Extremely successful soccer is played at the extremes. While the game itself requires a fluid balance between possession and defense, the teams that consistently stand above the competition do so by committing to excellence at one end or the other. There are a significant set of teams focused on controlling the ball - clubs like Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, and the ever-present philosophy at Bayern Munich and Barcelona are a handful. But recent runs by Leicester City, RB Leipzig, Portugal in the Euro 2016 and to some extent Atletico Madrid in last year’s Champions League showcase how a commitment to defensive shape can also secure trophies, or get you to the doorstep. What is harder to find are examples of success by teams that don’t adopt a focus on one end of the spectrum or the other.
Which style a team chooses to play is generally a function of player quality. Because possession oriented soccer is considered more successful and crowd pleasing at the same time, it is the preferred tactical approach. The problem is that teams that employ that approach must have excellent players, being both physically strong and technically sound. If a manager knows they do not have players then a more defensive approach becomes appealing.
What does all this have to do with the USMNT? For one thing the United States doesn’t have a clear tactical identity like the examples above. There are at least two reasons for that and they are not Sunil Gulati and Jurgen Klinsmann. The geographical location of the United States is actually one problem from a tactical point of view, and the other is the fact that the US is in the middle of the learning curve as it relates to developing world class players.
First, let’s discuss geography. The men’s team plays too diverse a set of teams to be able to fixate on one end of the spectrum from the other. Consider the US plays the majority of its games in CONCACAF, a confederation of mostly small nations and handful of soccer powers. The United States has played teams this cycle like St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Haiti and Cuba. They’ve also played a surging Mexico, Costa Rica, Germany and Brazil. During this cycle the current median FIFA ranking of teams they’ve played is 41.5 while the US currently sits at 28. More than half the time the US is playing teams they are better than, but in the biggest games they have a clear disadvantage in terms of player quality. This is not a factor that the US is alone in facing, but then there is the next issue.
The second factor is where the US is in the process of player development. The US rebooted its development system ten years ago and that’s not nearly enough time to judge but so far it hasn’t clearly improved the talent on the senior team. The reality is that when the US plays their biggest matches in the World Cup or even against Mexico or Costa Rica in qualifying they are putting out the second best soccer players on the field, and it’s going to be this way for the foreseeable future.
The US is stuck in the middle.
One way to observe the two extreme playing styles is by looking at possession statistics. In a single game the possession statistic tells very little, but when looked at over the course of a season the statistic can be useful. Defensive teams tend to be fine with less possession while the possession oriented teams obviously demand a larger share of the ball. Here is a graph showing the distribution of possession by English Premier League champions Leicester City in 2015-16, a team that excelled at defending and counterattacking. Also on the graph is second place Arsenal’s possession distribution. Arsenal are known for their beautiful possession based play.
Two top teams playing two different styles.
Now overlay the USMNT possession statistics for this World Cup cycle.
As you can see the US have a much flatter distribution and a wide range of possession outcomes. The US had a cycle low possession level of 32% against Argentina and a high of 83% against St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The chart below looks more closely at the competition the US played when they were both above 50 percent possession and below 50 percent possession.
When the US is below 50 percent possession they are almost always (85 percent) playing against the stronger nations in Europe, South America, Mexico and Costa Rica. When the US has more than 50 percent of the ball they are more than likely playing against the weaker portion of CONCACAF.
If you agree that the US should focus on one end of the field or the other, then which direction should they go? Should the US work out a possession oriented style that will surely overwhelm the majority of their competition but leave them exposed in the biggest matches? Or should they play more conservatively across the games, which would result in giving lesser opponents more of the ball and maybe keeping those games closer, while giving themselves a better chance in the biggest matches?
This issue becomes more glaring for the important set of qualifiers in March. Honduras and Panama are the top teams in the confederation after Mexico and Costa Rica. It’s with these dangerous second tier opponents where home field is enough of an advantage that the lack of commitment becomes most exposed. At home against Honduras the US might have the edge and Honduras will no doubt let them have most of the ball. But on the road at Panama the US may want to play more conservatively, perhaps even bunker in. Can they and should they prepare two different styles of play?
When a team like the US has failed to develop a consistent identity at one end of the pitch or the other, the games when the talent gap is minimal highlight the need for a focus. The decision has ramifications for formation and player selection and having too many changes from game to game can lead to inconsistent results as the country witnessed with Jurgen Klinnsman in charge.
Klinnsman attempted to push for a possession based style early in his tenure before pulling an about face when the games got real in Brazil. He never pushed for possession consistently again. Bruce Arena is said to be implementing a “pragmatic” style which sounds a shade defensive and that will be the right thing to see the US through to Russia. But where should the US be headed for the long term? Should they play conservatively and attempt to build on bigger results or perfect the style that the best teams in the world strive to play. One way may be ugly and boring and might frustrate the fan base anxious for progress. The other way may be attractive and foolish. That’s the conundrum the US is staring at and will be for a long time until they commit to an extreme.