By IVES GALARCEP
Remember the days of the “Empty Bucket”? Those days when the U.S. Men’s National Team played a 4-4-2 under Bob Bradley, and neither central midfielder was a pure playmaker? Those days when the complaints about the national team being to defensive-minded rained often, even when the team was producing results?
When Jurgen Klinsmann took over there was a sense that he would install a more attack-minded approach, and field a team that was more offensive and more creative. The end product hasn’t quite worked out that way and you can point to his construction of the U.S. midfield as at least part of the reason Klinsmann’s U.S. team has not been all that much more attack-minded.
Klinsmann didn’t go away from the Jermaine Jones-Michael Bradley tandem in central midfield, but has instead moved them up the field and deployed a pure defensive midfield behind them. That decision has resulted in a U.S. team that lacks creativity and puts its attacking players in tough positions game in and game out.
Klinsmann has stated repeatedly that he doesn’t see Jones or Bradley being able to play the No. 6 role, the deep-lying defensive midfield role that has been tried out by Danny Williams, Kyle Beckerman and Maurice Edu. The only problem with that stance is that you wind up having a trio of Jones, Bradley and a No. 6 taking up three of the six slots in front of the defense. You also wind up with a crowed midfield that doesn’t give the team’s passers much room to operate and break down opposing defenses.
While it is certainly true that Bradley is not a pure defensive midfielder, and brings good attacking qualities as a box-to-box presence, and Jones can also contribute to the attack with good passes, neither is a playmaker or a speedy attacker capable of unsettling a defense on the ball.
Does that mean you can’t play them together? Not necessarily. As much as some critics hate the idea of the “empty bucket”, a central midfield without a pure playmaker, the rigors of the modern game make the idea of a pure playmaker playing in front of a lone defensive midfielder is more fantasy than reality. There are plenty of national teams that play quality attacking soccer while fielding two deep-lying midfielders (like Spain and Argentina). Obviously it’s easier to do when you have world-class attackers, but the issue is more about trying to identify a player to anchor the midfield rather than having two players sitting in a deep role.
Jones seems more suited for that role, and has played it with distinction quite often for Schalke 04, but Klinsmann has stated on more than one occasion that he doesn’t feel Jones can have the discipline to sit deep and not surge forward, which has become a trademark for him with the U.S. team.
Bradley could play that defensive midfield role, but playing one of the U.S. team’s best passers and someone who can deliver goals of his own in a role like that wouldn’t necessarily help the attack or the balance of the team.
If you start with the premise that Jones and Bradley are too good not to have in the lineup (which Klinsmann has made clear), then one of them has to take on the No. 6 role if the American attack is going to have room for some players who can stretch defenses and set up for the forwards. If you don’t, and you insist on playing either a Danny Williams or Maurice Edu behind Jones and Bradley, you are left with three pure attackers who have that much less service and fewer options to work with in attack.
Are there instances where having that defensive a lineup can be necessary? Sure, the argument can be made that fielding a Bradley-Jones-Edu/Williams triangle in Mexico City could provide the defensive bite to stifle the Mexican attack, but if the loss to Honduras showed us anything it is that being too compact and narrow in midfield can also leave you vulnerable on the flanks against dangerous attacking
What sort of system might work given the players available? Here are a few four-man midfields that could make more sense to provide a better balance of defensive bite and attack:
Obviously if Brek Shea or Landon Donovan are back in the mix they give Klinsmann even more flexibility, and give us lineups that look like this:
(UPDATE_You can also consider, as some here have noted, the 4-2-3-1, with Dempsey behind a lone forward, like this:
Though in reality playing Dempsey behind a lone striker will wind up playing like a 4-4-2 anyway.
Whether he turns to any of these midfield combinations, or any others, Klinsmann will have to seriously consider Jones or Bradley as the team’s No. 6, not only to ensure getting both players on the field, but also to fit one more pure attacker in the midfield, which could help the team’s forward receive the kind of service they will need to generate goals in 2013.
If he stands pat, we could find ourselves watching more disjointed and offensively disappointing performances like we saw against Honduras.
What do you think of the make-up of the U.S. midfield? Do you agree that Jones or Bradley have to play in the deeper role if the U.S. attack will be able to flow? What midfield combination would you consider the best option for Klinsman?
Share your thoughts below.