Well, take that Jurgen Klinsmann.
Never at any time during his five years in charge of the USA did any of Klinsmann’s teams put on a show like the 6-0 destruction of Honduras that marked the return of Bruce Arena.
Admittedly, I gave up watching Klinsmann’s teams after about three years, mostly because they bored the hell out of me. So maybe I missed something. Unlikely, I'd say. I returned as a watcher to see those final two disastrous games against Mexico and Costa Rica last November, the ones that finally convinced Sunil Gulati to fire Klinsmann. Two games in which the USA looked disorganized, disoriented, dispirited and, frankly, disgraceful.
How could the USA be that bad? Maybe some mysterious malaise had afflicted the players? It had. It was called Jurgen Klinsmann. The remedy arrived: Bruce Arena. In no time at all, working with the same players who had featured on Klinsmann’s teams, Arena produced a team that played with swaggering confidence, with an attacking brio, and with an impressive level of skill.
Is there any explanation for this almost overnight transformation from the pits to the heights? We’re back in the murky world of coaching again -- the very world I commented on just a few weeks back when I was, in effect, debunking the “science” of coaching, and likening a coach’s work more to voodoo than to anything scientific.
I am not about to appoint Arena as chief witch doctor, but I do detect in his coaching attitude a healthy suspicion of the scientific approach and of the jargon that goes with it. My talks with Arena -- quite a few of them, going back to 1972 -- have always been a delight to me because his opinions, and the language in which he expresses them, have been so totally real. No elaborate jargon, no cliches, no fancified tactical analyses.
He doesn’t relate well to such stuff. The mocking smile with which he greets -- and patiently answers -- fatuous, over-clever questions about alignments and formations is a delight to behold.
Not that I’m in agreement with everything Arena does. Far from it (I mean, signing Nigel De Jong for the Galaxy last year? What was the man thinking?). But it is his coaching style that I admire.
Arena’s self-confidence, which not a few see as arrogance, means he has never felt the need to use any of that claptrap to justify himself as a coach. Though he does use quite a few cuss words. Whatever his coaching truth is, it is not one that can be expressed in the stupidly stilted tones of the coaching schools.
Arena’s current success with the national team is not a miracle. A lot of it is due simply to the fact that he is not Klinsmann. Such was the confused atmosphere created by Klinsmann and his grab-bag of theories and California-style health fads that almost any reasonable coach arriving on the scene was bound to be a huge improvement.
For all Klinsmann’s undoubted experience, his expertise was very doubtful indeed. Whenever the USA did not fare well, he invariably found it necessary to tell everyone that the American players were simply not good enough. Not competitive enough. Because the American pro league, MLS, was not good enough either.
To which he added, on more than one occasion, that American players were naive. You have to be ready to hurt opponents, he explained. Americans were, evidently, soft. They needed to be nastier. That was his word.
Was Bruce Arena listening? I’d say not. His starters against Honduras included six players currently with MLS clubs. And there was no evidence of any gratuitous nastiness.
Two of Klinsmann’s favorite excuses exposed for the feeble nonsense that they truly are.
What we did see -- well, OK, what I saw -- was a group of players relishing what they were doing, players who were enjoying the game. The feeling seemed to be one of relief, that they had been released from some sort of restraint and were now free to be themselves. And if there is one over-arching danger of modern coaching, it is exactly that: it drains away the personality of the players and replaces it with the personality of the coach.
You can see how far that depressing development has gone, when a game in England between the two Manchester clubs is repeatedly referred to, and analyzed as, a clash between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho.
If I’m making it sound as though Arena is a shrinking violet, a quiet low-profile coach, that’s certainly not the case. But I do think that his coaching record maybe speaks louder than any words he might conjure up.
I have never found the intricacies of coaching “methods” of great interest. I really don’t care how coaches prepare their players. They can wrap them in saran-wrap each night, or feed them on organic unicorn soup for all I care. What matters is what happens on the field. The visible proof that a coach knows what he’s doing.
(You will have noticed, I trust, how quickly the “latest,” and therefore, it seems, the best, of the coaching theories are replaced by newer (and, of course, better) theories? And how unadaptable all of these theories are -- they seldom work when applied to different teams).
I think that, according to the criterion identified above -- that what happens on the field of play is what matters -- Arena emerges as a first class coach, one who knows how to balance the players/coach equation (everything there points to his acknowledging that the players must come first), and one who has little time for the pseudo-scientific trappings that complicate the modern game.
The earthiness and the practicality of Arena’s approach has simply brushed aside all of Klinsmann’s pretentiousness, to produce the outstanding team performance that blew Honduras out of the water. A perfect game? Hardly, soccer is never perfect, but this came close to being perfect because it exactly provided what was needed in this game, at this moment -- a massive confidence-boosting win. And you don’t score six goals too often, either. Six goals from eight shots on goal -- that was a big part of the perfection, but it’s a scoring-rate that is not likely to be repeated.
I doubt it will need to be. The USA will qualify for Russia -- as we always knew it would. Always knew, that is, until Klinsmann contrived to undermine that confidence and to make the USA look like a very ordinary team. Arena has quickly, and almost effortlessly, put a stop to that slide.
I guess this is hardly the moment to talk about Arena making the USA great again, but he will get the team back where it belongs -- as a Concacaf power, and as a World Cup team that demands to be taken seriously.