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Comparing Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena by the numbers

What exactly has Bruce Arena done to improve the national team?

United States Training Session Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Bruce Arena’s second tour as coach of the United States Men’s National Team has started off with an impressive fourteen game unbeaten streak. He’s secured the team’s sixth Gold Cup trophy and has them back on track for the World Cup next summer in Russia. But what exactly has Arena done differently than Jurgen Klinsmann? There are a multitude of opinions on the topic so let’s take a look at what the box scores reveal. Perhaps we can paint a picture with numbers that pinpoint the changes from one regime to the next.

Before going too far, one of the glaring issues with this kind of analysis is the difference in strength of schedule. Klinsmann scheduled challenging friendlies in Europe and competed in the Copa America Centenario. Simply comparing stats straight up won’t do. What I’ve done is created a basket of fourteen games under Klinsmann that, as much as possible, match the level of competition that Arena has faced. Starting with only games in this current World Cup cycle, games were matched by whether the game was home or away, the opponent’s confederation and whether or not the match was a friendly or a sanctioned competition. Those three characteristics had to be in place for a game to be eligible to be matched up and placed in the basket. If there were multiple options FIFA rankings broke the tie. For example, the Venezuela friendly was matched with the Peru friendly. The recent Panama Gold Cup draw was matched with the 2015 competitive Gold Cup match (not the 3rd place game). This analysis still looks at Klinsmann’s entire body of work during this cycle, but this manufactured basket of games should be a more relevant comparison.

The offense

Offensively the two coaches look remarkably close. Klinsmann enjoyed 52 percent of possession during this cycle while Arena’s is just shy of 55 percent. The Klinsmann basket closes the gap slightly at 53%. Goals and shots are also very close.

Both coaches average 1.9 goals a game with Arena’s team attempting slightly more shots. Klinsmann’s basket outperforms Arena by one goal with the shots evening out. Arena’s teams are shooting on target more frequently but those shots aren’t translating to more goals. The passing statistics are also quite close.

The USMNT attempts just as many passes with either coach but Arena gets a slightly higher share in the attacking third. Arena’s teams have 28% of possession in the attacking third while Klinsmann’s basket is at 25%. Given Arena scored one fewer goal means that Arena’s team is slightly less efficient when in possession, but not by much. That could be partly because they rely on crosses when in the attacking third slightly more under Arena. Arena’s team attempts a cross every 7.2 passes in the attacking third while Klinsmann’s basket was at 7.5. We’re grasping for subtle differences here.

The pass completion rates are also nearly identical. It’s safe to say that the difference between Arena and Klinsmann has not been when the team has the ball.

The defense

The stark difference between the coaches emerge when looking at the defense. Bruce Arena’s team has allowed a very stingy 0.6 goals per game. That’s 50% less than Klinsmann’s 1.2 goals against during the cycle. Klinsmann’s basket is better at 0.9 but Arena’s still reduced opponent scoring by 38%. The consensus reason would be that Arena’s defense is more conservative and better organized, especially when opponents reach the attacking third. In fact, the numbers suggest that is the case. Arena’s defense allows far fewer shots on goal by staying more centrally compact, forcing the opponent out wide and more effectively clearing the ball from danger. Here are the opponent shot stats.

Immediately Arena’s advantage reveals itself. Almost the entire difference in goals allowed can be attributed to allowing 32% fewer shots on goal driven by 23% fewer shots allowed. Let’s examine how that might be happening.

Part of the reason could be because Arena’s opponents attempt 12% fewer passes in their attacking third over the course of a game. Could that be due to opponents playing more direct? While there’s no easy way to determine that with certainty, looking at pass completion rates gives some indication that is not happening.

Arena’s opponents have more success passing the ball in the final third than Klinsmann’s basket, which generally means they are completing shorter passes, not longer ones. Remember that more successful passing in the final third is not resulting in more shots attempted. This indicates that Arena’s team could be laying off the opponent as they approach compared to how Klinsmann would direct. Again, that’s hard to see without detailed tracking data but just looking at tackles won we can see that Klinsmann’s players were more aggressive defensively. Klinsmann’s basket won 15 tackles per game while Arena’s team has won just 12 per game. That might not seem like much but the 24% increase does indicate a more pressure oriented defense which makes a team more likely to be pulled out of shape, and perhaps be more susceptible.

Looking at crossing frequency and clearances also paint a picture of an Arena team more centrally compact.

Arena’s opponents pass the ball just 5.6 times before attempting a cross indicating that they were much more likely to approach from wide spaces, and are allowed to do so. With the opponent wide and the defense more compact the team has increased the amount of clearances each game.

The big picture

According to the box scores, the big change from Klinsmann to Arena is opponents getting shots off much less consistently and getting less of them to the goalkeeper, resulting in much better defense. Arena has done this by dictating more positional discipline and less overall up field aggression, which is exactly what needs to be done to fix a team quickly. That Arena has brought structure to the United States defense without sacrificing anything offensively is the real coup. Klinsmann promised more proactivity but in the end that aggression probably cost him on the defensive end without gaining enough on offense. Arena has found the right balance and the USMNT is back on track as a result.