Central Winger: Piecing together Klinsmann's revolution
While it took a handful of games for Jurgen Klinsmann to claim his first victory as the new head coach of the US national team, it didn't take him quite as long to get acclimated. From the beginning, Klinsmann introduced very different styles of play in comparison to his predecessor, Bob Bradley. After all, it’s what he was hired to do.
With the upcoming international friendlies against Scotland, Brazil and Canada, quickly followed by the first World Cup qualifiers of the 2014 cycle, Klinsmann’s revolution is about to be put to its first real test. Our aim here is to explain some of the tactical motifs found in the new coach's new-look US side, using OPTA chalkboard data and network passing diagrams.
This is the United States' passing graph in Klinsmann's first victory, a 1-0 win over Honduras last October.
This graph is filled with unusual information. On the right wing, it looks like a classical 4-4-2. Yet on the left wing, midfielder Brek Shea is found in the middle of the park alongside Clint Dempsey. Left back Timothy Chandler can be found further up the field than both of his defensive midfielders, Kyle Beckerman and Maurice Edu.
This is truly a modern formation, and the type of system that the United States needs become accustomed to if they want any chance of competing with the word's elite national squads. As some of the leading tactical soccer minds such as Michael Cox of Zonal Marking and Jonathan Wilson (the author of Inverting the Pyramid) have suggested in the last few months, balance is more important than symmetry.
This is a perfect example. This isn't simply an energetic wingback being deployed behind an inverted winger. This is playing entirely without a left midfielder.
With Chandler absent from the current US camp, the hope is that Klinsmann can find an American than can play this dynamic role. Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo are the likely candidates, but it’s a spot that’s not settled as of yet.
This is the US in Klinsmann's second victory, a 3-2 win at Slovenia last November.
At first glance, it is again very hard to immediately ascertain exactly which formation is being played. On paper, this is listed as a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield, but it looks stunningly like a 4-2-3-1 ... except with one of the defensive midfielders replaced with an extra attacker. So perhaps it’s a traditional 4-1-3-2?
Also, it's important to note just how deep Beckerman plays the lone defensive midfield position – deeper than both of the fullbacks, making him the third closest American to his own goal. This is expected since one of the motifs of a diamond midfield is that the majority of a team's width is provided by surging outside defenders.
However, the most interesting adjustment isn't shown by shape alone.
Michael Bradley is playing right midfield. Bradley is not a right midfielder. Yet Bradley has more passes in this game (45) than any of his teammates – including the usually pass-heavy defensive midfielder.
So clearly, something different was going on there. Klinsmann's willingness to deploy a traditionally central playmaker – even one as industrious as Bradley – nominally “out wide” from the get-go is absolutely riveting.
With the shift of creative playmakers from the center of the field to the flanks being an increasingly growing trademark of modern tactics (Arjen Robben and Ángel di María are great examples), it should come as no surprise that Klinsmann has given this a shot. With Bradley originating from a central position and drifting into space along the touchline, we may have found our first American Central Winger.
Devin Pleuler is a computer science graduate from Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, where he played on the men's varsity team as a goalkeeper. He's certified as a coach through both the USSF and NSCAA, and writes the Central Winger analytics column for MLSsoccer.com.