By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 6, 2018) US Soccer Players - It can take days, even weeks, for the most educated observer to thoroughly sift through the lessons of 90 minutes of high-level soccer, much less the entirety of a World Cup. Watching the growing ranks of teams eliminated from Russia 2018, it's tempting to try to make sense of their experience. What's there to learn for the USMNT, a program in transition?
Looking back at past World Cups by the light of the current one can be tricky. There are just so many variables. Was a given outing better than we thought it was at the time? Did scoreboard results deceive attempts to evaluate overall performances? How do one team’s experiences fit into the larger puzzle of the entire tournament? Hindsight can amplify certain achievements and problems while cheapening others.
There’s no shortage of data from this one for the USMNT’s future head coach to crunch, whether or not the federation’s eventual choice comes from the ranks of 2018 World Cup participants. The tactical lessons of this summer are still up in the air, though some patterns seem to be emerging.
“Spain and Germany went out of the World Cup after anemic performances in which they seemed to fetishize possession rather than it being a means to an end,” wrote tactics guru Jonathan Wilson for the Guardian in a fascinating piece titled Possession lost on the World Cup stage as defenses learn to adapt filed from Samara on Wednesday. “It’s natural, of course, that the longer a mode of play exists, the more strategies spring up to counter it.”
Those two countries, the most recent world champions, also stick out because their philosophies have heavily influenced US Soccer’s efforts to turbocharge player development. In the early years of the federation-run Development Academy, the nation’s nominally top youth teams got a specific technical curriculum to follow, arraying their teams in a Spanish-style 4-3-3 formation as a default.
At the time, La Furia Roja and FC Barcelona were growing into twin tiki-taka titans laying waste to all comers in the world’s biggest competitions with rhythmic, possession-centric soccer. The US appeared to have hit the limits of the hard-working, defend-and-counter approach that marked much of Bob Bradley’s tenure and long stretches of Bruce Arena’s eight years in charge. Developing a pass-and-move ethos seemed like an obvious next step, to work towards becoming “protagonists,” to use the term that Sports Illustrated’s Brian Straus alluded to recently. If “protagonists” was uncommon to American ears, “control” was a more familiar watchword.
Proactive possession play, usually in concert with aggressive pressing on the other side of the ball, surely offered the clearest path from CONCACAF heavyweights to members of the global game’s elite. It could only help with the Fed’s other big-picture goal, the oft-repeated desire to tap into the Latino and immigrant talent pools more effectively. It just so happened that the California-based German World Cup winner who USSF had nearly hired several years before was dropping some incisive analysis on this and other American soccer topics on ESPN’s broadcasts from South Africa.
In some ways, the organizational thought process that culminated in Jurgen Klinsmann’s hiring traces more directly to Madrid and Barcelona than Munich or Berlin.
“I think America always likes to decide on its own what is next,” he at his introductory press conference back in 2011. “This guides maybe towards a more proactive style of play where you would like to impose a little bit the game on your opponent instead of sitting back and waiting for what your opponent is doing and react to it. It always depends, also, on your opponent… but it is a starting point if you say we want to start to keep possession, we want to start to dictate the pace of the game, we want to challenge our players to improve technically in order to keep the ball.”
Klinsmann would make some headway in this regard, if only in fleeting stretches and rarely over more than one match. The flowing team goal scored in a 2014 pre-World Cup friendly vs. Nigeria comes to mind, one of the most pleasing the USMNT have scored in modern history. But he tended to revert to reactivity when the stakes were highest, whether out of pragmatism or an incomplete plan.
Over extended periods it’s quite difficult to do what Spain does. It even took the Spaniards themselves decades to unlock the full potential of their strengths. Their failings in Russia underlined the double-edged sword they must balance each and every game, Madrid-based writer Sid Lowe calling this side that had once dominated the planet a “sluggish team of sterile possession and defensive vulnerability.”
When Germany took Spain’s ideas to a more muscular, industrial new level and swept aside all before them in Brazil – including the USMNT – it became an even more seductive role model. Such inspiration was no great surprise, given both Klinsmann’s power and stature, the long-running interwoven history of the “Germericans” phenomenon and the (arguably) greater similarities of mindset between the US and Germany. Emissaries of gegenpressing like Jurgen Klopp and the Red Bull global network of clubs helped spread this gospel.
It was a shift nonetheless. In retrospect, the idea that possession play could be bolstered, or neutralized from a defensive standpoint, by high-energy hounding and space-age fitness techniques perhaps played into old American fixations on size, strength, and speed.
Despite strong infrastructure, careful planning, and a deep talent pool, the defending champs were undone by the small things this summer, and lacking the same hunger as before their trophy capture. ESPN’s Rafa Honigstein noted, “the lack of tempo in the final third, the huge gaps in midfield,” and “the general lack of cohesion and energy” as Die Mannschaft crashed out in the group stage for the first time since 1938.
It’s noteworthy that the USA’s southern neighbors were the ones to set Germany’s disaster in motion. USMNT fans should try to set aside whatever consternation or kinship they may have with Mexico and analyze El Tri’s World Cup experiences evenhandedly. I saw similarities between Juan Carlos Osorio’s team and the US four years ago, from the charismatic, highly-scrutinized coaches in charge to the squads balancing age and experience and the roller-coaster rides of the games themselves.
Mexico conceded the majority of possession in their World Cup opener vs Germany, though looked to have just as much control over the match’s rhythm as the favorites did. Their quick, sharp transitions and fluid combinations tore the normally-organized Germans apart repeatedly. A well-crafted and well-honed plan was in place. El Tri's win over Korea showed confidence. That led to the costly loss to Sweden. The tables turned as greater ball possession could do little to protect El Tri against the Scandinavians’ organization, directness, and physicality. “My sin was to be a purist, to think we can compete and beat a team who play the same type of football every weekend,” Osorio said. “Hopefully one day I will get it right, that we play good football and can beat teams who play that way. This match has taught me a lot.”
Might these sturdy Swedes be comparable to the USMNT teams that made Mexico so miserable in the late 1990s and early 2000s? El Tri is capable of going toe to toe with almost anyone in terms of verve, technique, and combination play. It wasn’t enough on this occasion, which doomed them to a Round-of-16 showdown with Brazil that unfolded according to type.
Sweden, on the other hand, is well-crafted for this tournament. Moving on from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, they’ve been cohesive, cunning, and above all, comfortable in defense. Showing little desire to attempt anything like tiki-taka, they’ve posted clean sheets in three of four games in Russia. They’ve massed their ranks in two banks of four, rarely looking troubled even when sitting deep. They also haven’t been above simulation, mind games and time-wasting when it suits their purposes. It’s taken them to the quarterfinals, perhaps beyond, and that’s laudable regardless of its perceived reactiveness.
Would a Swedish-style approach fly with this country’s national team? Would we perceive that to be an insufficiently assertive tactical posture, or would it clash with our self-perceived identity? Or perhaps it could be just another club in the bag, a tool for a US program that must learn how to punch up against elite sides without forgetting how to punch down in Concacaf? Should we try (again) to be more like Mexico? Or do we even have to make a binary choice between such options? Can we equip our rising young talent with a fuller skillset than their predecessors?
The 2018 World Cup should finally drive home the lesson that there are different types of protagonists, and varying ways to impose oneself on an adversary. The best teams in the world have multiple ways to win, and more than one level of control. Those who set the long-range course for the USMNT can choose from myriad potential routes towards that goal. It's the fidelity, accuracy, and persistence of their navigation is most important in the end.
More from Charles Boehm:
- As modern goalkeeping evolves, is the US keeping pace?
- US television coverage of World Cup raises old quandaries
- Victory for the United 2026 bid, but a new game awaits
- France friendly a reminder of what’s possible, and what’s failed, for US Soccer
Photo by John Dorton - ISIPhotos.com