Klinsmann Creates a Tactical Issue

US National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann during the Jan 29, 2013 friendly with Canada.  Credit: Thomas B. Shea - ISIPhotos.com

By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 31, 2013) US Soccer Players - After a tough to watch friendly between the United States and Canada on Tuesday night in Houston, the quick takeaway after an arduous 90 minutes was that maybe the United States and Canada shouldn’t play each other anymore. They should certainly take a break, at least. Nothing good happens when the two get together, and by nothing good, I of course mean goals.

It went further than that though. Perhaps because of National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s strange compulsion to start players out of position or because Canada entered a meaningless friendly with a young team bent on constricting the space in midfield and smothering the American attack, nothing seriously approaching a goal happened. The Canadians threatened a time or two through DC United star Dwayne DeRosario, and the American offense picked up a bit of life when Benny Feilhaber entered the game. Still, for the most part, the two sides merely knocked the ball around without giving any indication that they meant to use it for its intended purpose.

Klinsmann said afterwards that he was pleased with the progress made by his team over the last three weeks. There was no evidence of that progress in the finished product on Tuesday night, though a handful of players managed to give something of a noteworthy performance. Josh Gatt in particular entered in the second half and provided an immediate spark, if only because he appeared to be the only player on the field willing to take a risk.

The whole episode was an exercise in conservatism, from the lineup Klinsmann put out to start to the way those players went about their task. The only thing more conservative than the US approach and play on Tuesday night was Canada’s plan to sit behind the ball, close down potential passing lanes in midfield with extra bodies, and hope to find their way into the American net via a counterattack or set piece.

The game was a classic example of the limbo in which the United States remains mired when it comes to dictating a game. Good enough that the lesser lights of CONCACAF (like Canada) will bunker and attempt to frustrate a more talented American team, but not yet adept enough at breaking down a crowded defense to make the opponent pay for the tactic.

Granted, a January friendly featuring second and third-choice players isn’t the best example, but we’ve seen this kind of thing before. Against a committed defense, there’s an inability to work in concert to open up space when the opponent’s sole good is to limit it. That looms large with the Hexagonal round of World Cup Qualifying starting next week.

So far, Klinsmann has yet to prove that he can get his team to play effectively when faced with an ultra-defensive opponent. Nor has he shown a desire to start players who might be suited to the task, which is difficult to understand. The latter is more worrisome, because the issue transcends individual player selection. No matter the makeup of his roster (A, B, other), Klinsmann has the potential to set out a team with one or more players occupying strange new sections of the field.

Tuesday’s game in Houston had an eerie similarity to the last time the two nations played, a dreary scoreless draw in Toronto in June of 2012. Two games make a pattern, and the pattern is not appealing. We’ll set aside not scheduling Canada anytime soon. Klinsmann’s apparent lack of tactical flexibility (or unwillingness to exercise any) doesn’t breed confidence ahead of a trip to San Pedro Sula, no matter the ability to call up his best and brightest from Europe.

It would be easy to conclude from Tuesday’s stalemate in Houston that the United States lacks depth in its talent pool. It would be easy to wonder if Klinsmann was being honest in his assessment of the MLS batch of players when he called it “deeper” than he expected. It would be natural to consider why it took more than a year and a half for Klinsmann to form that assessment, or if he spent too much time indoctrinating this particular group of players into his system of fitness first. The performance of the team he selected from that “surprisingly deep” MLS talent pool and then worked with for three weeks leading up to a meaningful friendly shouldn’t mean much, and yet it’s hard to put out of mind completely.

Luckily for Klinsmann, he’s unlikely to need too many of the players who couldn’t unlock Canada’s defense on Tuesday. Even if he did, the different makeup of the rest of the squad makes it difficult to know how they’d perform. The problem might not be certain individuals (the aforementioned depth), but the way that particular team worked, or didn’t work, together.

Never mind that they had three weeks of training under Jurgen Klinsmann’s direction. In Honduras, Klinsmann won’t have the chance to make multiple changes at halftime to try to fix a very obvious problem. Get it right from the start, or the trip could very well end up pointless.

The timing of a scoreless draw with Canada was unfortunate, because it dented confidence in Klinsmann just as the next, and most intense, round of qualifying begins. Everyone involved will want to shake it off. For the players, that shouldn’t be too difficult. Will it be the same for Jurgen Klinsmann?


Jason Davis is the founder of MatchFitUSA.com and the co-host of The Best Soccer Show. Contact him:matchfitusa@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/davisjsn.

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5 Responses to Klinsmann Creates a Tactical Issue

  1. Jared says:

    My issue with Tuesday’s game is that it felt like a loss.

  2. DDerrico says:

    Mr. Davis,

    What did you expect? This US team had never played a real game together before and the Canadians were amped up facing the Great Satan from the South after having been humiliated by Denmark. What tactical issue has JK “created”?

    “Against a committed defense, there’s an inability to work in concert to open up space when the opponent’s sole good is to limit it….Klinsmann has yet to prove that he can get his team to play effectively when faced with an ultra-defensive opponent.”

    Dealing with an “ultra defensive” opponent who puts ten men behind the ball and defends as if their lives depend on it is something no team in the world, not just the US has a real good answer for. The US and Switzerland both did it to Spain and beat them. That Spanish squad was at least as far above the US and Switzerland in talent level as the US is above that Canadian squad.

    The US won its qualifying group for the Hex. I would say that counts as effective play.

    “Nor has he shown a desire to start players who might be suited to the task, which is difficult to understand. The latter is more worrisome, because the issue transcends individual player selection. No matter the makeup of his roster (A, B, other), Klinsmann has the potential to set out a team with one or more players occupying strange new sections of the field.”

    I don’t understand why this bothers you. There are practical issues involved. All national team rosters are limited. So, for example, if all the available left backs are not good enough or injured, you have no choice but to move in players from other positions. And just because a player plays left wing, for example, at his club, it does not mean he can’t or should not play elsewhere.

    Americans love specialists and tend to view versatile players as lesser talents. However, unlike many other team sports, soccer is a game where fundamentally sound players, by and large, absolutely should be able to play well in a variety of positions. Asking Mo Edu to play centerback isn’t the same as asking Peyton Manning to play left tackle or Justin Verlander to catch. Landon Donovan or Wayne Rooney could probably play any position on the field as well or nearly as well as the starters in those positions. Cruyff often played just about every position on the field over the course of one game. Of course the Dutch practically invented the practice or at least made it highly visible. Fabregas, a nominal midfielder, played striker for Spain in the Euros and they won the damn thing.

    When you put a player in a different position you get their attention and you find out just how fundamentally sound they are. Can they use both feet? How well can they tackle, shoot, pass, etc. and how confident are they about their abilities? How well do they read the game? Will they approach the change positively or will they moan and bitch about it?

    Position switches are a good way to learn a lot about a player, mentally and physically, in a short space of time.

    Finally, the World Cup limits the roster to twenty three and requires you to play a lot of tough games in short order. One or two injuries and one or two card situations and it quickly becomes very clear why player versatility is so important.

    “It would be natural to consider why it took more than a year and a half for Klinsmann to form that assessment, or if he spent too much time indoctrinating this particular group of players into his system of fitness first. The performance of the team he selected from that “surprisingly deep” MLS talent pool and then worked with for three weeks leading up to a meaningful friendly shouldn’t mean much, and yet it’s hard to put out of mind completely.”

    Again, what did you expect? Tactics are something you work on after you really know what your players can do. JK has managed about twenty one or so games since 2011. In four of his five seasons with Fulham, Clint Dempsey appeared in no less than fourty games a season. The point is JK actually has precious little training and game time with his players. Tactics are the least of it.

    Managing any national team is a huge juggling act of trying to keep your core group together for important games and blending in new talent. You make it sound as if getting all the American players together at the same time and in the same place all in top playing form is easy.

    The manager of Spain, for example, can call on a group of players, most of whom have played together for years and all of whom are only a few hours plane ride away. JK has guys spread all over the place, playing in a variety of schemes and schedules. And if I remember correctly many of these MLS players had their break out seasons just this year.

    “The timing of a scoreless draw with Canada was unfortunate, because it dented confidence in Klinsmann just as the next, and most intense, round of qualifying begins.”

    It might have dented your confidence but I see that as overstating the case just a bit. Again, the US topped the group in qualifying for the Hex. Those were the games that really counted. They won’t fire JK unless he fails to qualify or perhaps looks completely at sea in doing so. But that seems unlikely.

  3. Donn says:

    -If I read Klinsmanm’s mind correctly, here is what he thinks the US players are:
    “American players, you act like girl! You shows people your muscle, and think this is POWER or STRONG. But deep inside, you are girls!” Your opponent might be scared of you at first, but after a while they realize that you have “more meat than brain”!

    Peope yell at you, you cry!
    People step on your toes, you cry! Klinsmann told you to step on their toes in revenge, and the whole nation react: bad, bad, bad blah blah blah!
    People come to your country, you give them the best soccer field! You come to their countries, they let you play on the muddy field!
    You make a bad foul, you see red! Your opponents play dirty and score, and you….cry!

    MR. Nice Guys! No, this is not nice. This is stupid, because you’re afraid that people call you “bad guy”!

    Do you want people call you “bad guy”? Or you want them to call you “girl” or “loser”?

    Your mentality has problem, Americans! Wake up!

    Klinsmann tries to train your guys to get “tougher”, “get more dirty”, be the bad guy rather than a girl! But most people react as if this the end of the world!

    He tries to make your players feel “uncomfortable” (but they have to accept it) by playing them at strange position! Because your CONCACAF opponents always make you feel uncomfortable. If you play your strange position, and you cannot adjust to at least perform at an “acceptable” level. How the hell can you adjust to deal with your opponents in real match? Yes, this is your position, but Klinsmann is not dump to play you at another postion. If you think he is dump, then I think you’re dumper!

    If you wait until the real match and realize that your opponents park the bus in front of the goal. How the hell can you adjust? You would rather let Canada does that, then TEACH your players a lesson: this is how you have to deal in real game. Yes, you did not score. But at least, you learn that this is what it is in real game! (Even Barca cannot break Chelsea’s defend on someday. So this is very very very very very normal)

    The US player have a lot of issues and it takes time to correct one by one! Please, Klinsmann is human, he is not Harry Porter!

    Sports in the US never ever get promoted or relegated! Players never face “do or die” situation for their entire life! They always think that they can always do it again next year if they failed! But in other countries, if you are relegated, it might take you decades to climb backup (or never go backup again).

    Mentality is the big issue. And I think Americans must realize that!

    Many of US fans say that the US players lack of quality to play the new system. And suggest Klinsmann should go back to the “defensive” system.
    However, if you just want stay at your “comfort zone”, and don’t want to do something different! 100 years from now, you’re still in the same position.

    The Americans always want to be a LEADER. So this is not your mindset and mentality not to try a new thing, right?