I want to talk about the coaching ability of Bob Bradley in comparison to the ability of the Italian coach Marcello Lippi. In the past year or so, it has become apparent to me that the U.S. really has a problem when it comes to their coaching staff. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Bob Bradley, I think he’s a great guy, a good steward of the national team, in fact, he’s probably the best American manager currently out there. The problem is that at his best he is nothing more than a pretty decent coach.
Never has this fact been more glaring that in Monday’s loss to Italy. He was completely outcoached by a colleague with superior skills. For the average fan, Lippi’s substitutions were masterful, especially bringing on young striker Giuseppi Rossi. However, the way in which Lippi changed his team’s style of play to start the second half directly led to the Italian dominance.
Lippi understood what the mentality of the Americans would be starting the second half. Ahead 1-0 and down a man after the Ricardo Clark red card, emphasis would be placed on preserving the lead and only getting forward when opportunities presented themselves. Lippi played his team against this mentality and within five minutes it was starting to work. The Americans started the second half playing like they had at end of the first, but Lippi had his team break up U.S possession and then hold the ball in the middle third.
Just across the half line is where the Italians would begin to break down the U.S. defense, passing across the field and slowly pushing all 10 U.S. players into their defensive third. After 10 minutes, any attacking threat the U.S. might have mustered was long gone, playing in a defensive shell in hopes to preserve the 1-0 lead. It was at this point that Lippi made his attacking substitutions taking off players who skills were no longer needed on the field. (This plays into the fact that the Italian team is deep with talent, they don’t have a best 11 players, they have a best 18 players that they can mix and match at anytime to exploit other teams).
At this point the damage had been done. If it were a game of chess, Lippi just put Bradley in check, all that was left was just a few more rounds and then…checkmate.
Bradley should have had his team prepared for what Lippi would do. Bradley should have had his players mentally focused on taking it to the Italians. To keep taking risks, to keep the pressure. Instead, he took a page from the U.S. soccer coaches handbook: “Preserve the lead, defend, and wait for opportunities to counterattack.” You hear it all the time in American sports, “Defense wins championships.”
Unfortunately, that’s not always how it works in the world’s game. You see, in baseball, basketball and American football each team always gets a turn. (It’s very fair, isn’t it?) In basketball each team gets 24 seconds to score then the other team gets 24 seconds, called the shot clock. In baseball, your team gets three outs, and then the other team gets three outs. In American football, it’s four downs, then the other team gets four downs. That’s not how it works in soccer. Neither team is guaranteed their turn to attack, to get a chance on goal. It’s not fair, and that’s part of why they call it the beautiful game.
The live and die by defense mentality isn’t unique to Americans but it’s the go to method in the clutch, so much so, that it has become incredibly predictable. Bradley let his team fall into the trap, and the Italians took control. Game over.
I would love to give Bradley the benefit of the doubt, maybe he did tell his team at halftime to take it to the Italians, to go on the attack, to preserve the shape and keep playing their game. Unfortunately, I can’t do that. Bradley’s substitution choices go hand in hand with the defensive mindset. Charlie Davies for Jozy Altidore, the one player that was giving the Italian defense fits.
The player who had the ability (and was utilizing it) to hold the ball up on the attack while the midfield pushed forward. Charlie Davies is a smaller, speedy player, who is more geared towards the counterattacking philosophy with quick breaks. DeMarcus Beasley for Benny Feilhaber. A creative visionary passer, yes, he struggled at times against better, more talented opposition, but his passing was opening up the attack for the U.S. Beasley is player who is past his prime, and seeing how he has been used as a defender in the past few games, I hardly see this as a move to create more attacking opportunities. Sacha Kljestan for Jonathan Bornstein is an attacking move, but as it happened in the 86th minute, it was too little too late.
You might hear over and over again the argument that the reason why the U.S. had to play defensively and preserve the lead is because they were down a man. They couldn’t take too many chances and they couldn’t risk becoming too fatigued to keep pace with the Italians. That is a terrible excuse by the way. For anyone who has ever played the game competitively, you know that’s a terrible excuse. The fact remains that even with 10 men on the field, these players are conditioned enough to play the full 90 minutes all out. The fact that they are playing on the international stage for their country adds even more gas to the tank. Look to the World Cup, or the CONCACAF Gold Cup, or Euro 2008, when games go into overtime. An extra 30 minutes? Does plays suffer then? No, because players are conditioned and ready to go. Period.
I picked on JP Dellacamera already so let me pick on his counterpart in the moronic duo - John Harkes. In the telecast John Harkes said something along the lines of staying in their defensive shape and waiting for a chance to go forward. No, John! The best teams in the world keep their shape and MAKE their chances to go forward. Italy didn’t wait, they made it happen. Brazil and Spain do too. The U.S. should take note.