A Failed Experiment: Michael Bradley as Attacking Midfielder

On one hand it is a completely understandable idea to force Michael Bradley farther up the field. He is a player who has proven that he can provide the pass that unlocks the defence and can retain possession in hectic moments, but he has not been proven to be the player who can turn on goal as soon as he touches the ball. This idea that Bradley was going to be the player to orchestrate the attack is not completely unfounded, but the issue lies in his inability to adapt.

Michael Bradley has looked splendid when playing for Toronto FC. He looks the real deal, but he is arguably against lesser opposition compared to his ability & top-level experience. This is not to attack the MLS or an insinuation that Bradley should not have gone to the less highly regarded league (although many will question his decision to do so), but he has seemingly not proven himself against any teams that matter. Instead, Bradley has shown that he can be great in the USA line-up as a holding midfielder who can retain possession and keep Jermaine Jones from looking like an idiot.

Jones is usually the one to blame for a poor attacking USA display, but in this instance he’s had a fantastic World Cup. Previously he has been the cause of many fans complaints against the national side, but with his performances in Brazil this Summer, he’s really looked the part. He was getting in on tackles, and pushing up the pitch and when he had Fabian Johnson to give the ball to they could overwhelm a side, but when Johnson went down, Jurgen Klinsmann could and probably should have changed things around. Klinsmann’s belief in Bradley as his attacking midfielder with Jones and Kyle Beckerman/ Geoff Cameron should have changed at that moment. The DeAndre Yedlin substitution turned out to be a masterstroke, but shifting Bradley deeper into the team may have been the real key.

The USA national side has been struggling to find their identity in football. The scrappy wins that the team can carve out (can often prove to be great entertainment), but equally they can mask a team that is sometimes hard to watch play, in spite of them being “the better team”. In most of their qualification matches, many were clunky affairs, but the US team had proven that Michael Bradley could control the game without exposing the side to quick counter-attacks. So Klinsmann’s logic of trying to move him into a more offensive position makes sense, since he can make the passes that count. Getting him closer to goal and relieving him of defensive responsibilities could accelerate games. What Klinsmann seemignly failed to notice was that Bradley was keeping the possession of the ball and could move much more freely if he had someone in front of him. His earlier pairings with the often-injured Stuart Holden were fantastic, but Bradley is a poor dribbler. His quick passes allowed him to run into space and quickly run off the ball, not pull a Steven Gerrard.

Time and time again during the Belgium game and throughout the World Cup you would see Michael Bradley give the ball away in dangerous areas, or dribble himself into trouble. This the least of his transgressions in comparison to when he was not missing open scoring chances or just getting in the way. This allowed Jones (who was now doing Bradley’s usual job) a bit more room to barrel into defences, but he often lacked a solid passing aspect to his game. Playing three holding midfielders might be the future of the US national side and begin our philosophy of having a midfield that can hold onto the ball with an attack that will drop deep and open up holes. Quite possibly, our top scorers will not be strikers, but players who can play well in a “false-9” set-up. This might be a lot to ask for, but Klinsmann should explore this idea, at least in friendlies.

The injury to Jozy Altidore was a stroke of bad luck. He was the player who could keep the ball and had shades of Emile Heskey. He could knock the ball down to captain Clint Dempsey, or he could finish off a chance or two given some time and space. His hamstring injury really hurt the team, but Klinsmann should not have played Dempsey as lone striker AND he should have chosen Landon Donovan over Julian Green.

Yes, Green had a great goal against Belgium that gave hope late into extra time, but if Donovan was there I think we would not have needed that goal. Instead of forcing Bradley (who could hardly figure out how to play as a central attacking midfielder) to essentially play out-of-position, the player ended up sitting much deeper than he was supposed to. Donovan could have moved in centrally, or at the very least kept Graham Zusi out of the starting 11. While both Zusi and Green did well, this is a World Cup. Unlike France, we cannot leave a great playmaker at home.

Landon Donovan does have some issues if included in the team, but still he was not terrible in the dressing room and would have been great for his speed and finishing. He probably could have put in less wasteful crosses and not force Chris Wondolowski to wander aimlessly around the pitch. Despite this failed experiment of Michael Bradley being our orchestrator, there were positives overall; the team is playing much better, we have learned how to defend a lot more, and we can heap pressure. This is all despite us missing one of the greatest players in our history and playing a bright star out of position.

In four years, much of the team will still be there. Inevitably there will come a stage where we cannot choose Clint Dempsey as he will be too old, as will Landon Donovan. On the bright side, Julian Green is locked into the US system and he can now develop as a striker. Klinsmann has been fantastic for the US so far and despite these missteps the future is looking great for the USA national side.

 

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