You thought you knew Michael Bradley. You thought you understood exactly what this guy brought to the game. You've talked at length about his work rate, his toughness in the tackle, his toughness in just, well, everything. How he stands. How he talks. How he breathes.
You say, "Yeah, he's great – our most important player," and you mean it, because he clearly is. But there's a cringe when you say it, because part of you wishes that you were talking about an artist, not an artisan.
Bradley isn't an artist, right? He's the bassline, not the guitar solo, and no matter how much you love John Paul Jones, Led Zeppelin are about Jimmy Page, and Robert Plant, and John Bonham's insanity on the drums. Bradley's not that. He's the guy in the background keeping time.
And then Jurgen Klinsmann puts him at the tip of a diamond midfield, which is a formation that the US haven't played in forever, and a position that Bradley has played never, as far as I remeber. And everything you thought you know disappears.
Here are three Bradley-related things I took away from the 2-2 US draw with Mexico on Wednesday night:
1. The diamond midfield has a place in the US arsenal
There was some speculation in the office, after U.S. Soccer put the lineup out on Twitter, that they were telling fibs. Consensus was "no way they'll play a diamond with Bradley at the point," because he's too valuable sitting in front of the defense breaking up play and starting possessions.
Yet this is what the formation looked like, as drawn up by Klinsmann:
Obviously it worked – worked well – for the first 45 minutes. Just as obviously the US struggled in the second 45 minutes, though that was something of a false flag given Mexico's subs and our struggles defending set pieces (don't get me started).
There are four great things about playing Bradley in that role:
First is that he's our second-best chance creator in the final third, behind only Landon Donovan (better than Landon on Wednesday, for what it's worth), capable of both controlling the ball in traffic and hitting the unlocking pass. He's also very, very smart, and knows when to play the safe ball vs. when to push the tempo.
I'm going to put this here, because it's one of my favorite passes of the year in MLS and is a perfect example of Bradley's patience and vision:
Second is that Bradley has been and continues to be exceptional at breaking the midfield line and getting into the box. These runs are all about timing and execution, and they were his primary job when he broke out with Heerenveen back in 2007-08. Remember, he scored 18 goals across all competitions that year.
The second goal, the Chris Wondolowski back-post special, was probably my favorite US goal since the game-winner vs. Italy two years ago. As soon as Clint Dempsey dropped deep in this one, Bradley knew it was time to go forward, and everybody else around him read the play.
That's exactly what the US have lacked from that midfield line in recent months, and something we talked about on March to the Match this week.
Third is that, with Bradley in the No. 10 role, Dempsey wasn't forced to drop back in frustration while looking for service. When he came deep, it was tactical. He played as an actual second forward in a 4-4-2, and it worked.
Halftime Thoughts: 4-4-2 is the formation for us, Jones is not the best partner for Bradley in midfield, and playing in Europe is overrated.— Jimmy Conrad (@JimmyConrad) April 3, 2014
The final piece is the puzzle is that Bradley can act as a "target midfielder," doing a lot of the back-to-goal work normally reserved for a target forward. He received a lot of passes with a defender on his back, and he always turned that into an advantage, using his strength to shield and hold, then completing passes as everyone advanced around him.
You can tell I think that Klinsmann hit on something good with this one.
2. Pushing Bradley up works for defensive reasons
A few years back the Colorado Rapids won the MLS Cup using what I call an "advanced destroyer" in Pablo Mastroeni, with Jeff Larentowicz sitting deep behind him. We've also seen this set-up used by AC Milan for a few years, before Kevin-Prince Boateng transferred to Schalke. Yaya Touré plays something like this role for Manchester City.
The principle is simple: Put a superior defensive player further up the pitch in order to disrupt the opposition's deep-lying playmaker (if they use one), or to inhibit their ability to possess through the middle, or simply to force turnovers.
Bradley forced his first one of those within two minutes, and by the second half, Mexico began skipping central midfield entirely.
Bradley's upfield pressure especially troubling Mexico because of their narrow formation. Only outlets are up-field. #USAvMEX— Devin Pleuler (@devinpleuler) April 3, 2014
Credit to Mexico for figuring it out to some degree. This was a valuable data point in the sense that using Bradley in this way showed Klinsmann that this is something the US can do well, but it's also something that probably won't be effective for 90 minutes.
It's a part of the arsenal, not a default setting.
3. Kyle Beckerman can be a defensive and offensive sub
If you accept the fact that Jermaine Jones will be starting this summer – you probably know how I feel about that – then you have to accept the fact that Bradley is not going to have the freedom to play the way we saw him play Wednesday night. Working with Jones requires constant maintenance, and that's not likely to change.
Enter Beckerman. He's dismissed in certain quarters of US fandom because of his lack of top-flight athleticism, and to be fair it's a real handicap. But he still does a better job of protecting the central defense than anyone else in the pool, and his ability to consistently complete passes is unmatched at that spot (unless you play Bradley there, which we shouldn't).
Even more important is his positional discipline. Beckerman's the one who allows Bradley to push into the attack, or play more of a trigger role in pressure. His ability to play the bassline let Bradley take the guitar solo.
They each played their part in perfect harmony:
If we're desperately looking for a goal this summer, I want Bradley in the final third. He's more likely to create one, or finish one, than pretty much anyone we could bring in off the bench.
Beckerman releases Bradley to do the stuff we saw in the first half tonight. I want to see it again – when it really matters.