Any numbers presented without context are dangerous, and that truth is all the more important when looking at the results of Dave Sarachan’s tenure as United States Men’s National Team interim head coach. He rolled out the ball a dozen times and finished with three wins, four draws and five losses, a record that by itself is short of any reasonable standard. But, Sarachan stepped in as the standard had hit bottom.
There was turmoil at the top of the Federation, and almost the entire player pool needed to be turned over to new faces with inexperience on their résumés. His job was to rebuild the house from scratch, while knowing he wouldn’t be around to see it finished. At the same time, he played a difficult friendly schedule, with all but one team among the top 35 teams in the world. Unlike other USMNT managers, he didn’t get to pad his statistics against the minnows of CONCACAF, and so perhaps that record isn’t so terrible.
Here’s a look at the goal scoring rate in coach Sarachan’s games compared to Jurgen Klinsmann’s second cycle run and Bruce Arena’s second tenure. To make the comparisons more relevant, there’s a look at Klinsmann’s friendlies against UEFA and CONMEBOL competition (he was 7-2-5) and Arena’s qualifier matches only (3-3-2).
Sarachan’s offensive troubles jump out when looking at goals per game. Even Klinsmann, when coaching friendlies against similar competition, was able to maintain a goal scoring rate of 1.9 goals per game. Arena’s teams, while facing lighter competition in general, was also scoring at a solid clip.
There is more variance on the defensive side. Here, Arena separated himself from Klinsmann, whose teams were particularly poor defensively in those friendlies. Sarachan’s teams were generally sound defensively. If not for the second half against Colombia and the England match, Sarachan’s goals against number would have beaten Arena’s, but those lapses did occur.
Goal scoring can simply be broken down into the ability to generate shots and the ability to finish them. Sarachan’s teams struggled on both accounts. Klinsmann and Arena managed teams that similarly took 11 to 12 shots per game, while Arena stood out on the defensive side of the ball, allowing just 10 shots per game.
Not only did Sarachan’s teams struggle to generate shots, they were poor at finishing them compared to his predecessors. Of course, that could be chalked up to the youth of the squad, but it could also be the result of poor shot selection or just an inability to generate high quality chances. On the defensive side, Sarachan’s teams looked more like Arena’s lean sides. When comparing his lineups to Klinsmann’s UEFA and CONMEBOL friendlies, Sarachan’s teams minimized the opponent’s finishing effectiveness. That Sarachan was able to limit talented teams to a below average finishing rate does say something about his teams’ defensive organization.
Pulling back to the final third can indicate where some of the shooting issues evolved. Sarachan’s teams spent the least amount of time their final third, with just 22% of their passes originating from that area. Meanwhile, Arena’s teams spent the most time in that zone. Looking on the defensive side, the same trends hold true. Generally speaking, getting to the final third with fewer passes is a function of direct play. That same observation holds true when looking at total passes per game.
Arena’s games had the fewest passes, usually a sign of more direct play, while Sarachan’s games had the most total passes, indicating the teams were looking to build up from deeper with more shorter passes. Digging into the defensive side of the ball where Sarachan’s teams showed some promise, especially given the ragtag high turnover nature of his rosters, reveals some interesting characteristics.
Beyond goals allowed there are three available statistics that help provide more insight into the type of defense the teams were playing. On the left hand side of the graph is clearances as a percentage of the opponents final third passes. Arena’s teams were a clearance happy bunch, especially in the Gold Cup. Over Arena’s tenure more than one in five opponent final third passes resulted in a clearance by the U.S. Meanwhile for Sarachan that number was less than one in ten. It seems like a tactical choice rather than one dictated by any sort of skill. In the case of Sarachan’s games, better teams are going to be more patient in the final third than the typical CONCACAF foe that Arena faced. But again we see that Sarachan was likely teaching the need to regain and keep possession, compared to Arena’s goal of getting it out of the zone and down the field quickly.
The next statistic is opponent crosses as a percentage of final third passes. This statistic helps indicate just how compact and narrow the defense is sitting. A higher cross percentage indicates teams are being forced wide by a tight central defense. Sarachan’s teams had the lowest such measure indicating their defensive setup may have been more spread out. You could argue that result might be more the measure of the quality of the opponent the U.S. faced recently, because those teams would be less likely to settle for crosses, but comparing that result to Klinsmann’s UEFA and CONMEBOL results at 15% would suggest Sarachan’s defense was not that narrow. Despite the more aggressive approach defensively, Sarachan’s teams were still able to block 24 percent of their opponents shots. Part of the reason they were able to keep the opponent’s finishing rate so low.
Because Sarachan never got to play a competitive international match, his tenure will largely be an afterthought as the next cycle picks up steam. But, Sarachan was able to pull together a young group that had never played together before, and got them to play sound defense against a difficult schedule. Excusing about 130 minutes of play, the defense was largely exceptional, and he did that without resorting to traditional bunker and clearance tactics. His attempts to instill build up play on offense did fall short. The team was not able to generate shots or finish them with the regularity of prior teams. For a team that is young and rebuilding this makes sense. The offense will be the hardest thing to put together while staying organized is something any level of talent can accomplish.
So it comes down to context. Is Sarachan’s record simply poor and his offense bad, or was the foundation respectably built for a new player pool, despite being surrounded by disorder? From here on out, the spoils go to Gregg Berhalter. My take is that he owes Sarachan more than a small mention of thanks.
All data compiled from mlssoccer.com