Four years ago in Beijing, a young midfielder with a contentious last name very nearly led an Olympic team to medal heights, only to have those dreams dashed by a bad piece of goalkeeping on a Holland set piece and the definition of an ill-timed red card by one Michael Orozco a game later. So, when we really look back, began the journey of perhaps the brightest young player the USMNT has offered in a decade– Michael Bradley, or MB 90 as we’ve called him around here since he flattened El Tri in Columbus in 2009.
The journey hasn’t always been smooth sailing– but then again, what US player can say there’s has been? Bradley has turned in high-volume goal years in score-happy Holland, had the unenviable task of being a midfield engine for a (then) middling Bundesliga side, seen failure in England on a mediocre team with an odd midfield depth chart, and then (finally) heeded the calls by analysts stateside to take his talents to Italy, where he was perhaps one of the finest midfielders in Serie A in his first year in the league. His year in the sun at Chievo was sandwiched between international duties that a) earned him his nickname; b) saw the US lose an international final where he was (in very costly fashion) forced to sit out due to a red card; c) a brilliant World Cup and d) the firing of his father and a six-month or so long quest to earn the new manager’s trust. Heady stuff for a kid just shy of 25. And while we’re at– Happy Birthday to MB 90, a day early.
Fortunately, Bradley has bounced back from every storm on his horizon– and now finds himself the first American field player with an actual chance to impact the fortunes of an Italian giant. A few weeks ago, MB90 completed his seemingly long awaited move to AS Roma. You know the rest: he immediately starts in a couple matches, scores on a brilliant strike at Fenway Park in the bigger of the two, and all is right in the world.
But let’s temper expectations with a little bit of reality. What did we actually see on the pitch for Roma? And remember your American phenom history, please!! Just when the seas seem to calm, big storms seem to appear. What obstacles are lurking for the young field general in Rome?
Formation: The Zeman 4-3-3 that we’ve seen thus far isn’t too drastically different than what’s been described by a couple great bloggers and reporters ahead of Bradley’s transfer. You’ve got one central defensive midfielder, and two more attacking mids in front of him. This is no Manchester City three-man midfield, where the likes of Yaya Toure, Gareth Barry, and Nigel De Jong all operate centrally, switching spots with each other situationally, and relying on the full backs to help provide width in attack and make overlapping runs with the wing forwards.
Instead, within the Zdenek Zeman AS Roma model, it’s looking like the two more advanced midfielders are often tasked with getting out wide and running at defenders along the sidelines. They’ll overlap the wide attackers, or more likely push them into the box so Osvaldo doesn’t have to fight four defenders when service comes his way. What’s this mean for Michael Bradley? It means he may only be suited to one position within Zeman’s 4-3-3, the one we’ve seen him playing. And he’s been playing it relatively well thus far, even if it’s evident that he’s rightly still in the feeling out process.
This leads us to the operational problem: “Capitan Futuro” Daniele De Rossi will claim the lone defensive midfielder position. And he should. Not only is De Rossi Roma through and through, but he represents the top end of Michael Bradley’s potential. Anyone who follows our Twitter feed has seen our pronouncements that MB 90 is an American De Rossi (though perhaps a bit less ferocious defensively). It’s okay to admit that he’s better, even if he did make American hero Brian McBride bleed.
De Rossi and Bradley have so many of the same qualities, which is partly why Bradley was brought to the Stadio Olimpico. Passion, toughness, defensive responsibility, tough tackling, distribution (the area of MB 90’s game initially over-valued by American analysts and now, after one year in Italy– undervalued!!), long shots, late runs into the box, opportunism on set pieces (both from over the ball and in the box). Sadly, it looks like Zeman is looking for more slick than grit in his other two midfielders.
No worries. This is still a better situation than Bradley ran into at Aston Villa. Roma has two guys for one spot, and Bradley seems to actually be one of those guys. There were two spots suited to Michael at Villa, and everyone from Fabian Delph to Robert Pirés was considered ahead of him. That negative Birmingham experience made Bradley stronger, and we saw it in how quickly he worked his way into a full time starter’s role at Chievo Verona. I expect him to work hard enough in training that it makes it hard for Zeman not to have Michael on the field. So barring spot starts or a strong serving of Italian Cup matches for the future captain, what will a De Rossi/Bradley midfield look like?
This is the most likely solution. Zeman changes his system just slightly to allow Bradley into one of the more advanced midfield roles. The full back on that side of the field is tasked with getting forward more often, knowing that Bradley will slide out and back to cover for him even if the wide forward isn’t trusted to do so. This allows MB90 to play within his game (not attempting stepovers along the sideline like the current attacking midfielders), and minimizes the loss in attacking width. Given MB90’s role with Klinsmann’s Yanks, I think Jurgen would love to see his best true midfielder in this spot at Roma.
The Totti Plan:
This one’s a bit more far-fetched, but there’s at least a little logic behind it. Zeman is asking Francesco Totti to play one of the wing forward roles in his 4-3-3. This role generally requires a good bit more running than you’d like an injury-prone 35 year old to be tasked with, and Totti turns 36 early in the season on my Dad’s birthday, September 27th. I’m not asking Walter to run the flank all day either. It’s easy to see Zeman’s reasoning though. He wants to play a true center forward up top in Osvaldo, and needing skilled players at the wing positions, it’s a way to get his most skilled player on the field. But Totti doesn’t look comfortable out wide, and you wouldn’t want to put a restrictor plate on a legend in his final years (my first and last NASCAR reference; I feel shame). Suppose Zeman wants to get the best out of Totti. Might he move one of his young slicksters out to wing forward, and replace his two advanced midfielders with the trequartista of all trequartistas, sitting behind Osvaldo right where he belongs? Within this Totti-centric formation, you bring Michael Bradley on to play alongside Daniele De Rossi; two true center midfielders exchanging defensive responsibilities and offensive runs as the situation dictates. Just like Bob Bradley used to envision Michael and Ricardo Clark doing– except in a world where Michael had a few more years of pedigree, and Ricardo was, like Wolverine, the best in the world at what he does. To be clear, Wolverine slices people up with adamantium claws and De Rossi plays central midfield.
Obviously the beauty of the game lies in there being so many more than just two formational possibilities for any one player or team, but these options would definitely allow MB90 to get on the field and be at his best while playing alongside legends for one of the best teams in Italy. The bottom line? Expect some growing pains. Expect Zeman to experiment, and sometimes his professor-like thought process and choices will benefit Michael, and other times they will not. And best of all? Expect Michael to demonstrate maturity and understanding through this process– which certainly isn’t something we would have written about him even two years ago. And expect that patience to eventually pay off.