After last Saturday’s heroic performance by newcomer Jermaine Jones, many fans had the German pegged as the top holding midfielder in the United States Men’s National Team pool.
He completed 93% of his 41 passes, set up one assist, and should have had another in his debut match for the Stars and Stripes. Yet before we declare him a lock for the position, there’s another player in the group who may have a word or two in the matter (and the fact that his dad is the head coach doesn’t hurt). That’s Michael Bradley, of course.
Questions of nepotism aside, Michael Bradley has been a mainstay in the United States lineup for an entire qualifying cycle and has done quite a bit on his own to earn title as “The Holding Midfielder to Beat.” He is tenacious, he doesn’t quit, he scores important goals (the one against Slovenia comes to mind).
So with two gritty holding midfielders in the fold (let’s call Edu a defensive midfilder in this discussion), the performances displayed in unimportant friendlies such as against Colombia can go a long ways in the coach deciding who his go-to guy will be come crunch time in the Gold Cup and World Cup Qualifiers.
Tuesday night’s clash in Chester, PA saw coach Bob Bradley once again pull out the lab coat and experiment with the team, this time in an unusual 4-3-3 lineup. The midfield featured Edu, Bradley, and Jones, all players with defensive tendencies, in a diamond formation with the Rangers’ Edu playing strict defensive midfielder and the other two playing more centrally. This formation was actually a 4-1-2-3, a pretty unusual set up, and a relative gamble for the head coach, who is undoubtedly trying to figure out how to get his best midfielders on the pitch at one time.
It is because of this question in midfield why we cover Michael Bradley in a series of whiteboards (yes, plural. You’ll see why…). We have broken down Bradley’s performance by half for two reasons: 1) his role changed at half time. 2) he had so many touches, that it gets very cluttered and hard to read if combined into one diagram.
Bradley’s first half stats are as follows:
27 passes completed, 3 incomplete for a percentage of 90%
0 completed crosses, 2 incomplete for a percentage of 0%
1 successful tackle
0 fouls drawn
0 passes intercepted
0 foul committed
After Jones’ successful one game stint as holding midfielder, Bob Bradley opted this evening to give that role to his son, Michael and the results were both similar and different (expert analysis for you, right there). They were similar in the fact that both Bradley and Jones had an exceptional pass percentage of 90% or greater. Their job, in this role, is to command the middle of the field and provide service to the wings and forwards. They don’t win a lot of headers nor have been getting dirty in tackles (Bradley turned this off a year or two ago).
Where Bradley in the first half against Colombia, differed from Jones in the first game, was on meaningful service to the striker(s). As we noted in our last feature, Jones flips a switch when entering the attacking half of the field and his passes become more direct through balls to streaking attackers. This is how he set up an assist to Jozy and almost tallied another in the second half with a slicing pass to the forward. Bradley, on the other hand, pushed most of the balls in this area out wide or backwards, rarely giving support to Jozy, who in turn was deprived of service.
So Jones is better than Bradley then? Well, not really, or at least one can’t immediately jump to that conclusion based on the first half against Colombia. Comparing this lineup with Saturday’s is a lesson in futility, especially because Bob had three midfielders, all defensive, with no attacking midfielder up field ahead of them. These three players, who are all used to playing centrally, frequently got in each others’ way, and often times looked out of sync, with no one to pass to in the upper-middle of the field.
Early in the game, Bradley was attempting to hook up with Edu on a short pass near midfield, but as the Rangers player was tracking backwards, Bradley mistimed his movements and dumped the ball outside of Edu’s reach. This giveaway led to Colombia’s best shot on goal, and, had it not been for a nice Guzan save, would have once again cost the USA an early goal. Many times throughout the first half we saw the three midfielders looking tight and awkward, with little options of support in the attacking third.
Despite sharing the same area with Jones, Bradley was allowed to play more centrally while also having the right side as his domain, leaving German Jones with just the left region of the field to call his own. The Schalke man was clearly uncomfortable in this restricted position and had many more turnovers than in his debut. He noticeably did better facing up field with space to maneuver as opposed to trapping the ball with his back to the opponent’s goal near the sideline.
The three midfielders were struggling to share the same space together and the Americans’ attack suffered. They had zero chances on goal and little to no action in the attacking third. The elder Bradley had to make a change, and the second half saw his more traditional 4-4-2 (not quite the empty bucket, though) and an improved effort by Michael Bradley.
Bradley’s second half stats are as follows:
46 passes completed, 3 incomplete for a percentage of 96%
0 completed crosses, 1 incomplete for a percentage of 0%
3 passes intercepted
2 successful tackles
2 headers won
1 foul committed
What stands out here is Bradley’s dramatic improvement in his involvement in the game. He nearly doubled his amount of touches and turned the whiteboard into a veritable blueboard! His accuracy was near perfect, at 96%, and he even had a few more tackles and interceptions than in the first half. But what changed?
A large part of his improved involvement in the game was his increased responsibility. Edu was removed from the defensive midfield position and replaced with a more attacking midfielder in Clint Dempsey. This change essentially made Bradley the traditional holding midfielder, whose job it was to take the ball from the defenders and spread it out wide to the wingers. Because of this, he got many more touches on the ball and simple passes completed in the back, setting up the attack.
More than just given more room track back, Bradley was told to push the ball forward and actually had the necessary support to do so. Because of the additions of Dempsey and Feilhaber, Bradley was no longer the furthest midfielder up the park. He had options to go to out wide as well as up top, and the majority of his service came from midfield or higher in the attacking half the field. The result was an improved presence in attack and a few chances on goal.
Jones’ role, in the second half, was to support Bradley, by giving him options up the left (and sometimes right) of the field, as well as pushing further forward in attack. Still not accustomed to not having the central role, Jones continued to give the ball away, though he had a much improved second half. He made many positive touches in the attacking half of the field and drew some important fouls as well.
What we learned from the game against Colombia is that the USA has two impeccably accurate holding midfielders who will be competing for their preferred spot in the center of the field for years to come. Neither generates dozens of tackles, interceptions, or headers. Both excel in taking the ball out of the back and making the tidy pass out wide. Both players possess an engine that continues to churn without fail through 90 minutes. While more of the play goes through Bradley in this role (he literally was involved in almost every passing sequence of the second half), Jones showed us on Saturday night that he can be incredibly dangerous in providing service to the forwards.
This battle for the most important position of the National Team provides Bob Bradley with an interesting challenge as we inch our way to the Gold Cup and World Cup Qualifying. Will Michael be able to outshine the newcomer over the course of the next year or will Jones’ refined offensive touch earn him a spot over the long time stalwart of the middle? If Jones even deserves the slot, will Bob put his son on the bench (I can’t actually remember a time when Michael was even subbed off…just saying)? These questions have to be asked, and will definitely be answered over the next four years (to much debate in the future).
This begs the question: why can’t the United States have this problem up top?
Overall, Bradley gets a B performance grade.