When Jurgen Klinsmann became U.S. Men's National Team head coach more than a year ago, there was a widely-held belief that he was going to usher in a new era of attack-minded American soccer, and he would do away with the perceived ultra-defensive approach Bob Bradley was deemed guilty of subjecting U.S. fans to.
Anyone who has watched Klinsmann's U.S. team play over the course of the past year knows that the wave of attacking soccer we thought we might see never happened, and if anything, a case can be made Klinsmann has been even more defensive-minded than Bradley.
That isn't the general public perception about Klinsmann's tenure, at least not yet. And how has he avoided that label to this point, despite such clear evidence that he has embraced a philosphy that surely does resemble the one we saw during the Bob Bradley era? Klinsmann has avoided the label by trotting out any number of formations, from 4-3-3, to 4-1-3-2, to 4-2-3-1. He has managed to play a bit of a shell game by moving players around in a way that they manage to still play a very similar style to the one seen during the Bradley era while avoiding lining up in a 4-4-2 with two deep-lying midfield.
This became very clear during the last U.S. national team match, the vital 1-0 victory against Jamaica. The Americans played a 4-4-2, though anyone associated with diseminating that information for the national team made it clear to state that it was, in fact, a 4-1-3-2. That might seem like semantics, but not if you're trying your best to distance yourself from the approach of the previous coaching regime.
And what exactly is the difference between the 4-1-3-2 we saw the U.S. play against Jamaica and the 4-4-2 of the Bob Bradley era? The reality is there wasn't much of one.
In theory, the main difference is that, in Klinsmann's system, the one midfielder is assigned the deep-lying anchor role, the No. 6 role as it were, which Danny Williams played against Jamaica, while another midfielder plays in the more advanced No. 8 role, which Jermaine Jones played. In Bradley's 4-4-2, the two central midfielders alternated between covering the defense and surging forward into the attack, with both players having similar responsibilities. The system earned the label "The Empty Bucket" from critics of Bradley's coaching approach who felt playing two defensive-minded midfielders in the middle led to defensive-minded soccer.
It might seem like there is a pretty distinct difference between the system, but it really isn't when you are using the same kind of players in both cases. If you play a natural ball-winner in the more advanced role they don't magically become a playmaker, and anyone who has watched Jones handle a more advanced role has figured out long ago that this transformation isn't happening. Also, Williams wasn't exactly chained the space in front of the centerbacks against Jamaica. He did well to get forward and join the attack, and looked more impressive as an attacking option doing that than he ever looked during the multiple times he was deployed as a right winger in past matches.
In other words, we were told that the U.S. was playing a 4-1-3-2, when for all intents and purposes, we were watching a 4-4-2.
Klinsmann does deserve some credit for really trying to implement a 4-3-3 during his first year in charge, but it has become clear that deploying that system just isn't practical for important qualifying matches. It is clear he has already started to work on variations of the 4-4-2, but a lack of wide midfield options has made it difficult to really play a style that can be considered attack-minded. This, along with Landon Donovan's many absences from the national team over the past year, has led to Klinsmann using players like Danny Williams and Jose Torres as "wide' midfielders.
So what does it all mean? What exactly is the point of going down this road? It is to let you know that, while you may hear any number of formation variations, there is a reason the current U.S. national team approach might seem familiar to you. It will seem familiar because some things haven't changed since the time Bob Bradley was head coach. We still don't have a dominant American playmaker who can be plugged into the middle of the park, and the U.S. pool is still overflowing with central midfielders who are more defensive-minded than attack-minded.
So we have a new coach, trotting out seemingly different formations, but the soccer looks the same, and many of the players look the same. That isn't a knock on Klinsmann as much as it's stating what might be lost on some who have actually bought into the notion that the U.S. national team has undergone some sort of transformation.
Ultimately, Klinsmann is a prisoner of the talent pool at his disposal, no matter how he tries to spin it and no matter how many varied formations he trots out. Could there eventually come a day when we actually start seeing real changes and a real shift in philosophy with the U.S. national team? Sure, but that day hasn't come yet and it doesn't appear to be on the horizon.
So before you go saying "Man, I'm glad the days of the 'Empty Bucket' are over", you might want to consider that those days are very much still here. And rather than looking at the 4-4-2 with two defensive midfielders as some sort of curse, we might want to consider the possibility that, at least for the immediate future, it is the best system and approach for the kind of players we have right now.
Bob Bradley realized that a long time ago, and Klinsmann clearly has realized the same thing, though it seems he isn't in a hurry to admit it.