In what was always going to be a tight, competitive game, the battle of the two central midfields was one which was always going to be pivotal in the outcome. Milovan Rajevic lined up his Black Stars with the 4-5-1 formation that had got them to this stage. Of course, to execute a gameplan based around a lone striker, that individual has to be strong, mobile and one of the best players in the side. In Asamoah Gyan, Rajevic is fortunate to have a player who ticks all of these boxes at his disposal. In contrast, the Americans lined up with a trademark 4-4-2 system, and the key for them would be getting the ball wide and negating the presence of the extra man in the central areas. In terms of the way the game panned out, this was a battle that ebbed and flowed.
Though Clint Dempsey had the first sight of goal for the United States, the Ghanian domination for the rest of the first half was built around their superiority both with and without the ball. The 3-2 advantage in the centre was rendering Riccardo Clarke ineffective, and leaving Michael Bradley with the workload of at least two and possibly three players. As a result, the Americans seemed unsure as to whether or not to press their opponents, a side effect of which was time and space for Ghanian players to break into. Though the goal came from a mistake, it was Clarke’s lack of an option which arguably caused him to hesitate. Kevin Prince-Boateng’s finish was anything but hesitant, cashing in as Jay DeMerit pondered whether to jockey or close down, not quite doing either. Another key feature of the Black Stars’ play was their retention of shape when United States got possession. Their best spell of the half from 20 to 25 minutes saw two banks of four, with a stopper in between them, all perfectly aware of what they needed to do and leaving no obvious gaps to be exploited. At this point, the game looked dead – if Ghana wanted to hold on to 1-0 they could and would, or at least it appeared so.
Two key factors swung the pendulum in the second half. Firtsly, the partnership of Bradley and Maurice Edu worked far better than that of he and Clarke, who was substituted after only half an hour. Also, as the size of the prize drew on the final African representatives in the tournament, nervousness and errors crept into Ghanian play. Their opponents slowly turned the tide and drew a bad mistake from Ghanian defender Jonathan Mensah. As the game wore on, Ghana’s tendency to fade and United States’ knack of scoring late goals meant the Americans went into extra time as favourites. Alas, the irony of winning the midfield battle then being undone by a ball over the top will surely not be lost on Bob Bradley. Gyan was onto it in a flash, and showed why some strikers actually prefer playing alone up front. The confidence returned to Ghanian play, and the ball was stroked around patiently in an almost European fashion. We were back to the pattern of the first half, with Black Stars’ tails up, and white shirts chasing shadows. Thus, the siege to the goal of the adopted home side never really materialised. When the ball did come in, Richard Kingston looked far more assured than the four players in front of him. If the American players had been able to get the full-backs overlapping and firing the ball in from wide, the dynamics of this game may have been different. As it is, though you could say Ghana’s system worked for them, two avoidable goals have ultimately taken them through to a winnable game with Uruguay in the quarter-finals.
While much of the football world will rejoice the presence of an African side at the business end of the tournament, America and Bob Bradley in particular may feel this was their time and they threw it away. You cannot coach for individual errors or rank bad defending.