The tactical breakdown of the Landon Donovan vs. Clint Dempsey debate is pretty easy: They’re both really, really good, capable of excelling at multiple positions and able to create and finish chances at a high level.
But the technical debate about the two has a little more meat to it. Donovan and Dempsey are measurably different players with quantifiably different skillsets – so let’s sort out what’s what:
Dempsey is among the best the US has ever produced at receiving the ball in traffic and getting out of the jam – partially because he’s big and strong, partially because he has wonderful balance, but mostly because he has a knack for steering his touch safely away from pressure.
Donovan doesn’t quite have that knack, which is why he’s always been better in wide positions where there’s not as much immediate pressure. What Donovan does at a world-class level, though, is take his first touch to set up a defender and create a passing lane.
The best example is the goal against Algeria. Donovan’s first touch looks sloppy, but in reality he was dangling a treat in front of Antar Yahia, who, for just a split second, thought about making a play on the ball.
That was all it took. Donovan used the lane to slip a pass to Jozy Altidore, who flew past Yahia – now in full “Oh crap, what did I just do?” mode – to put his cross on a plate for Dempsey.
It was all set up by that first touch. The US has been simply lethal in transition for the past decade, and that’s the biggest reason why.
Think about this for a minute: Donovan will score his 200th professional goal across all competitions sometime in the next year (barring injury, of course). He currently has 188 in 468 top-flight and international games, the bulk of which have come at midfield.
Dempsey probably won’t come close to matching that, as he’s currently at 102 goals in 322 games – most of them in midfield, like Donovan.
But numbers can lie. The truth is, Dempsey’s just a better, more instinctual finisher. Left foot, right foot, head ... it doesn’t really matter to Deuce. His technique is immaculate and only getting better, and he has that goalscorer’s ethos of “all goals are beautiful goals.”
Just look at his first against Newcastle last weekend – he put that one in with his thigh. That is a pure poacher’s goal. The second was textbook, going back post against a perfectly positioned ‘keeper. Third time? Outrun the defense and go five hole.
Let’s also remember that Deuce nearly scored on a scorpion kick this summer in the Gold Cup, an audacious attempt that no one else in the US pool even considers for a nanosecond. In the pantheon of “Beautiful Misses,” that ranks just behind Marcelo Balboa’s bicycle against Colombia in 1994 and Claudio Reyna’s midfield volley against Germany in 2002.
Scoring goals is simply what Deuce does. He’s towered over the world’s best defenders for headers, he cleaned up the garbage Sergio Ramos left on Spain’s doorstep three years ago, and he almost always puts the ball on frame when he has a moment to pick his head up and shoot from distance. Sometimes that’s all you need to do.
Just ask Robert Green.
With Donovan, unless he’s on one of his bi-annual hot streaks, it always feels like he’s trying to guide the ball home. And to be fair, he’s a savant at passing the ball into the net – that’s what has made him such a spectacular penalty taker (that, and his Landon the Magic Otter routine).
So while it’s weird to say that a guy who’s got nearly 200 goals is an inferior finisher, in this case it’s simply axiomatic.
Here at MLSsoccer.com we contract with Getty Images, and one of the rules of good photo selection is you want to find a picture where the player is looking up. The fans want to see faces; doing so brings them into the story, and makes the subject seem more real and present.
It’s not always easy to find images like that, though. Most players receive the ball with their head down, control, then look up and pick a pass. This is as true for EPL images as it is for MLS images.
That’s the context I’m using to assure that the number of pictures in which Donovan is looking up is simply staggering. It’s almost impossible to find a “bad” image of him.
And that tells the story of why he’s more than doubled the assist output of the next-closest US player (he has 47; Cobi Jones is second with 22; Dempsey is 14th place with nine). Donovan’s already seen the field by the time he’s received the ball. He doesn’t need to put his head down, control, then pick out a pass; he’s already done the math.
He’s also worked himself into a tremendous crosser of the ball – the English press called him the best crosser of the ball in the 2010 World Cup – both on the run and off of set pieces. And as he showed against Blackburn last weekend, if you let him cut inside and give him time and space to pick his spot, he will slice you apart.
Dempsey, on the other hand, is still a work in progress. He doesn’t squander possession, but he’s not a particularly incisive passer, and does tend to receive the ball with his head down. Most of his assists come on knock-downs and flicks in and around the 18, and while he’s getting better at it – he has four assists in 22 games thus far in Fulham’s season, a career high – he’s not the type of guy you run an offense through.
Dempsey in a rout. He’s pretty much the only player in the US pool who can square up against a defender, then trick his way past them and go to goal.
Donovan can be lethal if he has you backpedaling, but even then he’s much, much more likely to use whatever space he’s given to create a passing lane. If he receives the ball at a standstill, of course, there’s a 99 percent chance he’s simply going to cycle the ball around in order to keep possession.