Pep. Mourinho. Bradley? Klinsmann? The US El Clasico

John Nyen sees parallels

The two managers sit across from each other, both hooked up to the machine. The humming and whirring increases as they are instructed by the lab technician in the white coat.

“Think of your ideal, of what you want your team to become. Imagine the best possible scenario, with the best possible players, on the largest scale. What we will see is a real world simulation of that, from start to finish.”

On the overhead monitor the scene comes into focus and the teams walk out onto the field with one group all in white and the other in the blaugrana. The managers step back from the machine and begin to watch.

It strikes as odd that the similarities–loosely at minimum– What I speak of here is Real Madrid and Barcelona as the logical elite ideal example of what the US men’s soccer team could become. In these two teams are the very ideals of the last two (and some could say three) coaches of the United States men’s soccer team. Certainly there are differences, and it is important to recognize and discard these in order to get to the meat of the matter.

The USMNT's new possession navigator...

With the Jurgen Klinsmann-Barcelona comparison the difference is that Barcelona play more through their midfield, slinging passes together in creative rhythm, while the USA (under Klinsmann) is being built to attack more down the flanks using wingers and play from the LB/RB position.

With the Bob Bradley-Real Madrid comparison the difference is that Madrid tend to control play against most of their opponents (with the exception of Barcelona). As a caveat though to this difference, one could argue that Bradley’s team during their nadir fell under the same spell. They would control the game more so playing inexperienced and physical sides while having difficulty with quick/skill based sides.

Having stated that though, the similarities in this one particular game are striking.

Looking at this through Bradley’s ideal you have Real Madrid playing counter attack soccer, packing their side of the ball with defenders who break down the offense with their shape and then funneling the ball out via long passes (usually by the stalwart linking midfielder Xabi Alonso) to attack the opposing team when they are at their most vulnerable, AKA when the opposing team has committed players on offense. Defensively oriented, Real Madrid relies on work rate, formation, and shape to thwart more offensive teams.

Looking at this through Klinsmann’s ideal you have Barcelona taking the game to their opponent. They dictate play in every game, forcing the other team to have to think and react quickly. Barcelona attempt to play defense from the front using the press technique to try to defend in their opponents half of the field and win the ball back. They play a forward thinking positional game, on offense, with players knowing that the movement without the ball is sometimes more important than with the ball. They also tend to press up with their fullbacks, getting them involved in offense while packing the midfield, with the effect of shrinking the field for the opposition.

The most recent encounter between Madrid and Barcelona really offers a direct comparison to games that USA fans should remember well.

Madrid goes ahead early in the first half, playing counter attacking soccer against a passing oriented team. They defend for their lives over the course of 90 minutes finally succumbing to the overall pressure and talent of the team they play against. They even give up a crushing goal before the half.

This type of game happened a few times for the USA in past few years, most notably against Brazil in the Confederations Cup and against Mexico in Azteca. In both these examples, the USA came out strong, counter attacked to get a goal up and then went into a shell. In the Brazil game that shell happened in the second half, in the Mexico game it happened in the first half.

Thus ended the attack....

In Klinsmann’s perfect ideal, the USA goes into Azteca, scores the Charlie Davies goal and proceeds to defend in Mexico’s half, shutting down passing lanes, winning the ball back early and making Mexico chase the play around. Of course whether or not he can actually perform this task with the player pool allotted to him is another question entirely.

If we start to breakdown the Barcelona-Real Madrid game even more we can see that, in typical Bradley team fashion, Madrid turned to fouling in an effort to slow down the quick passing of Barcelona. (They finished the game with 22 fouls to Barcelona’s 13.) Certainly some of what they did goes beyond the pale of the Bradley coached USA squad, however we have all seen the USA attempt to foul and slow down the play of the offensive team in their end in an effort at quelling the passing dominance of better teams. We also see less of the priority on number of passes attempted/completed as the only person on Real Madrid who passed more than Pinto (Barcelona’s keeper) was Xabi Alonso.

With the Klinsmann squad (and the Venezuela game will suffice as an example here) what we are seeing is that the USA is, in certain regards, attempting to play a more forward and upwards version of the Barcelona game. I have described some of the Klinsmann games as “frenetic” because he is attempting to have the USA players thinking quickly, passing quickly, moving quickly and always driving towards the goal. When this transition began for the USA there was a tendency of the midfield to spray passes left and right, with the result of these being turnovers (due to bad positioning and poor first touch) that lead to the players having to work hard to get the ball back. During the first few games it lead to a chicken with the head cut off routine that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. Lacking the tiki-taka passing in the middle of the field, the USA attempts to replicate this with triangle interplay between players like Shea, Feilhaber, Pearce, and Jermaine Jones.

You will see Shea driving at players down the left until closed down, passing back out and cutting infield with Pearce overlapping to provide the cross in from width if possible. Many times the ball would be stopped before the cross came in (indicative of Shea’s poor night attempting to provide service) and then the midfielders (specifically Jones, Feilhaber) would attempt to pick the ball back up distributing it either back to Shea or sending it around the back line and Larentowicz to alleviate pressure.

With the passing dominance of the USA in the second half of the Venezuela game, you began to see the Real Madrid frustration fouls (many not called on both sides by the referee) that started to mar the game. Typically, in the past few years, if the USA wasn’t up by two or three goals at the 75th minute what we were seeing (and this included games by the next opponent Panama) was an all out assault on the net by the opposition. A point driven home by the much-belabored Argentina game in which the USA put 11 men behind the ball and dared Argentina to break them down.

This also brings us to an interesting point, that of differing styles and the effectiveness of them. Certainly a style doesn’t make a team win a game, as much as it allows them to play the game in their manner. One couldn’t quite call the Greek style of the last few competitions as lacking effect, having won Euro 2004 by playing Bradley ball. However, this style takes a certain toll on the players and requires all 11 players on the field to buy into the madness, something that Bradley lost along the way of his tenure and something that might be happening now to Mourinho.

Certainly Klinsmann believes as Barcelona and Ajax believe, that with the efforts of passing and maintaining control the Team begins to impose their will against the opposition allowing them to dictate the play rather than being dictated upon. It is really an arrogant train of thought (I say this in the fondest way), and something that the average USA fan has not been accustomed to thinking about in regards to the play of their national team. The idea that the USA can and will outplay you not necessarily with physical effort, but with ability, form and technique.

This really is the ultimate paradigm of Barcelona, they believe they can and will control the opposition no matter which opposition they are against.

Certainly the Bradley ideal was more about water breaking on rocks, and knowing the fact that 99.9% of clubs choose to not play (or simply cannot play) in the Barcelona/Ajax fashion. His ideal was based more around the fact that teams will screw up and hang themselves far more often than they will succeed. Using the effort that his opposition put forth against themselves in the counter attack would allow the defensive team to win.

In review of this information it is important to note that being defensive and shutting down the attack has served Mourinho well. He has used quite a few of the same techniques at all his stops and (ignoring Real’s struggles to win La Liga) he has won at every single one of his prior stops. It is also important to remember that what Barcelona are doing right now is a once in a lifetime generation of players and coaches who have come together at the right time to play in this fashion.

I do tend to think that Real Madrid will begin to win over Barcelona. No team can sustain a dominance on the level that Barcelona has over the last few years; and Madrid will find their weakness. Aesthetics aside, the goal is to win the game and the only issue that Madrid has currently is their inability to counter the control/pressing game of Barcelona with a system that will allow a win. Far too often Madrid find that their midfield (especially their defensive midfield: IE Pepe) are overrun by the passing and positioning of Barcelona and incapable of breaking up the pressure.

However, if we ignore season totals and playing styles outside of this game, the Real Madrid v Barcelona clash can be looked at as a training tool of how two diametrically opposed teams function when they play each other. As well it can describe how the ideals of Bradley and Klinsmann would potentially play out if given a wealth of players.

19 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Tyler on 2012/01/24 at 6:34 AM

    John, are you just drawing a parallel or making a prediction?

    Also, you said:

    “[The Klinsmann/Barca mindset] is really an arrogant train of thought (I say this in the fondest way), and something that the average USA fan has not been accustomed to thinking about in regards to the play of their national team.”

    Might this be more keeping with the American’s view of themselves in the world at large? Klinsmann has tried to express his overall tactical philosophy (at least in the press) as being based in the mentality of the country, “An American style of play” (or something to that effect). Wouldn’t be great if American soccer started thinking of itself as a superpower? Maybe netting some results that prove it? Seems like the friendlies sought by Klinsmann could provide at least one of those.

    Imagine how you would feel about the Nats if the had beaten Les Bleus in Paris or if they beat the Azzuri in Genoa next month. And not only beat them with a counterattack goal or a set piece or somesuch “lucky” way, but with a run of play goal. It isn’t so far fetched. We’ve played the polite foreigner role long enough. Let’s be the loud, brash, “arrogant” Americans (Don’t Tread on Me!) that every European loathes to see in their Capitals taking pictures in front of their memorials and historical places.

    In fact if I were the National Team motivational coach, I would use that exact imagery. “Okay Fellas, imagine this: Tomorrow, after we win, we are riding in our RED, WHITE, and BLUE team bus; us inside decked out to the nines in our team gear and stopping in front of the harbor that Christopher Columbus to take team pictures. Imagine all the Italians looking at you in disgust thinking of the way to dominated play tonight against their beloved Azzuri. In fact let’s make it a team tradition to take pictures in front of the historical places all over Europe to commemorate our victories! Let’s make this the beginning of a new chapter in USMNT history. Let’s make Europe and the rest of the world annoyed. Those… DAMN… YANKEES… ARE TAKING PICTURES IN OUR PLAZAS AGAIN!”

    I would love to have that kind of swagger out on the pitch wouldn’t you?


    • Posted by Tyler on 2012/01/24 at 6:37 AM

      “…in front of the harbor that Christopher Columbus used…”


      • As a proud Nord…. er… Norwegian/American I am proud to refute anything to do with Christopher Columbus and his landing in the “new world”, given the fact that Leif Ericson was actually in N America 500 years before the Columbus even thought about decimating the local population of Cuba, The Dominican Republic, their associated islands and S America/C America


        To answer your question regarding the arrogance issue.

        Many pundits seem to indicate that the US has no “style”. Which I find preposterous. Certainly it doesn’t have Brazillian style or English style or German style. However, that isn’t the USA way.

        Initially the style was (much like many things in the US) an amalgamation of many different styles which was rooted on the bedrock of hard work, industry, and defense. As a nation of immigrants, we soak up and redistribute things like style, norms, ideas, food and more.

        We are now seeing an attempted transition into the combination of Spanish/Dutch passing, English physicality and Neo-German flair (so to speak). Which, once again, fits a nation of immigrants. We are also seeing a concentrated return to a level of fitness that we were so touted for earlier, something that had started escaping our team.

        In combination with attempting to pass, rather than just defend and counter we are seeing an attempted change in mindset from the team. No longer are they expected to be hard workers who sell out, now they must creative, offensively aggressive and forward thinking. This philosophy must be rooted on the ideal of taking the game to someone, controlling them and dictating play. This is something that actually has to be based in a bit of arrogance because you are telling the other team “you are not good enough to stop us from playing our game”.

        So less, “drunken tourist from Dallas standing on the sidewalk, stopping traffic, and taking a picture of the Rialto Bridge”, and more tourist who speaks 5 languages, knows local customs, and wins at backgammon against the guys in the park.

        As Always: YMMV


        • Posted by Tyler on 2012/01/24 at 9:06 AM

          I guess I was going more for the “Druken tourist from Dallas” in terms of pissing off the locals with a win over their team on a great team goal built on the “nation of immigrants” style.


          • Context can be a Rorschach Test. Certainly you would probably see many different reactions and many different interpretations.


            • Posted by Martin on 2012/01/24 at 8:09 PM

              So should it be “The Ericksson Crew”, “The Nord Crew ” , “The Viking Crew” ?

    • Posted by Brian on 2012/01/24 at 8:51 AM

      Likely it would be the Spanish, not the Italians looking at the USMNT taking harbor shots as Columbus’ first voyage was from Palos de la Frontera.


      • Posted by Tyler on 2012/01/24 at 9:31 AM

        Columbus is believed to be from Genoa.


        • Posted by Gregorio on 2012/01/24 at 10:51 AM

          How about an American tourist named Leif Garrett stooping inebriated and stoned on dope laying in a pile of his own piss & vomit while wearing an old school USA jersey and a USA bandana to cover hi sbald spot, in the middle of the cobble stoned streets of Genoa, halting traffic. All the while muttering incessantly ” I was made for dancing”.


        • Posted by EFG on 2012/01/24 at 10:55 AM

          Cristoforo Colombo was definitely from Genoa.


    • I agree completely. How many times have we heard, for example when we play away in Honduras, “The U.S. will be happy with a draw today on the road.” And in the recent past, they’ve played like it to. Our team should be pissed off at that thought. They should be upset with a draw. It is a certain level of arrogance to play that way, and I for one agree with it. It’s a mix of Tyler and John’s examples and then some. It’s beat you on the field, take a team picture in front of the Colosseum, with a beautiful Italian super model on each arm with a Ferrari and a Lamborghini painted with Stars and Stripes parked on the street, ask a local in the native language to take the picture, and then go undefeated in backgammon in the local park.


  2. Posted by steve on 2012/01/24 at 10:46 AM

    Here’s an idea – USA vs Egypt – the ultimate US clasico!!!


  3. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2012/01/24 at 11:13 AM

    Disagree 100% with the arrogance theme. Just be confident in your own / team’s ability. Have a certain level of expectation – ie don’t be celebrating wildly if you get a draw against Italy. That behaviour suggests it is not expected and is a ‘victory’.

    With the players you have, you should be able to give most teams a good game and hold your own. Rather than score a flukey goal in order to get a draw / win.

    Time to ditch the insecurities, and pull up a chair to the big table – and act like you belong there.


    • Posted by Tyler on 2012/01/24 at 11:34 AM

      “Time to ditch the insecurities, and pull up a chair to the big table – and act like you belong there.”

      I think that is what John meant when he used the word (in the best sense). And when I repeated it. I think.


  4. Yes, I think the biggest thing that Klinsmann is trying to do is to change the mindset of the team. No longer is the goal to qualify for the World Cup. The goal is to dominate the rest of the teams in our region during qualifying, dictating play. We should be accustomed to winning in our region – home and away. That way we will know how to dictate play when we’re given the chance against any opponent.

    The new style of play is really about instilling the idea of the third-man running – it’s all about the speed with which the ball gets from the person with it, to the person receiving a pass, to the next player running into space. Player 3 should be moving into space where he can receive the ball before Player 2 has received it from Player 1. Player 2 should know where he’s going to play the ball before he receives it. This is the principle that all passing football, including Barcelona’s, is built around. There has definitely been improvement at this and sometimes it’s coming off, but sometimes it isn’t.

    Under Bradley it was almost always the second player running – the second player was moving into space to receive the pass from the first, then finding the next player in space to play it to after he’d received it. You cannot break teams down this way – it only works on the counter.

    Barcelona are at the level we’re they’re ofen playing to the fourth or fifth man running. I’d guess that about a third of their passes are played with one touch, and another third with two touches – that would be an interesting stat to see. Barcelona’s system has moving parts, and static parts – like Dani Alves always providing the wide option on the right wing, Xavi finding pockets of space in positions where he can see the entire field to orchestrate . And this is why Barcelona are able to break down teams and score goals that other teams don’t score.

    Conversely, their pressing is so good because they find the third man moving into space and put him under pressure while they’re also putting player 2 under pressure. Suddenly the player 2 must take time to rethink his pass and find another open player while being closed down aggressively. If you watch, Barcelona often win the ball back on the second pass when they’re pressing.


    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2012/01/24 at 1:28 PM

      During one of Klinsmann’s first interviews he spoke at decent length about how the US players have skill and talent but taking it on to the next level by ‘playing at a higher tempo’ and ‘speed of thought’, which will take time.


    • Posted by Martin on 2012/01/24 at 8:38 PM

      Google Klinsmann.

      Click on any of the large number of interviews he has given in recent weeks and you will find he lays out exactly how he wants to play.

      Then,if you can, try and view as many videos of the German national teams that JK played for.

      Every one of those teams expected to win every game. They considered it a failure to enter any tournament and not at least make the semis.

      JK’s obsession with fitness is clearly influenced by those German teams and their willingness to suffer more than the other guy. Their idea of physical intimidation,primarily,was to still be sprinting down the line when the other guys were cramping up.
      They did not mind the occasional tactical foul either. They were always in fantastic shape. If anyone was going to wilt, to give up, it would not be Germany.

      Those teams had plenty of skill and talent but they weren’t always more talented or more “tactical” than they other guy. They just wanted and expected to win more.

      There have been brief low points but in general, since the 70’s I have never seen a national team more focused on winning than the Die Mannschaft.

      It’s very obvious JK is using them as his model for the US. Cupcake is a pretty ironic name for the conditioning hell JK put those guys thourgh.


  5. Posted by Arisrules on 2012/01/25 at 11:14 AM

    How about JK first qualify for the WC or actually win some silverware before we make this analogy? Before then it’s just puff.

    I predict we’ll see a rapid transformation in the JK “revolution,” going back to the tactics and player choices used by Bradley, Bob, Bora, etc. The bottom line is to win. Style is irrelevant to me.


  6. Quick someone get a camera and a backgammon board!!!!!!!


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