Spahić with Gent’s Ervin Zukanović, two almost Hobbesian (nasty, brutish, well…not short) defenders who man the middle. Diskerud could play in the slot as well– but what seems more likely with Diskerud is a second half substitution for Jones and a run-out next to Bradley or Kljestan. Corona is a playmaker and could test a technically sound but not overly athletic backline– but that’s a recipe for frustration that perhaps a two-forward pairing of Boyd and Altidore would have the most success with.

Tim Howard will be busy. Maybe they can dress the Golden Lilies in Man City kits?

Tim Howard will be busy. Maybe they can dress the Golden Lilies in Man City or Arsenal kits?

In defense, Tim Howard should be shielded by center halves John Anthony Brooks on the left (you don’t call the kid in to have him wear a shirt and sit on the bench) and Geoff Cameron, whose right central back spot is really out of necessity for Klinsmann, not preference, after Michael Orozco-Fiscal’s injury exit from camp. Brooks is absolutely competing to get in the mix for Brazil 2014- and it should shock no one if he earns a quick cap-tie next month despite his international inexperience. He’s raw– but the measurable as our friend Mel Kiper would say are just plain better than everyone in the CB pool, including Matt Besler, who is far and away the best American center half at the current juncture. It is a big run out for Cameron too– if Klinsmann feels comfortable with his performance he might be able to sneak an extra midfielder onto the roster, leaving a less-skilled CB depth choice at home. The right flank ought to be a run out for Michael Parkhurst, whose Gold Cup wasn’t awe-inspiring but who at least has played the position long enough to warrant a look against a top-level, World Cup group type side. Brad Evans is a capable deputy and should play in the second half. As mentioned before, Fab Johnson should, despite the humidity, toil on the left flank.

And Neil W. Blackmon on what will we see out of Bosnia-Herzegovina?

So much for lowly war-torn Bosnia. The Soccernomics post-dictator rule is in full effect with this team, and that means they’re a damn jackhammer. Seriously, read Soccernomics.

Bosnia is at the top of their UEFA World Cup Qualifying group, in which they’ve posted a record of five wins and one draw, and they’ve got a goal differential of twenty. Twenty! That’s a big number, even if the stiffest competition in their qualifying group is Greece and Slovakia. Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko knocks in the goals for B & H, and he seems to have a lot more fun doing it than he has recently with City. But Dzeko’s not a one man team; the Bosnian’s are bought in, they play for each other, and they attack relentlessly when they find a weakness.

Misimovic is the "glue guy", and Jermaine Jones's responsibility.

Misimovic is the “glue guy” in front of Rahimic, and Jermaine Jones’s responsibility.

As noted in Jon’s section on the United States, Bosnia and Herzegovina like to play a 4-2-3-1, but will revert to a 4-4-2 if things get lethargic. Miralem Pjanić is the headline grabber, the playmaker in the middle of that group whose movements and ability to find space makes everyone around him better. But the roles of two his midfield compliments shouldn’t be undervalued– Elvir Rahimic is a ball-winning, tough-nosed defensive midfielder who is part of this team’s heartbeat and identity and has been for a long while. He protects a back four that while strong and physical, won’t overwhelm you with technical awe. That’s not to say they aren’t well-positioned- it is to say that they aren’t invincible.  Rahimic protects them and supplies capable short distributions to Pjanić  that trigger the Golden Lily attack.

It is, as noted in the introduction, an attack that is averaging four goals a match in qualifying and has vaulted Bosnia and Herzegovina to the top of a World Cup qualifying group and their highest FIFA ranking ever- # 13. In many ways, that’s a testament to the federation’s patience with longtime manager Safet Susic- he’s been in charge since 2009 and has fallen short in playoffs to reach both the World Cup in 2010 and the EURO in 2012. Despite losses to Portugal in both of those playoffs- the federation kept Susic in charge and he has rewarded them by putting together a cohesive, harmonious group that enjoy playing with each other and check their egos at the door when they arrive home for national team matches. That’s no small challenge when you have as many recognizable names as Bosnia and Herzegovina have.

Vedad Ibišević is a Rodolfo Zelaya on steroids, and one of Pjanić's favorite targets on the break.

Vedad Ibišević is a Rodolfo Zelaya on steroids, and one of Pjanić’s favorite targets on the break.

Among the big names are the forwards Edin Džeko of Manchester City and Stuttgart’s Vedad Ibišević, who, as Jon noted, is a Rodolfo Zelaya on steroids shoulder crawler who is devastating in conjunction with Pjanić because of his ability to find pockets of space in the final third and constantly move. Lazio’s Senad Lulić is another guy who thrives in space– he absolutely torched Greece’s defense in the rematch qualifier that the Golden Lilies won 3-1 and is more than capable of of dominating a flank on the one hand or incutting and blistering you with off-ball pace on the other hand. There’s a bit of Leighton Baines in the guy- pace, service, good positional sense, an attacking player who can defend when it’s time to-and that’s high praise from this author. 

Džeko leads the World Cup qualifying group in goals with eight and scored twice on set pieces against Greece- no small feat. The US will likely make a meal of marking him on at least one set piece– the States aren’t a good set piece team and surely Bosnia and Herzegovina know this– they’re won’t be short corners and should not be shot set pieces in this match unless the angles on the latter are perfect. There’s a bit of a “men against boys” element to the notion that Tim Ream can mark Džeko on a set piece– John Anthony Brooks has the physique to but certainly that’s a harsh baptism by fire. The good news? Džeko, like most Manchester City players, wears Tim Howard pajamas so the sight of the American goalkeeper may give him the heebie jeebies. Who knows? But expect a goal like one of the two against Greece from Džeko tomorrow.

None of this is to say that this team is invincible. As noted, the backline isn’t technically overwhelming and is weaker tomorrow breaking in a new right back. As good as the midfield is, it isn’t going to be anything that frightens players the caliber of Jones and Bradley. And maybe most important is the following- mentioned at some length here because it has been glaringly absent from other previews making Bosnia and Herzegovina out to be the second coming of Brazil 1970.

Bosnia and Herzegovina are good. But don't get carried away. They aren't Brazil 1970.

Bosnia and Herzegovina are good. But don’t get carried away. They aren’t Brazil 1970.

From a FIFA ranking perspective, Bosnia and Herzegovina play in one of the simplest qualifying groups in the world, let alone in Europe. Slovakia is ranked 62nd and a far cry from the team they fielded that defeated World Cup holders Italy in South Africa three years ago. Greece are enjoying a renaissance of sorts after a solid EURO 2012, and are ranked 11th in the world, but that’s the only team to earn a point off Bosnia and Herzegovina in the qualifying tournament, and video evidence indicates that Stoke City goalkeeper Asmir Begović is the only reason Greece didn’t capture full spoils in the match in Greece. The other group members, with CONCACAF perspective, are Liechtenstein, who at # 148 in the FIFA rankings are below Belize, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Guatemala, Antigua and Barbuda, Puerto Rico and Cuba among others; Latvia, who at # 119 are ranked below Suriname and the Dominican Republic, among others; and Lithuania, who at # 106 are ranked well-below El Salvador, Trinidad and Tobago, Guatemala and Canada. So there’s a bit of “Hey, look at who they’ve played” to factor into the results they’ve been showing.

But bottom line? It’s a great test for the Americans on the road against the type of side they very well could find in their World Cup group come this December.

Bosnian Player to Watch: Miralem Pjanić

You probably already know about the aforementioned Edin Dzeko and his considerable goal-scoring prowess, and whether you know it or not, you’ve probably seen young Miralem Pjanić take over a game or two as well. The 23 year old attacking midfielder has been a starter at top level European clubs since he was seventeen, moving from Metz to Lyon and on to Roma. Together with Totti and our very own MB90 Pjanić helped take over this year’s MLS All Star game and get the win for AS Roma. And if you’ve watched Roma play over the course of the past season or two you know that Miralem can be as physical as he is skilled. He’s kind of like Clint Dempsey or Canadian Will Johnson in that physcality respect, and that should be enough to get Jurgen’s attention.

Two midfielders, Jones, and Roma's Pjanić, are our players to watch.

Two midfielders, Jones, and Roma’s Pjanić, are our players to watch.

US Player to Watch: Jermaine Jones

Come on, man!! Jones!! Yes, Jones. You’ve seen a bit of the Schalke swashbuckler with MB 90 playing the responsible, more withdrawn role of late for the national team, giving Jones the free rein to push the line of confrontation further forward and to make marauding, “isn’t that irresponsible, sorta?” runs that you’ve been waiting for since he signed up to play for the Americans three years ago. Did consistency come a bit later than most US fans hoped for? Certainly. And here’s the other rub- because we don’t get to make too much fun of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s qualifying path without the following caveat: Jones best US performances have still all come against CONCACAF opponents. Tomorrow he’ll be needed to buckle down on Zvjezdan Misimović before he can release to Pjanić  or Lulić , and to help MB 90 direct traffic when those distributions do occur. That’s a great deal of responsibility by itself– but Jones’ passing– and yes, that divine ability to make passes in traffic with midfielders or fullbacks on his shoulder– those could be the key to whether the US can find the space and the runner to break down a Bosnia and Herzegovina defense that isn’t technically awe-inspiring.

Prediction: Bosnia 2 – 2 USA

The American winning streak comes to an end far from home, but the Yanks do go a twelfth match unbeaten. I expect a tooth-and-nail match that’s easy on the eye, and I think Jozy Altidore finds the net yet again.

Enjoy the match(es), and Go USA!

Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon co-founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow us on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt and @TYAC_Jon

Jon Levy