US Soccer: Why Donovan Is an Even Better Player with Klinsmann

Andy KontyCorrespondent IIJuly 19, 2013

TORONTO, CANADA - JUNE 3: Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann of USA congratulates Landon Donovan #10 as he walks off the field in the second half after a substitution against Canada during their international friendly match on June 3, 2012 at BMO Field in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Landon Donovan just played his 10th game for USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Klinsmann is 7-2-1 when Donovan suits up for his national team, including the last four games of the team’s record setting, eight-game winning streak.

With the Nats' next few matches all Gold Cup knock-out contests, the winning streak is likely to increase to 10 or 11 games. The prodigal son Donovan will go down in the record books as a key component in extending this impressive win streak.

Is this success with Donovan mere happenstance? Did Donovan return at just the right moment to ride the wake of some players eager to spend next summer in Brazil? Or is there something about Klinsmann’s system that could facilitate Donovan and the entire U.S. Soccer program reaching even loftier heights?

Klinsmann Deploys the Highly Flexible 4-2-3-1 Formation

In Donovan’s first game with Klinsmann, a 4-1 drubbing of an overmatched Scottish reserve side, Donovan started the game at right wing. According to ESPNFC Gamecast, Donovan spent most of his time attacking from the wing, but on the heat map there is evidence that Klinsmann inverted Donovan to the left hand side for at least part of the game.

Four days later and on the other end of the 1-4 thumping courtesy of the Brazilians, Donovan never moved from the right-hand side of the pitch. The same thing happened in a lackluster 72-minute appearance in a scoreless draw with the Canadians. When Donovan stayed wide right, the team performed poorly.

The next three appearances, and his last for nearly a year, started with two World Cup Qualifiers and finished with a 45-minute contribution to the miracle win in Mexico City. For this game Klinsmann lined Donovan up as an inverted left-winger and, as the heat map shows, Landon repeatedly cut inside on his right foot to attack the Mexican defense.  

That was Aug. 15, 2012, and it would be 10 months plus 20 days before Donovan would return for the Guatemala friendly. Donovan is back on the right wing but ends up playing a tad more central and behind his striker Herculez Gomez while attacking from every angle.

For Belize and Cuba Donovan is now fully up top, more advanced than Chris Wondolowski, according to the heat map. But in the third Group C game against Costa Rica, Donovan slipped back into the shadow striker role most recently occupied by Clint Dempsey. Landon dropped deeper into the midfield for the ball and ended up delivering the top assist of the tournament and the game winner for the U.S.

What does this data tell us? First, it demonstrates the flexibility of the 4-2-3-1 system. The key to this system is the two deep lying midfielders that provide cover, allowing the fullbacks to completely engage up the flanks while offering a link to build from the back into attack.

The four attacking players can actually deploy in any number of combinations, interchanging often during the run of play. This is where we find Donovan demonstrating his attacking versatility.

He can play the traditional right wing, invert to the left and attack to the inside, play centrally as the attacking mid or shadow striker or even stay up high with the striker to create more space through the midfield. Klinsmann has used him in all of these roles, and the success speaks for itself.

Klinsmann Has Better Players

It is now more than a decade since wunderkind Donovan was reluctantly anointed the savior of U.S. soccer. He's donned the American strip 146 times (second all-time), scoring 52 goals and recording 50 assists (both first).

In three World Cup Finals appearances, Donovan, fairly or not, received the credit or the blame for the team’s ultimate success.

His two goals at the 2002 finals pushed the team to the head-spinning heights of the quarterfinals before falling to a German team that could have been taken on that day.

In 2006 the Americans crashed out in the first round, and Donovan received much of the blame for what many judged to be a lackluster performance against Ghana.

In 2010 the Nats again made the second round with Donovan getting all of the accolades for his stunning stoppage-time goal against Algeria and the dramatic roof-job he did on Slovenia.

For the entire span of his career, Donovan was expected to carry his team, dominate the opposition and take his national team to World Cup glory.

But even players like Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo can’t do this. At the World Cup, great players need good players around them and a coach who can make it work.

In 2013 Donovan finds himself in the deepest player pool ever assembled by U.S. Soccer. Donovan is no longer expected to carry his national team, and it could even be argued that players like Dempsey and Michael Bradley are better players at this point in their careers.

Even playing with a second string midfield and a 30-something MLS striker, Donovan is demonstrating that his 50 assists are no fluke. He is simply more effective if he makes other players better first and then looks for his own shot second.

In three Gold Cup games Donovan has two goals and three assists. In 12 World Cup final games he has five goals and zero assists.

Now imagine what he can do playing alongside superstars Dempsey, Bradley and Jozy Altidore, plus a supporting cast that makes prior U.S. Soccer rosters anemic by comparison.


Klinsmann Is a Motivator

OK, so Klinsmann the Motivator is not everyone’s stein of weißbier. Several of his former German national team players later made disdainful comments about their coach’s attempts to motivate them. He got a similar heaping of haughty scorn from the supercilious prima donnas at Bayern Munich.

There was even an anonymous coward from the U.S. camp who didn’t like Klinsmann’s methods.

Forget the whining of these pampered prigs. The results speak for themselves. A German team that no one expected to do anything on their home soil found the will to grind their way into the tournament’s final four. Klinsmann’s American team beat Italy, Germany and Mexico City, sits alone atop its World Cup qualifying table and is on an eight-game winning streak that could reach 11 with a Gold Cup championship.

Not too shabby, particularly when you consider Klinsmann’s supposed tactical shortcomings. Surely he’s doing something right.

He’s pushed Dempsey to an even higher level of play and took a cane to the backside of his young striker, propelling a reputedly lazy Altidore to finally realize his potential. Even the son of the previous coach, Bradley, has picked up his game during Klinsmann’s tenure.

But what about Donovan? Where was Klinsmann’s motivational magic dust when the player decided to do nothing for six months?

Klinsmann didn’t try to put Donovan down for his choice to take a sabbatical, instead choosing to simply challenge Donovan to find his own inner drive for himself. If Donovan could find it again, he could try out again for Klinsmann’s team.

Early indications are that this move is working perfectly. Donovan also appears to be more motivated than ever to reach for the next level. This is not an easy feat considering the lofty heights Donovan already occupied and the creeping ennui the player was feeling.

So, we have a refreshed and newly motivated Donovan ready to go for the final run to Brazil. Our top assist man now has a cast who can support him rather than vice versa. All of this is within a tactical system that gets the most out of intelligent, high-energy players like Donovan.

Playing for Klinsmann, Donovan’s best is yet to come.


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