The recent Champions League Semifinal between Barcelona and Inter Milan has been a much publicized upset for the Italians and their mercurial coach.
The aggregate win for the Nerazzurri ends a 38-year absence from a European club final, heralds a triumphant return to Barcelona for their manager Jose Mourinho, and reminds spectators as to why anti-football is such a tempting soccer tactic for a team and a coach.
"Anti-football," for those not familiar with the term, is a derogatory label often used when criticizing ultra-defensive tactics in which every man is behind the ball defending except for a lone striker.
Jose Mourinho has been known to utilize this tactic on a number of occasions. The hope is to not lose rather than to try and win.
When facing the best competition (like they will this summer), the U.S. national team has been known to employ a similar tactic, if not the definition of anti-football. The team favors a heavily defensive approach.
For American national team viewers that may have tuned into this club contest, they couldn't help but find Inter's play to be eerily similar to America's.
The U.S. might stretch itself during its counter-attack and patches of possession a little more than Inter did, but the underlying philosophy was the same: defend first, attack second.
For Internazionale it was enough to advance.
However, the Italians had a two-goal advantage heading into the contest and, like the U.S. defending their lead against Spain for the last 30 minutes, all Inter needed to do was defend their lead...albeit for a lot longer, an entire game longer.
To label Mourinho's tactics a gamble could be considered an understatement. It was a risk, and that's why he is considered one of the best coaches in the world. Still, there is a lesson here for the little less worldly Americans.
First, Inter put on a clinic about how to play ultra-team defense. Each player had a role and executed it perfectly. Midfielders marked a line, and once Barcelona crossed that line, they pressed the ball-handler.
The United States has difficultly with this concept.
Oftentimes, the midfield drops back in an attempt to add numbers to the defensive line and allows room for long distance shots. In this day and age, players are too accurate from distance to allow an open shot from 30 yards out.
Secondly, the defense relied on excellent positioning and smart decision making to keep Barcelona's attack at bay. There was less of a tendency to rely on physical prowess and bodies blocking shots in order to defend; there's too much left to chance when balls bounce around in the box.
Unfortunately, the U.S. relies more on the latter than the former.
What's even more important than these lessons is that Inter lost to win. After the group stage, the U.S. can't lose and still win just like Inter won't have a second chance at the Champions League final.
It's also important to note that some of the best defenders in the world were playing for entire, and they still lost.
Sure it can be argued that Barcelona is one of the best offensive teams in the world, if not the best. Likewise, it should be noted that the United States' defenders are not considered among the elite at the position, but they will still be playing the best attackers.
Keeping all of that in mind, is it such a good idea for the U.S. to employ such a defensive-minded approach this summer?
Unless they've already qualified for the second round, or unless it's the last 10 minutes of a game, Inter's outcome says no.
Lastly, what message does this send to the U.S. team?
Tim Howard has already inferred that a number of the players may feel intimidated by the much more accomplished European squads. Will over-emphasizing an opponent's offensive talents over your team's abilities be psychologically detrimental?
Also, how does this plan relate to the aggressive nature cultivated in American society? America encourages assertiveness if not aggression (i.e. "you can do anything you put your mind to"). We are attracted to offense, scoring, and "taking over a game."
This can't be lost on American players. Will they be comfortable if the philosophy contradicts their mindset? Will they reach their potential?
In the end they will have to, and Bob Bradley will select the players that he believes will best execute his plan. But on the world's stage, American fans will have to ask, "Is this who we are, how we want our team to play, and how we want to be remembered?"
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