With the conclusion of Euro 2008, the second biggest soccer tournament in the World, I think there are some lessons to be learned from the tournament that U.S. Men's National Team Coach Bob Bradley needs to consider in preparation for the World Cup Qualifying and Olympic tournaments later this summer.
I have tried to limit this to five lessons, but some may cross over and get mixed in with other concepts. It is hard to be discreet in the lessons, but I tried.
1. The midfield is the key to success. This really is not a new lesson. Managers for decades have known that for a team to be successful, they have to control the midfield. But today's midfield is not just about stopping the other side's play development, it must include strong possession, quick thinking, creativity and the ability to exploit those tiny imperfections in a defense that always occur and good teams can correct quickly. For me the most successful teams at controlling the midfield were of course Spain, but also the Netherlands and Germany at most times. What do these teams have in common, for the most part they play a five man middle with a lone striker. Spain was a bit of an anomaly this tournament by playing Villa and Torres up top, but if you watch carefully, the Spanish response was to play a sort of diamond midfield, with Marco Senna withdrawn as a holding midfielder and the remainder of the line providing lots of lateral movement as well as feeding balls to the top line. Xavi, in particularly, was active.
The lesson for Bradley here is to think about implementing more of a five man middle explicitly. Implicitly he has looked for a player like Landon Donovan or Freddy Adu to play a "withdrawn" forward so that the U.S. formation looks kind of like a 4-4-1-1 formation, but that confuses the role of the withdrawn striker, is he a target man or a creator? Adu is much better as a creator and Donovan more like a target man. You can't really interchange them very well and you have to make the role more explicit.
2. You need a single, strong, holding midfielder. For me the player of the tournament was Spain's Xavi, but coming a close second was Marco Senna. The Spanish holding midfielder smoothered opposing striking forces with an ease that was surprising, particularly in the knockout stages. Senna shut down Russia's premier player, Andrei Arshavin with hardly any sweat. In the final, Michael Ballack was something of a non-factor again thanks to Senna. So what do we take from that lesson? Looking at the most successful holding midfielder, Senna and Claude Makelele of Chelsea and France, Javier Mascherano, Shalrie Joseph, and the growing influence of Michael Essien, you have a combination of experience, fitness, ability to read the game, an ability to start an attack and an understanding of where to be to provide the most impact at any given moment in a match. How many times did Germany make a really good pass that would have been a great lead into a solid opportunity only to have Marco Senna appears as if from nowhere to shut it down? That is the type of game reading that a holding midfielder needs to have.
A holding midfielder has to understand how to defend against any attack and how to start any attack. Who does the U.S. have for this role? The list is short, but for my money, right now Pablo Mastroeni is the most likely candidate who is match fit and capable of driving the U.S. squad through 2010. Bob Bradley has tried two holding midfielders, usually a combination of Mastroeni, Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, and Ricardo Clark. The problem for all of these other players is not that none of them have the ability to really read a top flight team as they develop in the midfield. Of these three, Mo Edu is probably the closest to that point. I don't think Michael Bradley is ready for that role, particularly given his penchant for late tackles and poor give aways. Perhaps running Mo Edu as the sole holding midfielder in the Olympics will give him more international experience to expand into a real alternate for Mastroeni.
3. Fitness matters in tournament football. Let's face it, when it comes to tournament football, i.e. the Euros, the World Cup and even more so the Olympics, the fitness of your players matters almost as much as, if not more than, their individuals skills. During tournaments teams are playing matches every three or four days (in the Olympics, there are just two rest days betweeen quarterfinals and semi-finals and only one full rest day between semi-finals and finals). Keep in mind that outside of the goalkeeper, most field players will run between 7,000 and 12,000 meters, or more--that comes to 4.3 to 7.5 miles-- per game. That is in addition to kicking, dribbling, fighting off defenders and other physical activity involved in the game. When you are doing over the course of six or seven matches, that can run the average player from 24 to 50 miles per tournament, which is often just 30 days or so!! Fitness matters even more in the modern game based on movement.
The lesson for Bob Bradley--make sure your team is fit, even it if means sacrificing some technical skill. The World Cup will be taking place in June 2010, which for the American team means the height of the MLS season, at a time when the MLS players are at top form. On the other hand, European based players will be at the end of their season, tired and at the lowest level of form, assuming they don't have nagging injuries that allowed them to play for 60 minutes or so at their club but don't have the fitness to go for 90 hard minutes. Thus, it would make sense to have a larger share of MLS players, beyond the one or two that are routinely called up, i.e. Landon Donovan, Mo Edu, Rico Clarke.
What this also means is that Bradley needs to have a starting 14 or 15 and have quality impact subs. In tournament football, it will be the rare team indeed that has the same starting 11 for all matches. Assuming no injuries, you are likely to get yellow card suspension (see Oguchi Onyewu, Michael Bradley, et al), heaven forbid a red card suspension, and simple exhaustion. Thus having a top starting XI is not going to be possible, that means you need at least a starting 14, that is 14 or 15 players who can get on the field and produce high quality football. Couple that with 4 or 5 high impact subs that can come on, give a burst of engergetic play that can make a difference, offensively and defensively in a game, but can also be capable of playing a full 90 minutes of high impact football. In their semi-final game against Germany, Turkey's starting line-up did not contain half the players that played in their first match. Between injuries, yellow and red card suspensions, they were missing seven regular players, but still managed to make a really solid go of the game.
4. The club league of your players doesn't matter. Example--Turkey and Russia. If I am correct, all of the Russian players play their club football with Russian clubs(at least they did before the start of the Euros) and all but one Turkish player plays for Turkish clubs. By all accounts these two leagues are not the top class of European football, and in many cases might be little better than MLS clubs. What mattered is that the players played will with each other, understood their roles and were all around football players. The best teams did not necessarily have specialists in any one position (outside of goalkeepers), but capable of playing in many places, particularly the Turks, who by just about every account were deserving of a victory over Germany in the semis but last second bad luck cost them a finals berth. In fact, when you consider that Greece won in 2004 and the run of the Russians and the Turks this year, perhaps having players from the domestic league is a good thing as those players not even playing on the same club team, see each other on the pitch much more frequently and thus understand their games more than a group of national team players who play for different clubs in different domestic leagues and see each other for 30-40 days a year prior to friendlies and tournaments.
The lesson for Bob Bradley is simple, don't discount a player just because they play in MLS and call U.S. Soccer and the MLS onto the carpet about their policy regarding international call-ups of American players. There is no rational reason for players like Donovan, Guzan, Klejstan, Edu or anyone else that might get called in to camp to have to fly back during camp to play a regular season MLS match on the weekend. The fact that the MLS doesn't and can't make that demand of other international players like Shalrie Joseph, Amado Guevara, Carolos Ruiz and others indicates that the MLS is of two minds about this and the fact that Bradley and U.S. Soccer allow the double standard to occur is rediculous. I would like to see Bradley stand up to U.S. Soccer and MLS on this score much more than he does. I would also like to see the MLS players association (the union) and the U.S. Soccer players association (the national team "union") get more invovled in this issue. A world class competitive player needs to play on the world stage.
5. Attack and never say die until the final whistle. If nothing else, this year's Euros should have sounded the death knell of defend and counterattack style of football, that for which Bob Bradley is best known. Greece, France and Italy played that kind of football and look where it landed them. Teams like the Netherlands, Spain, Turkey, and Germany picked apart the defenses of defend/counter style teams. When a team plays defensively, it is only a matter of time before the opposing side finds a weakness and exploits it. When a team is defensive minded, they are not in a position to really chase a game in a one or two goal deficit. If they get one goal down, every counter attack takes on greater and greater importance and the weight of it is smoothering as the game grinds on. But if the team proceeds from the point of mind that says, "hey we can score two or three goals a game, it doesn't matter if we concede one" then chasing a game does become as fearful. Witness the mindset of the Turks and even the Germans--who by most accounts had a not so strong back line. But most importantly, the Turkish side never quit (see Turkey v. Croatia) that means that they were always in the game, even when they were down a goal. A defensive minded team plays to hear the final whistle, an attacking team plays until they hear the final whistle--there is a marked difference between the two mindsets.
In the World Cup, the United States will be facing quality teams that are used to possession, fast, short movement and passing and the ability to strike quickly when a flaw is spotted. Unless the United States improve their game in that regard, the best the U.S. can hope for is a round of 16 appearance before being dismissed.
Attacking football is atractive football. Do you want Americans to get behind the U.S. side, then show them what football is really all about, about movement, about scoring, about creating real chances. It cannot be about 8 or 9 guys behind the ball on defense and a prayer for a counter attack by one or two guys. Many sides in the Euros played attractive, engaging football and it was fun to watch. Even the 1-0 final was a treat because chances were created and you saw some good goalkeeping, quality defense and quality attack. The games were complete. Why are L.A. and DC United playing so much fun to watch--because they play an attractive game and the game is attractive because it is attacking, going forward and playing to win, not playing to no lose.
Bob Bradly needs to consider these lessons of the Euros as they look toward World Cup qualifying. This is what can be learned and needs to be learned for the U.S. to make a real run at the World Cup.