Two weeks ago I put together "10 GIFs to remember the 2014 season by." In the process of building out that article, I went through my own collection of GIFs and realized that a whole, whole lot of them were Michael Bradley-related.
One was about a certain turnover in the World Cup -- which would not have led to a goal had Omar Gonzalez not been tasked with playing defensive midfield (yup, it turns out that there were lots of people to blame on that play).
And several more were about general disorganization in the TFC midfield and backline.
But most of the GIFs were about Bradley's passing, which remains both lethal and under-appreciated.
It's also, perhaps, misunderstood. Bradley creates a ton of chances from central midfield, and as a result Jurgen Klinsmann still professes his love of Bradley is a "more advanced" midfield role. Klinsmann rarely goes into specifics, so that could mean "More advanced than defensive midfielder Kyle Beckerman" or it could mean "More advanced than any of the other midfielders on the pitch." At various points in 2014, it meant either.
In the World Cup itself, Bradley was the USMNT's second-most advanced attacker, playing a pseudo trequartista role – the No. 10 as Italians define it – just underneath a lone striker (Clint Dempsey) for the vast majority of his time on the field. In the run-up to the World Cup, however, Bradley was used differently – as the more attacking of two central midfielders, with two forwards (Dempsey and Jozy Altidore) ahead of him, and at least one out-and-out winger to provide width. This is a classic English No. 8, the role Bobby Charlton made famous for Manchester United and England in the 1960s.
It is clear that Bradley is, one way or another, being asked to act as the centerpiece of the latest USMNT camp, which was announced today. It is also clear that the second role – deeper and with multiple true attackers to pick out – is how Bradley should be used by Klinsmann (and by Greg Vanney in Toronto).
Here's my argument:
Outside of the boot, 40-yard through ball into the box:
Patiently lets the play unfold, draws the defense to him then puts it perfectly into Mark Bloom's path:
Forty-yard chip dropped directly into Dominic Oduro's stride:
Slips Oduro into the box on a mini-break, but Oduro's poor touch kills the angle:
Sends Oduro in 1-v-1 on the 'keeper. The shot ends up in the grandstand:
Sends Oduro into space with a defender to beat. This actually ended up as a TFC goal when Luke Moore finished off Oduro's deflected shot. No assists were awarded on the play (correctly):
Sends Gilberto through, but Aurelien Collin cleans him out from behind:
Draws four defenders, slips Alvaro Rey through with the outside of his boot. Rey's shot lands in Lake Ontario:
Bradley was by no means perfect in 2014. I didn't have him in any of my top three MLS Best XIs, which is disappointing for a player of his talent. I thought he was sloppy in possession more often than I'd like to see, and his habit over defensive overpursuit left TFC's midfield exposed more often than is palatable.
A combination of factors – a yearlong foot ailment, accumulated USMNT/MLS fatigue, shifting lineups, formations, positional responsibilities with the US and shifting regimes at BMO Field, no natural midfield partner to allow for box-to-box flexibility – should be pointed to for the explanation. Vanney needs to spend this winter trying to figure out who can be the Scott Caldwell to Bradley's Jermaine Jones, the Juninho to Bradley's Marcelo Sarvas, the Wil Trapp to Bradley's Tony Tchani, or the Matias Laba to Bradley's Gershon Koffie. Those four No. 8s all have a No. 6 behind them to allow for touchline-to-touchline, box-to-box coverage.
Klinsmann needs to use this January camp to do the same. Bradley in 2014 was good for an assist a game when played as a true central midfieder behind two forwards and with one other true attacker in midfielder. Remember the pass to Fabian Johnson vs. Turkey? Or Altidore vs. Nigeria? Or Julian Green vs. Belgium?
This is the network passing graph from that Nigeria game, which was the best the US played last year:
(Click HERE for a link to Devin Pleuler's breakdown of the lopsided diamond that the US played in the run-up to the World Cup)
The common thread is that Bradley is 1) deeper than where we saw him for most of his minutes at the World Cup, and 2) has multiple options in front of him. Hopefully Klinsmann understands this, and will give guys like Lee Nguyen, Mix Diskerud or Marc Pelosi (or Harry Shipp, who somehow was not called into camp) looks at the spot Bradley played in Brazil. Hopefully we get to see Gyasi Zardes with his first audition in the Altidore role. Hopefully the likes of Luis Gil, Miguel Ibarra, Brek Shea or Dillon Serna emerge as wide midfield threats – and hopefully one of them shines as a true north-south attacker that Bradley can pick out from deep.
Two other things to take away from this:
- Bradley was a legitimate playmaking weapon when sitting deep with TFC last year. No other No. 8 set up more chances per 90, and none set up as many "Big Chances."
- I purposely chose TFC flubs for the GIFs above because assists are a noisy stat. By "noisy" I mean there are a ton of variables, including the quality of the goalkeepers/defense you're going against on a given day, as well as the quality of the finishers you're passing to. Remember that the next time someone points at boxscore stats and says "Player X is terrible because he didn't get enough assists!"
The Reds have a lot of things to fix in the two months before the 2015 season begins. The USMNT have a lot of personnel to work through and figure out in the six months before the Gold Cup. Using Bradley in the correct role can make the issues for both teams much, much easier to solve.