Dos A Sorrow: The fact that Jurgen Klinsmann still has a job makes me sad

He keeps showing us that he’s not up to coaching the U.S. national team

(Marwan Shousher)

A bad coach can ruin a player or a team or an organization. As a player, I’ve felt the frustration of putting my heart and soul into a game and still feeling helpless because the boss’s decisions handicap the team. And in the loss against Mexico on Friday night, and many matches before that, it sure looks like this is what Jurgen Klinsmann is doing to the U.S. national team.

Maybe you can teach me what makes for a bad boss in consulting or insurance or retail, but I know a bad boss when I see one coaching a soccer team. I find the fact that Klinsmann is unequipped to lead a major team to be self-evident at this point, and my reasons go far beyond the most recent match. But my editor says I need to explain what specifically he did to lessen the team’s chances of winning against Mexico, so here goes.

First of all, Jurgen Klinsmann lined his players up in a 3–5–2 formation, something he hasn’t done since a friendly against Chile nearly two years ago. It was clear in the opening period of the match that his players weren’t comfortable in that arrangement.

Think about your first day at whatever job you have right now. You deserve to be there, you’re qualified, but you aren’t exactly sure what you’re supposed to be doing at any given moment. You know you could and probably should be doing more to help, but you don’t know how or where. That’s what it’s like to play in a new formation or a new position for the first time — you might be able to survive but it doesn’t always feel like it and you certainly aren’t about to do much more than that — and I imagine it’s how Timmy Chandler and Omar Gonzalez felt against Mexico.

Chandler typically plays as a right back for the USMNT. Gonzalez usually plays center back. Against Mexico, Chandler played as a right wing back and Omar played on the right side of a three-man central unit. Now let’s take a typical play, something that happens over and over in the course of a 90-minute soccer match: let’s say the ball is passed to the opposition’s left back. When he’s playing in his more familiar role of right back in a 4–4–2, Chandler will have a teammate in front of him whose job is to close in on the player with the ball. As that teammate presses, he’s hoping that the player with the ball will drop his head, concentrating on keeping hold of it rather than being able to look up and make a pass to an open teammate. This sets off a chain reaction: Chandler, too, should move closer to the opposition winger or midfielder further up the field, cutting him off as an outlet; Gonzalez, as the right-sided center back, would then shift over to cover the channel that Chandler vacated when he went to support the pressure.

In a 3–5–2, however, the responsibilities are different. Against Mexico, Chandler did not have an outside midfielder in front of him to pressure the opposition outside back. Instead, when Mexico swung the ball wide to its left, Chandler had to decide whether or not to sprint the extra 20 yards forward in order to close that player down. If he chooses to go, he then has to decide what level of pressure to apply—is he trying to win the ball or just slow the player down? Likewise, Gonzalez had different choices to make, and to complicate things further, he had to base his decisions largely on whatever Chandler decided to do. If Chandler went to pressure the ball wide, Omar would have to support him by moving to close the outlet to the opposition winger. I would wager that in seven years as a professional center back, Omar could count on one hand the number of times he has been asked to cover a winger on the sideline.

Klinsmann said that the team had practiced the new formation in training, but that actually means very little. Players don’t make these decisions with their brains as much as by some combination of instinct, experience, and muscle memory; if a player has to think too hard about any one decision, the window for him to actually execute it, especially at the highest level of play, has probably already closed.

In a new formation, these decisions are suddenly more difficult to make, exponentially so for Gonzalez, who must react not just to the other team but to whatever Chandler chooses to do. Players still have to move into gaps to close off the passing lanes and pressure the ball, but you have to take new angles and distances into account. And if you think that soccer is just soccer, you’re wrong. Every team presses at different times, passes with different ideas. Gonzalez’s coach at Pachuca asks his defenders to sit differently than Chandler’s does at Eintracht Frankfurt. Without a coach drilling his system into his players, they will struggle. At best, everyone will hesitate slightly, making the play just a little more sluggish and uncertain. In the worst case, you end up with players who aren’t connecting at all, leaving a bunch of individuals alone to contend with a group of 11.

https://streamable.com/1urg

So, as we saw in the first 20 minutes, Chandler and Gonzalez were consistently late to pressure or caught out of position. They’ve worked their whole lives to be good at soccer, they know they’ve done this job a million times in their lives, and yet something feels off. I didn’t prepare for this. It’s the same, but it’s so different. Chandler consistently plays competition in the Bundesliga as good or better than Mexico’s Jesus Corona and he should be doing just fine, and yet he’s not. Chandler knows he has the ability to be playing better, but he’s playing within constraints — constraints established by the man who’s supposed to be helping him — that are holding him back.

It’s the biggest game of the year, so many people are relying on you, and everything you’re asked to do feels alien. Klinsmann is asking him to cut down a tree and handing him a hammer.

Roughly halfway through the first half, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones confronted Klinsmann about the team’s tactics and were able to convince him to change to a much more familiar 4–4–2. As Jeff Carlisle wrote, “You simply can’t gift an opponent like Mexico 25 minutes of the game and expect to get away with it.”

Jones and Bradley, after all, were the ones having to deal with the bulk of the calamity and, consequently, the criticism. Klinsmann mentioned that they didn’t get into the 1–v–1 duels that he had expected. Let’s talk about that. With only two center backs, the center midfielders often have to help protect the middle of the field. Sometimes a center back can’t vacate his spot to follow a forward or an advanced playmaker when he withdraws into the midfield, so the center mid needs to stay central to protect that zone. However, with three central defenders, each one has a little more latitude to follow his man. In theory, this has the knock-on effect of freeing up the midfielders to chase and harry a bit more than usual. In theory. But a good coach should know it isn’t that simple.

Look at how far Besler tracks his man up the field. All of a sudden Bradley looks next to him and sees his center back in front of him defensively. That’s not a normal picture for a center mid to have go through his head in the traditional four-back system that the USMNT has played. That’s the kind of thing that makes you go “Oh shit, how am I going to fix this?” and takes your focus off of tackling or sprinting for a split second.

The central zone that the center midfield needs to help protect is the most important space on the field. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones are smart soccer players. They understand the danger of Gio dos Santos getting the ball and facing up their center backs—center backs who aren’t accustomed to a three-back system. Perhaps because the system felt so alien to Brooks, Besler, and Gonzalez, it didn’t come naturally for them to follow their players. And if the center backs hesitate, then Bradley and Jones are also forced to hesitate, in order to make sure that the zone is protected. So everyone is hesitating and everyone is a step late. All of sudden Hector Herrera is wide open and we are screaming at two of the best players to wear the nation’s colors that they are dogshit.

There’s one thing I can tell you from my six years as a professional soccer player: the game moves so damn fast, and I wasn’t even playing at the international level. You don’t have a split second to second-guess your actions. You prepare, you build muscle memory, and then you get on the field and let your body do its thing. When the ball goes out for a throw-in, you might get a second to readjust and solve some problems, but when the ball is rolling around on the grass, you follow your instincts or you suffer the consequences.

I can’t stress this enough: it’s the job of the coach to understand how these things work. Players make the plays, but coaches put them in a position to fail or succeed. There’s a lot of factors that separate coaches, but at the very least a coach needs to understand the factors that can help or hurt a player. I’m an average-at-best player, and I understand the game well enough to consider these details. The leader of our nation’s best players sure as hell better comprehend all of it.

Sometimes coaches miscalculate and make wrong decisions. Players can understand when the plan just didn’t pan out. Klinsmann doesn’t miscalculate. He simply doesn’t understand. He doesn’t think about the details. It didn’t occur to him that the players might not feel comfortable. It didn’t occur to him to consider all of the possibilities. It never does.

If a coach doesn’t acknowledge or understand the importance of players trusting their instincts and preparation, then he’s putting them in a position to fail. As professional players, we’ve busted our asses to get to where we are. We accept that failure and embarrassment are part of the job. We only hope — pray — it’s on our own accord, because we aren’t good enough players, and not because someone else couldn’t do his job.

I thought about this when I saw a tweet during the game suggesting that a bad Fabian Johnson cross had nothing to do with any decision Klinsmann has ever made. Suddenly, I was fuming. When you spend the entire game over-thinking every decision and second-guessing every move, it impacts the key moments when you have to make a play. Soccer is a players’ game — players get to make decisions and execute plays— but coaches need to put players in a position to succeed or fail.

It’s not about one result, either. Mexico is a good team. It’s okay to lose to Mexico sometimes. Too many good coaches get fired because people panic after random results. But this has been going on for years. The process is wrong. This isn’t just about a man who tinkered or made a bad decision in a key moment. We’ve seen enough games and enough camps to know that Klinsmann has no plan, no ideas, no general concept of how to set up or prepare a team.

Michael Bradley will be a good soldier and take the blame. Everyone on the team will suggest that they could have done more. But the players aren’t the problem. We all saw them turn the game around once Klinsmann allowed them to play in a familiar way. U.S. Soccer has a clear and very important choice, one of the very few simple ones it gets. And the only logical outcome is to decide that the man in charge is doing a bad job. If you’ve ever known the frustration of having an incapable boss, then you should hope the USMNT gets a new coach.