Jürgen Klinsmann bore the look of a man who’d given up, staring blankly into the middle distance for most of Friday night’s game and reacting to each of Colombia’s two goals with little more than a rueful shake of the head.
But by the time he walked into the press room to face the media, the dejected body language on display during his charges’ willing, but ultimately limp, loss to Colombia had evaporated; Jurgen the Disconsolate gave way to Jurgen the Defiant.
“We were absolutely OK with the team performance,” he said, adding that between the two teams, “there was no difference besides the two goals.” Forget silver linings; in Klinsmann’s assessment of last night’s match, there wasn’t even a cloud. The blithe optimism, the refusal to recognize the obvious: this was classic Klinsmann, the German treating his audience with all the intellectual respect of a Soviet propagandist. It’s now reached the point, after five years of statements similar to this one, where Klinsmann has become like the man falling off the top of a 50-storey building, repeating to himself on the way down: “So far, so good!”
Either Klinsmann thinks the American public is stupid, or he’s stupid himself, because no matter how you look at it, last night was not the type of US team performance with which the management should be “absolutely OK”. Colombia, it should be said, were hardly at their best; Los Cafeteros never really got out of first gear, and were content to play a containment game and manage their lead through the second half. In open play, their superstar forward line – James Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado, Carlos Bacca – showed flashes of quality but seemed to be playing within themselves. This was an opponent that there was there for the taking. But instead of taking, the US gave away – the ball, mostly.
Michael Bradley was the chief culprit on a night when the US’s sloppiness in their own half was the match’s deciding factor: first, when the defense got caught in a tactical no man’s land, neither manning up nor playing zonally, to allow Cristian Zapata in for the opening goal; second, when Bradley conceded possession on the halfway line and allowed the Colombians to bomb forward and create the chance from out wide that led to a penalty. Bradley had some neat touches in possession, but the bad outweighed the good; for much of the game, especially when the Colombians had the ball, he looked well off the pace.
Klinsmann set his team up in what could best be described as a withdrawn attacking formation, with both its creators-in-chief – Bradley and Clint Dempsey – sitting deep. With no purely defensive midfield presence by Bradley’s side, this left the back four exposed whenever the captain got overrun, as was frequently the case. Klinsmann, in heeding the call to play Bradley as a deep-lying playmaker, succeeded only in turning him into a deep-lying ball-loser. Up front, things were not much better. With little width to call on and no striker capable of holding the ball up to facilitate runs in behind from the midfield, the US’s only route to goal was through set pieces and long-range efforts from Dempsey. The veteran’s two shots from distance were the closest the US came to a goal all night, but he had little else to offer in attack.
It wasn’t a disgraceful performance, but it wasn’t particularly dynamic, either. The best that can be said about the US last night is that they were solid at keeping possession in the parts of the field where it mattered least. That’s enough to shepherd the US to a series of narrow losses in this tournament; but it won’t win them anything. There’s a perception the US’s next game, against Costa Rica in Chicago on Tuesday night, will be easier. On paper that’s true, but the US can’t play at the same level as they did against Colombia and expect Los Ticos to fold.
It’s difficult to know what Klinsmann will do from here. He’s now in a tough spot: if he shakes up his starting XI and the changes backfire, he’ll risk reviving the old criticism that he’s an indecisive tinkerer. Most likely he will do nothing: the loss last night, to be fair, was down to individual errors rather than any great tactical calamity in the way Klinsmann set the team up. Besides, read Klinsmann’s own words and it’s clear he sees coaches as only minimally accountable for what happens on the field of play. Curiously, the man is as fatalistic as he is optimistic. His approach to the game in the US sounds something like this: the players are bad, because they always will be; the players are bad, but there’s still hope for the future!
The most telling aspect of Klinsmann’s slightly unhinged interview with the Wall Street Journal earlier this week was the way he kept emphasizing that football is a “player-driven game” and bringing the discussion of tactics back to his own experience and upbringing. Success, in this view, is all about individual determination and will, and it’s the manager’s job to be a simple motivator rather than a planner-tactician.
Klinsmann’s strategy, from game to game, is: “Players, go win the game!” This works if you have talented players at your disposal, but it’s less likely to succeed when you’re working with a more limited roster. Jürgen Klinsmann the coach still seems flummoxed by the inability of the US’s players to perform at the same level as Jürgen Klinsmann the player. His advice to players is essentially this: be like I was. Here’s some sample wisdom from that school: “How many times can we tell them? Matt Miazga – intimidate! Make sure you get every header!” If Klinsmann were an unpaid mentor to these players – the kind of respected elder who’d be on hand to offer nuggets of career advice or meet up for the occasional chat over a coffee – that might constitute a solid basis to the relationship. But Klinsmann is their coach. He is paid to do this job.
Last night was yet another demonstration of the philosophy of Klinsiball: put 11 players on the field and hope they bend the contest to their will and make good things happen. “Hopefully we’re going to score a couple of ones going forward, but it didn’t happen today,” he told Fox Sports immediately following the full-time whistle. Hope and optimism are important factors in tournament football, the history of which is replete with examples of the positive impact on team momentum of intangibles such as crowd support, host nation enthusiasm, and “the mood in the air”. But they can’t be the only thing a team has going for it.
How many options does Klinsmann have, really? The brutal truth is: not many. Players like Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic, who are younger and more skilled on the ball than, say, Jermaine Jones, could add support for Bradley (in Nagbe’s case) and incisiveness through the middle of the park (Pulisic); they’re inexperienced, sure, but what does Klinsmann have to lose from throwing the dice and giving them a start? On the evidence of last night, the team needs three things: better concentration in defense and possession, cover for Bradley, and width. Nagbe and Pulisic can help with two of those things, and starting them would make sense within the naive philosophy of Klinsiball: it would be a gamble on virtuosity and individual brilliance. Intimidate! Make sure you get every header! Score goals! Win!
But it’s hard to see Klinsmann taking the risk; the breezy optimism of his post-game press conference last night suggests he’ll stick with the same XI. As as it has for much of Klinsmann’s tenure, hope remains the US’s biggest asset heading into Tuesday night.
This article was written by Aaron Timms, for theguardian.com on Saturday 4th June 2016 17.32 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010