Jurgen Klinsmann the player was an anachronism. He was a beautiful, elegant striker bred in an era of the rugged, ruthless and highly successful West German national team of the 1980s. Die Mannschaft made three straight World Cup finals, kicking chunks out of the opposition on their way to second place 1982 and 1986 before emerging triumphant from Italia ’90 with Klinsmann, then 25, one of the star attractions.
That 1990 West German team, and the one which would win the 1996 Euros in the twilight of Klinsmann’s career, were agents of soccer pragmatism. They both played the 3-5-2 with a sweeper, two marking backs, two center forwards and no smiles. They were successful because they killed on set-pieces, because they never conceded a cheap goal and because they played at a time when speedy, attacking wingers and overlapping fullbacks simply didn’t exist.
That’s why it was such a surprise when, in 2006, Klinsmann revitalized Germany in an attacking 4-4-2 formation, one which still maintained the traditional German qualities of set-piece execution and solid defense, but added a bit of style and panache to the mix. It was a philosophy of the game which he’d never been a part of as a player, one that wasn’t associated with the German ethos.
But it sparked a revolution in German soccer. And if we’re to figure out what’s to come in the next three years here in the States, we first have to remember what’s passed in the previous 25 years of the manager’s sporting life.
“Beginnings are always messy.”
It’s best to recall that quote from English author John Galsworthy as the US embarks upon the Klinsmann era.
Klinsmann, the player, had a real wanderlust, generally staying with a given club for no more than three years. He was always successful, but always looked as if he regretted that the soccer his team played on the pitch couldn’t match the beauty of the game as it was played in his head.
That may account for some of his troubles upon taking over the German national team in 2004. Klinsmann insisted upon a diamond-four midfield in a 4-4-2, with current Toronto FC man Torsten Frings at defensive midfielder and Michael Ballack, the pinnacle of the modern box-to-box midfielder, used as something of a traditional enganche in the Argentine mold.
It didn’t work, and after a 4-1 loss to Italy in a pre-World Cup friendly, Klinsmann — persuaded by Ballack and then-assistant Joachim Löw — finally dropped his captain deeper. That move paradoxically opened up the game, unleashing a German attack that was unpredictable and adaptable. It was as if they’d gone Dutch.
While Ballack dropped into his more natural role, his heir-apparent, Bastian Schweinsteiger, was making his appearances nominally as a left midfielder. But the right-footed Schweinsteiger would naturally cut inside, providing a third central midfield option in build-up and opening the flank for Philipp Lahm’s aggressive overlaps.
So in essence, Klinsmann’s Germany went from a team that was usually out-numbered and overrun in central midfield to one with three different players — Frings, Ballack, Schweinsteiger — all sitting deep and devoted to doing the dirty work.
Up top, the change was vertical rather than horizontal. Lukas Podolski dropped deep off of Miroslav Klose’s shoulder, taking advantage of the space Ballack’s strategic withdrawal had created. Podolski’s not really a playmaker so it didn’t quite work, but it set the stage for Löw’s implementation of the 4-2-3-1 with Mesut Özil in the middle of the “3”.
The assumption now is that Klinsmann will play the US in that 4-2-3-1, and the squad he’s called in for the Mexico friendly certainly seems to lean that way. Only two of the 22 are true forwards (Edson Buddle and Juan Agudelo), which almost definitely rules out a two-forward alignment.
There’s also the Freddy Adu factor. For all the flak Bob Bradley has taken over the past year — much of it deserved — he seemed to kick over a treasure trove by installing Adu as an advanced, free central playmaker against El Tri in the Gold Cup final. It was a shock move, but Adu showed flashes of what the US fan base always wanted: a No. 10 who could threaten goal himself, set up others and keep the ball moving to dangerous areas.
With Adu playing underneath either Agudelo or Buddle, and two wingers (probably Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley or Brek Shea), the “3” and the “1” are set.
The “2,” though, remains a problem.
The biggest issue in the last year of Bradley’s tenure was that he refused to differentiate between responsibilities for the central midfielders. The confusion because of that edict was written all over Mexico’s goals and all over the Yanks’ inability to attack cohesively anywhere but on the counter.
Bringing in Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman is a tip that Klinsmann’s adding a dose of specificity to the central midfield role. Beckerman’s a great passer, but first and foremost, he’s a defensive midfielder. He’s an American Frings, designed to plug up holes, pick up second balls, protect the cut-back lanes, move the ball into seams and start the break.
What he’s not is a pure runner like Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones or Stuart Holden. Beckerman is the guy you press the opponent toward, not the guy who does the pressing himself.
That’s the way it looks right now, but again, the beginning is always messy. Klinsmann may decide the 4-2-3-1 doesn’t actually work with the personnel on hand, or he might be talked into another lineup by a star player and an assistant coach again. He may even revert to his roots with the 3-5-2, though the odds on that are impossibly long.
Klinsmann the player was an anachronism; Klinsmann the coach an iconoclast, and that’s what makes this new era exciting. We can suspect we’ll see something, but we won’t know until it’s out there on the field. That’s a big change, because with Bob Bradley, we almost always knew.
With Klinsmann, until the ball is kicked, we won’t.
Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com. He can be followed on Twitter at @MLS_Analyst.