Friday, April 1, 2011

Fielding Your Best Eleven: The Bradley Dilemma

photo by babastevevia PhotoRee

We told you previously that  we had scouts embedded in with the US Mens National Soccer Team, and we weren't lying.  Okay, we actually were, but Super Scout Mark's acute tactical insight and analysis of the US Mens' side more than makes up for it:

For the better part of his five year tenure with the national team, Bob Bradley has taken the approach that the United States' best chance of success comes when it puts its eleven best players on the field at the same time. The problem with Bradley’s teams, though, has been that too many of his best eleven play the same position. You can get away with a couple players out of position, but what do you do when half of your team isn’t playing in their natural spot?

Clint Dempsey started his national team career as the second forward under Bruce Arena, and no matter where you put Dempsey on the field, he seems to end up playing as a second forward. He’s been an attacking mid, a right mid, and most recently a left mid, although he and Donovan trade sides frequently during games. (If you are playing out of position, what’s the hurt in switching with someone else who's out of position?). But no matter where he starts, Dempsey seems to end up on the end of passes in front of goal. His record ten goals in the English Premiere League tells you this isn’t a guy who likes to hang out on the wing and offer Beckham-like services into the center forward. When Deuce has the ball he takes it at goal, and when he doesn’t have it he heads to goal to receive it. He’s great at attacking the goal, but the problem in the US game is that when Dempsey attacks from that role there's no service coming in from the left wing. With the exception of a couple really weak Jonathan Bornstein crosses, the US got no service at all from port-side against Paraguay, and rarely gets any wing play at all when Dempsey is in the game as a wide mid.

The same can be said for Landon Donovan on the opposite side. Donovan is certainly a more natural winger than Dempsey, but Donovan is happiest and most dangerous in his full field runs at goal on the counter. It’s what he does best. While he’s one of the most accurate service providers in the entire US squad, Donovan doesn't have the finesse, patience and willingness of a natural winger to work his man into the deep corners and play balls from the end line. He’s an attacker, and probably the best counter-attacking forward the US team has ever had. Putting him at wing puts him in his second best position.

And second best positions brings us back to the next logjam on the US side. The US doesn’t have a true attacking midfielder in the entire country. Freddy Adu is probably the closest thing out there and we all know how well that experiment is proceeding at present. Stuart Holden is a defensive mid, or right mid who is probably versatile enough take over the role when he gets healthy, but he’s part of a holding mid logjam that confines the US team to being a middling offensive team. He’s joined in the overcrowded defensive midfield position by Michael Bradley, who occasionally tries to pretend to be an attacking mid, but doesn’t have the passing precision or awareness to play the role, Jermaine Jones who brings size, speed and a Bundesliga pedigree, and the emerging Maurice Edu who is a less physical but faster clone of Bradley.

Bradley senior has gotten creative and found positions to get the US' best 11 on the field, but the question is “Do the best 11 give the US the best chance to win?” The result of Bradley’s lineup is a team that tends to play narrow toward goal. The most dangerous attacks against Paraguay featured Donovan and Dempsey on runs up the middle of the field. The only US wing play on the night came from the fullbacks coming forward. And when one of those wide backs is Jonathan Bornstein you can be assured of a less-than-precise attack.

Paraguay’s response was to clog the middle and frustrate the US attack with physical defense.  There is a growing body of evidence that suggests Bradley needs to make some tough decisions and find a true attacking midfielder, as well as a left and right half back who can provide service and spread the field against the Paraguays of the world. Stu Holden could fill either the right or attacking mid positions better than the team’s current residents. If he goes to the right, though, that would send Donovan or Dempsey to the second forward spot, and a rising star in Juan Agudelo to the bench. If Holden goes to the attacking mid, it means Bradley must move his son back his more natural holding spot, and put Edu and Jones on the bench, a move he doesn't seem inclined to make. He seems to fashion his son as America’s next playmaker, which he is not.

The US National Team’s front eleven is probably as talented a starting eleven as our country has ever produced. But it’s a team full of square pegs in round holes, and as he approaches the next World Cup, Bob Bradley must find talented players who complement each other better than this current group. Maybe it means not putting his "best" eleven on the field, but finding players who fill a role and make each other -- and the team --better.

This is farlieonfootie for April 1.

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