Neil W. Blackmon
Editor’s Note: This is the second of a four-part series analyzing the “State of the US Soccer Union” as the Americans prepare for two critical CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying matches later this month. Today we look at the US midfield. Garrett McInnis breaks down the US defense in Part One.
It wasn’t long ago, just under three years, to be exact, that the American midfield was an object lesson in defensive-minded football and its brutal, but often effective ability to deliver the mail, come hell or high water. The Americans under Bob Bradley played a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie brand of predictable, sterile, low-risk 4-4-2 and even as they grinded out result after result, winning both the CONCACAF Hexagon and a World Cup group doing so, the cries to open play up and take more risks and initiative rang louder and louder from the Rockies to Eastern seaboard cities and everywhere in-between with each occasional disappointment. No matter that the Americans more often than not beat who they should beat, and every so often who they shouldn’t. This was a brand of football that would not move the US as a federation or footballing nation forward, and it must be squashed out, or so the argument went.
This brand of critique was most fervent when discussing the US midfield. Two deep-lying central midfielders and wingers who took little risk would not move the US forward, the argument went. The Americans can’t refuse, again and again, to take the initiative, even against sides of comparable talent, and expect to deliver high-level international results consistently, the argument continued. A more clever brand of the critique argued the US couldn’t help its attacking players without generating more possession and creating more space throughout the field, and to do that, the midfield needed to play more advanced positions, take more risks from positions of width, and provide better link-up play to attackers all too-often left on an island.
As such, when Jurgen Klinsmann took over, the immediate assumption was that Bob Bradley’s defensive-minded, crowded central midfield would be discarded in favor of a more wide open brand of soccer. Klinsmann himself did nothing to discard this assumption, stating repeatedly in early press conferences that as a side and as a footballing culture, he wanted the US to play “proactive, attacking soccer.” This, of course, was an implicit rejection of the often passive, reactive, primarily counterattacking brand of soccer played (with good results) under Bob Bradley.
A year and half and change into the Klinsmann experiment, then, what are the results? A mixed bag. And a complicated answer.
Klinsmann has, at least most of the time, attempted to play more proactively. Gone are the days of the deep-sitting Bob Bradley “dual destroyer” central midfield, largely responsible for containing England in the 2010 World Cup but also the subject of much angst among the American fan base and media alike. In its place, Klinsmann has tended to advance his two central midfielders (when the A team, this is Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley) to more offensive positions higher on the pitch, and he has deployed what he calls a “pure, traditional # 6) behind them (traditionally Maurice Edu, Kyle Beckerman or Danny Williams). The problem with this approach, best exemplified by the Americans lack of any creative or offensive impulse in the Honduras match, is that neither Jones or Bradley are really creative, attacking-type players capable of dissecting a defense on the ball, and neither really have the pace to make dangerous runs and play quick, two-touch soccer capable of creating space and pressuring defenses into mistakes. Instead, you often see a US side that looks very static and plays the game too slowly. This, along with a lack of any genuine threat of width, creates spacing issues, crowding the center of the pitch and too often leaving the US attacking players on an island, fending for themselves, or worse, retreating too far from goal and trying to find the game for themselves (Altidore’s largest issue).
Here, however, is where things get complicated. Changing this formation and still having your best players on the pitch is an enormous challenge for Klinsmann. Michael Bradley does not play Klinsmann’s “pure, traditional # 6” because it would seem to be a waste of the Roma man’s significant distribution talents and box-to-box ability. It would also separate him from Jermaine Jones, and there is a decent argument Bradley’s pairing with Jones keeps the Schalke midfielder from taking too many risks and venturing out on his own, increasing the risks of defensive breakdowns in the center of the field. But if you don’t separate the two, you are left with two central midfielders holding a high line who aren’t really the type of players, individually or together, that can generate consistent, threatening levels of pressure. Jones could play the number 6, and we’ve advocated that here for well over a year, but Klinsmann does not seem comfortable with that proposition, repeatedly noting that he wants his six to remain deep and not be too tempted to throw himself forward at will in attack. Jones gets away with those urges most of the time at Schalke, where an experienced back four protects him and where his side tends to swallow up possession on most nights, but with the US, the risks are greater.
The reality, as Ives Galarcep wrote here, is that, and I’m quoting Ives, “the rigors of the modern game make the idea of a pure playmaker playing in front of a two deep defensive midfielder is more fantasy than reality.” It is rare, on any national side, to have one playmaker who orchestrates things centrally ahead of two-deep lying defenders, and given the talent in the US forward pool, even the presence of this type of player wouldn’t necessarily guarantee more attacking prowess. So the question, as Ives noted, is really who should be the anchor in the midfield? And this question must be answered operating under the one midfield premise Klinsmann has made perfectly clear: Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones will start when they are fit. And this question must further be answered with the understanding that while Landon Donovan is set to return to Los Angeles later this month, his return to the national team is still up in the air and up to the man in charge, meaning the US won’t necessarily get the attacker capable of breaking down a defense one on one or with his movement off the ball it so desperately needs in the midfield until we don’t know when.
It is with this question in mind that we offer a trio of solutions.
Solution 1: Michael Bradley plays the traditional 6, and is given a bit more liberty from Jurgen Klinsmann to surge forward and help the attack.
Dempsey- Jones- Kljestan
If indeed the largest concern Klinsmann has in playing Jones at the number six is that he will not maintain enough defensive responsibility, instead becoming too tempted to get forward, then Bradley certainly seems a sound response to that concern. Bradley’s ability to see the game and play intelligent soccer has always been an asset, but it is now, after his time in Italy, a strength complimented by several other effective tools. Bradley’s quick decision-making and distributions at Roma could be useful to the United States from this position, and his service is good enough to get the ball to Dempsey, who can create space in his movements off the ball and, at times, win one-on-one battles deep in the attacking third. If he does make a quick distribution, the insertion of Sacha Kljestan here could also be extremely useful. Bradley could move forward to assist Kljestan in distribution, something that given Kljestan’s two-touch skills could accelerate the US rate of play and could alleviate some of the temptation on the American forwards to retreat deep into the center of the field to get involved. Kljestan also benefits from playing at Anderlecht and facing teams that consistently require patience to break down, as most of Anderlecht’s Belgian opponents sit with nine or ten men behind the ball. Given his rapport with Bradley, having two intelligent distribution outlets, along with Jones in the center and Clint Dempsey harassing a defense wide or with diagonal central runs could make the US attack more dangerous.
That said, Bradley could also simply be too deep to make much of an impact, particularly against opponents who are playing at home and are likely to have more possession. Kljestan is also, at the international level, less effective slotted out wide than he is centrally, and removing Clint Dempsey from the forward position itself has risks, as the US would be forced to play a forward who quite frankly is not as talented at his position as Dempsey (a classic hybrid mid/forward if ever there was one) is. Graham Zusi would merit consideration in this spot as well, but his recent performances have certainly done nothing to cement his spot in the rotation, and Klinsmann seems increasingly confident in Kljestan, whose club form has been superb.
Solution 2: Jones is the traditional six, and with stern warnings to mind his defensive responsibilities, essentially plays the role he plays quite well at Schalke.
This frees up Michael Bradley to play a more advanced position, and also would allow Klinsmann to move Sacha Kljestan to the center of the field, creating a distinct possibility of two-touch, fast rate of play triangles between Bradley, Dempsey and Kljestan. This undoubtedly would increase the US’ ability to pressure defenses, and we think it would alleviate pressure on the US forwards to find the game on their own. It is worth repeating that Kljestan is better centrally as well, and given his long playing career with Michael Bradley at the international level, the US would almost certainly play faster (we saw some of this in the Honduras match, even though Kljestan was slotted wide) and generate more space from better ball movement.
The disadvantage here is that the US risk losing some of their defensive resolve in the center, and there is immense responsibility, as Klinsmann has pointed out, on Jermaine Jones to play conservatively and not become too involved moving forward. Sacha Kljestan’s defense has improved markedly in Anderlecht, and you aren’t among the league leaders in minutes played as he is if you are a defensive sieve, but on this US roster, he is not among the best defenders the midfield has to offer. Sure, Klinsmann could substitute if this midfield helps the US get ahead, but it is a risk worth noting.
Solution 3: Revert!! Play dual-destroyers behind Clint Dempsey and Graham Zusi. Use Sacha Kljestan as a substitute and advance the midfield pairing of Bradley and Jones if you get behind.
This solution places a great deal of pressure on Graham Zusi to play well, move off the ball, resist the urge to drift centrally early and often (Clint Dempsey will do this anyway) and eliminate any US width save what the fullbacks offer. Midfield crowding will result if Zusi fails, and if Bradley and Jones play too deep, Clint Dempsey is likely to disappear. If Zusi does play well, the US should have effective width on at least one side of the pitch, a midfielder moving well off the ball and creating space on the other, and should be dangerous on the overlap from the fullbacks as well. Bradley and Jones make you more comfortable about your defensive shape, but don’t force you to play Danny Williams (whose club form is miserable and who seems overmatched at this point in his international career) or Maurice Edu, who seems like a “you have the lead” stopper more than a starter, especially when you factor in he adds next to nothing to the attack.
There is good balance in this proposal, and it is certainly better than the 4-2-3-1 option, where Dempsey plays behind a lone forward. In that scenario, Dempsey likely effectively becomes a forward anyway, and the US is left again with its finest field player on an island next to Jozy Altidore, hoping against hope that Bradley and Jones can generate enough link-up play in attack, all the while controlling the game defensively.
Back to the Future Solutions: Landon Donovan? Stu Holden? 1.21 Gigawatts!!
More proposed solutions would be available if a few things occur. First, Benny Feilhaber performed well in his return to the USMNT against Canada in January, and if his career does enjoy a renaissance in Kansas City, he’ll merit possible inclusion, at least as a change-of-pace substitute in qualifying. Brek Shea has electrifying offensive skill, and the early returns at Stoke City are promising, but he’s still a head-down play fast for the sake of playing fast attacker at the international level and a turnstile defensively. One problem with having warts defensively and warts in terms of generating consistent offense from your midfield is you are going to expose your warts regardless of what you focus on covering up. The thought here, for the time being, is Shea exposes the defensive warts, and those are the ones Klinsmann should be most concerned with at this point in qualifying. Stu Holden might offer the 1.21 gigawatts the US need to become prolific in attack, but we’ve been down that Boulevard of Broken Dreams before and while a Gold Cup cameo isn’t out of the question, he is much more likely to sit out the summer and only be available at the tail end of qualifying, this September or October.
If and when Landon Donovan returns to the fold, the options will change, and the US will almost certainly be better off. Donovan generates space with his movements off the ball, adds width if tasked to do so, and speeds up the rate of play, particulary when the US counterattack. His presence would also allow Clint Dempsey to have a bit more “fixed” a role, which, prior to his recent injury, has been a positive for him in the past few months at Tottenham. Donovan also makes the US bench more dangerous because Klinsmann has genuinely different options in who to play off the bench in Kljestan, Edu, Williams and Graham Zusi or even Brek Shea. That said, the US right now are 9 days away from World Cup qualifier two, and Landon is having his Ricky Williams moment with Tibetan monks in Cambodia. The “what Donovan offers” discussion, as such, can wait for another day. What the US will need in 9 days, well– that’s a complicated question but one that oddly also has a four word answer: more from the midfield.