Darius Tahir bifurcates the past two USMNT seasonal campaigns using the Klinsmann hiring as the fulcrum point.
The US takes on Mexico precisely one month from today. The game is a ceremonious marker in time for the US Men’s National Team Program. It was one year ago as Bob Bradley was making phone calls to begin picking up the pieces of a Gold Cup Final gone horribly off the rails that Sunil Gulati swooped in and in a move that many had expected for some time, relieved the Princeton grad of his second term of service to the men’s program.
With Jurgen Klinsmann now having a full term in office, his recently concluded “5-Game Tournament” presents an interesting set of observations to match against Bob Bradley’s Confederation Cup-seeking Gold Cup campaign.
Now our cursory analysis by Darius Tahir
It’s awfully helpful when a comparison makes itself. In this case, with Klinsmann rapidly approaching his first-year anniversary of taking the head job with the USMNT, a natural comparison practically begs itself to be made: Bob Bradley’s Gold Cup run and Klinsmann’s “Five Game Tournament.” So let’s make it, then—what are the similarities, differences, and what might give you confidence (or lack of it) for the future)? And we’ll try to make these comparisons, as often as possible, through cold hard statistics—the OPTA statistics provided by MLS, in this case.
Five games and six games, as the case may be, is hardly the biggest sample size to draw really firm conclusions from. But it’s probably big enough to make some preliminary ones. Some other caveats must be applied—all of Bradley’s games were competitive; only two of Klinsmann’s were. On the other hand, all of Bradley’s games were at home; two of Klinsmann’s were in the hostile environs of Guatemala City, and, ah, Toronto Canada.
On the other hand, Bradley’s team faced better opponents. Bradley’s team, at the time of playing them, had an Elo rating average of 50; Klinsmann’s, 65.
In terms of results—with no regard to those caveats—Bradley’s look better.
Bradley’s 4-2 record, for 12 points over 6 games, makes 2 points per game. Klinsmann’s record, of 8 points in 5 games for 1.6 points per game, is an appreciable cut worse. Both teams had a goal differential of +3, making Klinsmann’s goal differential per game ever-so-slightly better.
Did one coach have a better roster to deal with? A heuristic for judging the quality of the roster is to look at the leagues they play in—Bradley’s had 11 players playing for teams in the big 5 leagues (i.e. England, Germany, Spain, Italy, and France) whereas Klinsmann’s featured only 6. It’s probably a mistake to read too much into this heuristic—a big chunk of the difference has to do with players like Jozy Altidore moving to leagues that more appropriately reflect current quality.
That said, Klinsmann did make some curious decisions in filling out his roster—it’s very hard to believe Eric Lichaj is a worse fullback than Edgar Castillo, Jose Torres and Michael Parkhurst.
Injury and other issues blighted availability for each team; Altidore was only able to go a limited amount of time for each iteration of the team—he got injured in the knockout game against Jamaica in the Gold Cup; and, due to AZ’s intransigence, was not allowed to show up until late for the five game tournament. Fabian Johnson missed a game for Klinsmann; as you don’t want to remember, Cherundolo missed most of the Mexico game to injury. Torres missed the Guatemala game. Eddie Gaven refused Bradley’s call-up for the Gold Cup.
Performance, by stats
It’s here that any short-term optimism from Klinsmann’s performance should be drawn. There have been some rumblings that Klinsmann has betrayed the high-flown promises of a more attractive, better-passing side. Perhaps this is true—beauty is always on the eye of the beholder, and no amount of stats to convince you otherwise can accomplish that task. Nevertheless, we can identify a few possible principles of an attractive side—better passing, percentage-wise; better passing in the final third, percentage-wise; better build-up from defenders, percentage-wise; and more attempts (and more successful attempts) to take on defenders off the dribble.
Klinsmann’s team improved relative to Bradley’s at these metrics. Klinsmann’s team averaged 556 passes attempted and competed roughly 460 of team, resulting in an 82.7% passes completed. By contrast, Bradley’s teams averaged roughly 516 passes per game and completed 80.45% of them. In the final third*, Klinsmann’s and Bradley’s teams averaged a similar number of passes—73 (Klinsmann) or 74 (Bradley)—but Klinsmann’s team was dramatically more proficient, completing 68.5% of passes in the final third versus 61.26% for Bradley. From the backline, Bradley’s team averaged 229 passes per game at a 78.7% success rate; Klinsmann’s team averaged slightly fewer passes from the backline, but completed nearly 4% more of those passes, at 82.6%. Klinsmann’s teams took their opponents on more frequently, at 10.6 times per game versus 7.5 times per game for Bradley. That decision was appropriate, as they were successful 36.2% of the time versus 28.9% under Bradley.
Klinsmann’s team averaged 13.2 shots per game versus 11 in 2011.
There are a lot of styles that lead to success, even offensive success; a direct team can nevertheless average a lot of goals and a technically proficient team can—like Spain—use that proficiency for defensive rather than offensive purposes. Nevertheless, Klinsmann’s shift appears to have lead to more offensive success, averaging 2 goals per game versus 1.5 goals per game. (With the caveats for sample size raised.)
Defensively, it would appear from the overall statistics that Klinsmann has given up ground relative to Bradley; Klinsmann’s teams gave up 1.4 goals per game versus 1 goal per game under Bradley.
Again, many styles can lead to offensive success; looking at some of the opponent’s statistics might nevertheless be instructive. Opponents attempted nearly ten more passes per game against Klinsmann than Bradley (399 vs. 389, roughly in both cases), but were ever-so-slightly less accurate against Klinsmann than Bradley (75.97% vs. 77.31%). In the opponent’s final third, however, Klinsmann’s teams were more stingy, allowing fewer passes (49.4 vs. 53) and allowing a much lower percentage (54.25% vs. 62.89%). Again, this may reflect a change of style on opponents’ part rather than a more stifling defense overall.
On the other hand, Klinsmann defenses were worse in one-on-one play, yielding 11.6 attempts at a 36.2% success rate compared to 7.5 attempts at a 28.9% success rate.
*(For the final third: here’s how I’ve done it. In the MLS chalkboard feature, you’ll notice there are alternating strips of color. I’ve drawn the rectangle inclusive of the last four bars.)
Many of these statistics are suggestive rather than definitive, owing to some of the caveats discussed above. Nevertheless, if you clear the mind of some of the distractions of both eras (Jose Torres at left back! Johnny Bornstein at left back!) it would appear Klinsmann is succeeding at many of the goals he set out. Certainly, however, some of Klinsmann’s tactical decisions are lacking—he didn’t coach any of the games in the five-game tournament as brilliantly as Bradley’s master class against Jamaica in the first knockout round of the Gold Cup.
Evolution is too often a slow and painful process.