By Paul Gardner
Jurgen Klinsmann's coaching methods have always struck me as having a rather weird fringe to them. Remember the fitness gurus and the team chants with the German national team? Then the curious case of the Buddha statues at Bayern?
Well, OK, if that stuff works, so be it. It worked for Germany, but Bayern was unimpressed and Klinsmann got himself fired. Now, while both Germany and Bayern seem to be getting along pretty well without Klinsmann, we’re getting a close up of his methods as he mentors the USA.
Frankly, the weirdness is still much in evidence. Not that it would matter, not if the USA were winning games and playing sparkling soccer. Klinsmann has had couple of good results. But winning in Italy and in Mexico are wins that look good in the stats, but those were exhibition games and the awkward truth is that the USA did not play exactly riveting soccer in either of them.
But the USA’s two most recent games were almost in the anti-sparkle category: An insipid 0-0 tie for the “B” team against Canada, followed by a characterless 2-1 World Cup qualifying loss to Honduras. Two games in which the USA struggled and stumbled and stuttered and was frankly boring to watch.
When the results are not there, then the coach’s training methods come under scrutiny. Klinsmann has let us know, repeatedly, what he finds lacking in the make-up of American players. They don’t play enough games, they lack the every-day challenging, competitive environment that youngsters face in all the major soccer countries.
A criticism that certainly has merit, though I find it extraordinarily odd that Klinsmann has so little to say about college soccer -- still the training ground for the majority of American players, and the perfect example of what he is complaining about: a short season and a comfortable ambience.
Klinsmann doesn’t like the comfort-zone atmosphere. He’s also let us know about how he would like to alter that. The key word is “nasty.” That’s what he told us after the USA got mauled 4-1 by Brazil last summer: "We need to get an edge, [get] nastier." Any attempt to soften Klinsmann’s word is ruled out by his follow up: “Maybe we don't want to hurt people. But that's what we've got to do.”
And if there are any doubts remaining, you can just take a look at the player whom Klinsmann lauds as the ideal of this presumably super-fit and certainly nasty profile -- the German-American Jermaine Jones. I can find nothing positive to say about Jones, a player with an appalling disciplinary record in the Bundesliga, the player whose gratuitous and nastily and dangerously vicious foul on Neymar during that Brazil game should have led Klinsmann to disown him. It did not -- Jones still plays for the USA. A triumph for nastiness, and a clear spelling out of what Klinsmann means by it.
The demand for more games might also be viewed with some suspicion, given that there are plenty of coaches around -- World Cup coaches -- who feel that players are involved in too many games. It has become a commonplace to excuse players who do not perform well in the World Cup by saying they’re tired, they’re “coming off a hard season.”
Of more immediate impact are a couple of aspects linked to the number of games: physical fitness and diet. Klinsmann has plenty to say on these topics. The health gurus are in evidence, and there is now a nutritionist. Can a national team coach, who sees the players for very limited periods, really control things like fitness programs and eating habits? Come to that ... are we being asked to believe that, in this day and age, young American athletes don’t know how to eat properly? I doubt that Klinsmann is confronted by a gaggle of fast-food-munchers and soda-guzzlers whenever he calls a national camp.
Well, OK, attitude, nastiness, eating right and keeping fit -- I’ll get back to them shortly, but for the moment, let’s listen to what Klinsmann has to say about the soccer. Speaking before the Canada game, Klinsmann emphasized “We want them to enjoy themselves ... play fast-paced soccer, be there for each other, do a lot of movement off the ball.” He told the Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Futterman of some aspects that had improved during his time in charge: “The passing pace, the movement off the ball, playing out of the back with confidence.”
Playing out of the back is, to some extent measurable, by taking note of what the goalkeeper does. Does he belt all his kicks way downfield -- or is he prepared to throw or roll the ball to a teammate? The Canada game was not a good occasion to assess this, as the U.S. goalkeeper Sean Johnson had very little to do. But against Honduras, Tim Howard saw plenty of the ball and had numerous chances to initiate “play out of the back” sequences.
Did he do so? He did not. Howard had 31 occasions to put the ball into play (including goal kicks, free kicks, clearances) -- and for 23 of these, he used the long ball, towering high kicks sent way down field. Only four times did he throw the ball to a teammate. When 75% of the goalkeeper’s distribution efforts are blind whacks upfield, it’s hard to detect any great inclination to “play the ball out of the back.”
Klinsmann’s wish for “a lot of movement off the ball” would no doubt be shared by most coaches. For sure. No coach wants his players standing around. I once asked the Dutch coach Rinus Michels, the putative inventor of the “total soccer” style, for his thoughts on the matter. He replied “It is not difficult to get players to do lot of running. But to get them to move intelligently ... ah, that is not so easy.”
I’m not at all sure how one measures intelligent running, except by looking at a team’s rhythm and at its results. The poor U.S. results against Canada and Honduras strongly suggest that all is not well in the movement-off-the-ball department.
In the Honduras game, the USA was opposed by a strong team playing on its own field. Losing that game was no disgrace, but it’s surely OK to feel that Klinsmann, in charge of the team for a year and a half, should be giving us something better. What we’re getting does not look detectably better than -- or different from -- either Bob Bradley’s or Bruce Arena’s teams.
From that point of view, it seems to me that heavy criticism can be visited on Klinsmann not for the loss in Honduras, but for the tie with Canada. After all, the U.S. team, “B” team let’s call it, was not patched together in five minutes. Klinsmann had selected these guys, and they were good players -- in fact, five of them had been part of the MLS All-Star team in July.
Crucially, and tellingly, Klinsmann had these guys in camp before the game for three and a half weeks. Evidently, that is not long enough for Klinsmann to get them playing the way he wants. Which is pretty bad news, because Klinsmann will not be getting any group of players together for much longer than that.
Just before the second half of the game, Klinsmann was on TV, explaining a tactical switch he was about to make, then adding that he wanted the team to play with more urgency. The attitude of the players, then, was too relaxed.
But how could this be so after those three-and-a-half weeks, when Klinsmann must surely have brought that up, one of his pet peeves after all, again and again? And is not Klinsmann supposed to be a dynamite motivator?
Something is wrong here -- either the master-motivator is not so master, or the American players fatally lack the competitive streak. Or maybe they’re just too nice? That is, not nasty enough.
I strongly doubt the latter. As for Klinsmann’s coaching and motivating methods, that gets us back to where I began. To the weirdness factor.
Consider the topics -- Klinsmann’s topics -- that we’ve been looking at: mental attitude (including the nastiness thing); fitness; nutrition.
There is a strong thread running through that group. They are all self-help topics. Your local bookstore will offer you dozens of books dealing with them. And each book will claim to represent the ultimate wisdom. Just do what we tell you -- the right mental exercises, the correct diet, the proper fitness routine and you’ll be conquering the world and leaving the wimps behind. We have entered the world of gurus.
When Klinsmann told the WSJ: “I certainly feel part of the American life style. I adopted a lot of components” he must have been talking about the California lifestyle. I’m not about to say that listening to the health gurus and the diet gurus and the motivational gurus is a total waste of time. But I do regard it as a bit weird. And when the gurus are employed to operate in areas where their expertise is unlikely to produce any dramatic effect, I have to wonder why they’re being employed at all.
Over all these guru topics there hangs the unsavory suspicion of hucksterism. A suspicion that can only be dispelled by proof that the gurus are delivering. Are Klinsmann’s gurus delivering?
Back in September last year during preparations for the world qualifier in Jamaica, there appeared at the USA’s national team camp -- at Klinsmann’s invitation -- a motivationist Donnie Moore, who climaxed his rousing harangue by ripping up phone books, breaking baseball bats, and then rolling up a frying pan. Boy, I mean, how inspirational can you get?
Suitably fired up the USA took the field and lost 2-1 to Jamaica in what was probably the team’s worst performance, so far, of the Klinsmann era.
Yeah ... I do find guruism weird.