Armchair Analyst: Klinsmann's MF choices are baffling
As the Twittersphere explodes around us, and the Facebook comments pile up and the BigSoccer servers crumble, let’s all step back for a minute and remember: We wanted this. The fanbase demanded a new-look team, a foreign coach and as many players plying their trade overseas as is possible.
This is what you asked for. You at least have to have the patience to let it play out for more than three months before passing a final judgement or starting any ill-advised hashtags.
OK, having gotten that out of the way, it’s clear as day that things are ugly right now for the US. I don’t have the time to look, but I’m going to guess “two goals in six games” is the type of non-output we haven’t seen since the 1980s, and the lack of quality chances generated against France on Friday afternoon made for a few hundred very angry folks on our live chat, an Opta Chalkboard that is damning in its point-by-point illustration of Jurgen Klinsmann’s tactics, and the aforementioned Twittersplosion of frustration and ennui.
Let’s go back to the Opta chalkboards, since grabbing onto something tangible is the best way to understand what’s really happening here.
On Friday, the USA were out-possessed by France, 58.3 to 41.7 percent. That is a yawning chasm, but it happens. France also completed a higher percentage of passes: 82 to 73 percent. And total passes tipped their way as well: They made 459 passes to just 321 for the US.
All quite damning, and the obvious point is made: This would have been a blow-out if not for some fantastic moments from Tim Howard and a few timely blocks from Kyle Beckerman.
But here’s the real issue: Over the past 10 years, even during the worst pummelings, the US were always able to create a few odd chances themselves thanks to a top-tier transition game and flank play. Under Klinsmann, that is nowhere to be found.
The main culprit right now is Danny Williams, the young Hoffenheim defensive midfielder who’s been miscast by Klinsmann as a right midfielder. Williams now has three caps for the US, and has gone about 65 minutes in each performance.
Over the course of that 195 minutes, Williams has not completed a single forward pass in the attacking third.
Think about that for a moment. Right midfield is where Landon Donovan has played for the last five years, and Donovan is (was?) the only reliable source of attacking inspiration the US had over that period. His 46 goals and 47 assists blow away the career records of any other US player, and that only hints at how important he's been at building the US attack.
It's been Donovan who's linked the midfield to the front line, to make it so that Jozy Altidore isn't stranded up top all by his lonesome, or that Clint Dempsey isn't dropping all the way back to the defense to pick up the ball. Donovan's ability to get into that dangerous space then do something with it created both goals against Slovenia and the winner against Algeria in the World Cup, and gave the rest of the US side a chance to put themselves into spots where they can create — or, occasionally — score goals themselves.
And under Klinsmann, he’s been replaced by a guy who has yet to complete an attacking pass. There is little wonder the US has looked a mess going forward.
At this point, I just want to come up to Williams and hug him, telling him, "It's not your fault, it's not your fault, it's not your fault," Good Will Hunting-style. And it isn't his fault — right midfield is not a position he plays for his club, nor, based upon the evidence, should it be.
The butterfly effect of replacing Donovan with what is, essentially, a void, is that it puts more impetus on the other midfielders to be creative forces. In that, they’ve come up short.
Maurice Edu, who was asked to be the No. 8 on the night, the “timekeeper” who maintains tempo and spreads the ball to the US attackers, failed to complete a single pass in the attacking third of the field for the second game in a row. Over three games, he’s completed just one pass there. Again, don't blame Edu — he's a d-mid being played out of position.
Brek Shea has been marginally better on the left, but still not particularly good. To his credit, he’s been part of a few excellent build-ups despite playing with dead legs, and at least looks comfortable at the position.
That last part’s not really a surprise, since left midfield is the spot Shea plays for club side FC Dallas. Edu and Williams, on the other hand, are strangers to the roles they’re asked to play under the new regime.
Will things get better when Donovan’s back? Maybe, maybe not. Klinsmann has preferred using Donovan as a second forward rather than as a right midfielder, which is a choice that is, at best, debatable. It was Donovan’s move to the wing, after all, that propelled the US out of the post-2006 malaise and into the era that saw the 2009 Confederations Cup run and 2010 group-stage triumph at the World Cup.
The reality, though, is that even if Donovan’s being used properly on the wing, the US team as Klinsmann’s running it will still struggle to get him the ball. Edu doesn’t have those distributor’s instincts, and the guys who do are either hurt (Stuart Holden, José Torres) or out of favor (Michael Bradley, Sacha Kljestan, Benny Feilhaber). There is simply no one to pull the strings.
Which is a long way of saying that Klinsmann’s decision to play three defensive midfielders at once — and that’s all that Beckerman, Edu and Williams are — is a bad one, and hopefully something we won’t have to see much more of in the future. Especially given that proven commodities like Bradley and Kljestan are excelling in the distributor's role in Europe, and that Feilhaber was simply outstanding for an otherwise badly outmanned New England side during the second half of this MLS season.
So please, Jurgen: one d-mid only. Don’t worry about anything else for now — just start with that.
Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com