The major qualm with Jurgen Klinsmann when he was hired by the United States became embodied in Philipp Lahm’s autobiography, where the Bayern legend and former German international portrayed Joachim Loew as the real tactical mind behind the 2006 Nationalmannschaft. Klinsmann dwelled on fitness, never talked about tactics, and left the players to figure out how they would play the games, Lahm reported. “You have to score a goal” was the extent of one of Klinsmann’s halftime talks.
After Klinsmann’s four-plus years with the United States, Lahm’s criticism takes on a different look. Although his tactics are still debated among national team fans, Klinsmann has often made clear tactical choices, ones that betray the idea of an ambivalent toward how the team functions. From using Eddie Johnson as a player to target coming in from wide positions, to pulling midfielders into fullback roles to help control games in CONCACAF qualifying, Klinsmann has shown flexibility. We’ve seen teams that have varied from handcuffed by their own possession to ones that rely on counterattacking, depending on the strengths of their opponents. We’ve seems teams that become lopsided, building down only one flank, as well as teams that play more directly to their forwards.
If anything, a lack of consistency (or, coherency) is a bigger problem than a dearth of ideas, with Klinsmann’s want to leave people in the dark responsible for his Lahm-fueled reputation. Players are given places but not orders. Choices go without explanation. A style of communication, debatable in its own right, gets portrayed as tactical naiveté.
That label, a scarlet letter for coaches, is one that has also been sewn onto Klinsmann’s Saturday adversary, interim Mexico head coach Ricardo Ferretti. But as opposed to being inconsistent and nebulous, the man Mexico hired to bridge the gap between a fired Miguel Herrera and Juan Carlos Osorio tends to err too far toward clarity. With Tigres, his teams already play 4-4-2, relying on wide midfielders alone (with rare help from fullbacks) for width, usually placing one forward in a withdrawn role. It’s an approach with produces clear game plans, often leaves responsibilities with its players, and, as recent high-profile games have shown, can leave Tigres as sitting ducks.
As the Mexican Soccer Show did such a good job breaking down in a recent podcast, Tuca’s approach left his team second best in the 2014 Apertura, when a 1-0 win over América in Liguilla final’s descended into a sea of conflict, red cards and goals in the second. The Aguilas won at Estadio Azteca, 3-0, and claimed their 12th Mexican title.
Just under a year later, with Tigres on the verging of become the first Mexican team to claim Copa Libertadores, Ferretti oversaw another 3-0 in the final. This time it was Argnetina’s River Plate, having survived its trip to Mexico with a 0-0 draw, that exploited Ferretti’s team.
Each time, Tigres’ ever-growing payroll gave Ferretti enough talent to compete, if not expect victory. Each time, fans were left wondering if consistency of Ferretti’s approach allowed more flexible opposition to produce multi-goal margins.
In some ways, that consistency made Ferretti the perfect man to fill Mexico’s interim role. He doesn’t need to be clever, or force intricate ideas on his squads. For better or worse, he’s willing to give players the platform to succeed or fail, something that could have also become a virtue had he chosen to take permanent charge of Mexico’s talented squad.
On Saturday, though, it leaves an El Tri team prone to underachieving in a precarious position. In a one-game, winner-take-all event – on foreign soil, albeit in front of a sympathetic crowd – Ferretti will likely rely on the likes of Carlos Vela, Oribe Peralta, Hector Herrera and Andres Guardado to be the difference against the United States, and while those players have the talent to do so, their recent results against the U.S. inspire doubts. It’s been four years and six games since El Tri beat the U.S., a stretch that includes 180 scoreless minutes at Azteca. Through coaching chaos and the scare that was 2014 World Cup qualifying, Mexico’s core has repeatedly stumbled against its rivals. Not since the peaks Chepo de La Torre has a coach been able to get El Tri up to face the U.S.
If Ferretti stays true to form, he may again opt to be clear instead of clever. That clarity may take the form of a four-man defense, or he may opt for Piojo’s Herrera’s wingback approach. Regardless, he’s likely to leave his players in familiar roles, betting on talent and simplicity over recent history.
Even then, just like as it was America and River Plate, Tuca’s team could be a sitting duck. That could leave Klinsmann and his staff with easy targets when identifying space for Clint Dempsey to roam. It will leave them with certainties as they try to strike a balance in midfield, one that could allow Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones to again shine in the middle of the park. They’ll know how many chances Fabian Johnson can take getting forward, where Alejandro Bedoya will me most effective, or to what extent DeAndre Yedlin will need to help with players like Miguel Layun and Guardado. They’ll know all this because, just as against the Aguilas and in Copa, Tuca won’t overcomplicate his approach.
Maybe Klinsmann will find a note of inspiration, like using Johnson’s athleticism from wide to exploit smaller fullbacks. Or, maybe it will lead him to moment of arrogance, like assuming Dempsey and Bradley could play out of position at the World Cup. Regardless, though it’s sometimes been ugly, Klinsmann has found a way to get results in games that have truly counted, and if, unlike this summer’s Gold Cup, the man Lahm derided as naive decides on something new, it could very well be at the expense of Mexico’s less adventurous boss.
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