In just over two months, Bob Bradley will coach the most important game of his life. Love him or hate him, June 11 marks the pinnacle of an extraordinary journey that started as the 22-year-old head coach at the University of Ohio. I think everyone would understand if Bradley took a moment before kickoff against England, gazed around the stadium, and muttered, “Wow.”
But the question United States fans want to know is if Bradley, who four years ago was considered a journeyman MLS coach, can beat Fabio Capello and one of the top five soccer nations in the world. Of course, the U.S. could win — just like Keanu Reeves could win an Oscar — but is it realistic?
Last fall, Bradley was interviewed by Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl; the story was tittled “Bob Bradley explains his approach to soccer.” The headline gives the impression of a fascinating discussion on Bradley’s soccer philosophy, but unfortunately it’s as insightful as an Alan Greenspan congressional hearing. To recap, Bradley admires great teams (Milan of the 90s), great coaches (Ferguson, Ancelotti, Mourniho), he watches lots of soccer, believes teams should challenge themselves by playing tougher teams and even if your tactics are perfect players still have to perform. Not exactly ground-breaking.
But through the mumbojumbo one nugget stood out. In response to a question about the U.S.’s strategy going into the Confederations Cup match against Spain, Bradley said:
Xavi is a key. Xavi is not a guy that any team could ever really mark with one player. We don’t typically mark with one man, because in modern soccer, you see a guy like Xavi and he’s moving all over the place. He’s always available and he’s getting the ball. So the number of times in every game when he receives the ball and passes the ball, the numbers are almost higher than any other player. If you went back to the statistics in ’08 you would see he’s completing 80, 90, 100 passes in almost every game.
So now you prepare that as they move around your sense of now how to stay tight as a unit, obviously with a guy like Xavi what you’re trying to do is to see if you can make it more difficult for him to play the ball forward, make him play more balls square, more balls backwards, not allow him to receive the balls in the most dangerous areas where his penetrating passes are going to cause you trouble. So that’s a big thought. You try to make sure there’s a sense, to use an example, of the movement of a guy like Fernando Torres, who’s very clever moving along the line. And so you try to have a picture of how they play and how you will move as a team and trying to deal with certain things.
Inside this rambling mess there’s some encouraging substance. In short, Bradley’s saying: When facing a better team, you have to take away what they do best. This isn’t a secret (it’s what Jose Mourinho does better than anyone), but it shows Bradley is a serious soccer thinker. He scouted Spain thoroughly (and correctly) enough to know Xavi was the brain’s of the operation and convinced his players to execute a winning game plan.
On the other hand, look at what Arsene Wenger (my favorite manager) did last week against Barcelona. Wenger’s strategy was to fight fire with fire and try to beat Barcelona at it’s own game. Wenger didn’t realize (or was too stubborn to admit) Arsenal, even at home, couldn’t matchup against Barcelona. So Wenger didn’t employ the “stop Xavi and you stop the team” strategy and let Xavi run free. The result was 60 minutes of Xavi slicing and dicing the Gunner defense with ease.
This doesn’t mean Bradley is as good or even in the same universe as Wenger. But it does show Bradley’s strength; he understands the limitations of his team and he tries to find ways around it, not fight through it. Some people get angry at Bradley for his rigid, long ball, counter-attacking tactics but would the U.S. be better off it gave their best Barcelona impression and lost every match 5-2? For me it’s about results, not beauty.
There was something else in Bradley’s Xavi answer that made me smile:
So the number of times in every game when he receives the ball and passes the ball, the numbers are almost higher than any other player. If you went back to the statistics in ’08 you would see he’s completing 80, 90, 100 passes in almost every game.
In American sports, the statistical revolution is taking over, making everyone from fans to coaches question assumption which were once considered basic truths in their sport. Soccer is lagging behind but the two sentences above tell me Bradley cares about stats and he tries to learn from them. Numbers matter and sometimes (like this Xavi example) they matter a lot.
Still, looking at his body of work Bradley is not a tactical genius and he’s not the Bill James of soccer. He’s an American coach whose crowning pre-national team was winning the 1998 MLS Cup. That said, he’s not terrible either. He has a steady demeanor, his players like him and he studies the game closely. But does he have a realistic chance of beating England? No, he doesn’t. Just like he didn’t have a realistic chance of beating Spain last summer and he didn’t have a chance in hell of going from coach at the University of Ohio to U.S. national team coach. Being realistic isn’t Bradley’s thing.