Mario Balotelli garnered most of the headlines for silencing his critics with his triumphant return to Serie A with AC Milan, but Balotelli has a history of delivering when the pressure goes up.
Most of the criticism of Balotelli’s personal life and so-called attitude problem is off base and blown out of proportion. While at Manchester City, Balotelli was even subjected to professionalism and maturity lectures and quotes in the press from Nigel De Jong who jumped kicked Xabi Alonso in the chest in the 2010 World Cup Final.
Mario Balotelli is a prodigy and his skill has been on display for around five years, but the teamwork and sharing of the ball between two technical masters and freaks of nature like Mario Balotelli and M’Baye Niang was something of a first in the world of soccer. It could be argued that never before have two strikers with the athleticism, size, and technical ability of Balotelli and Niang attacked an opponent together with a selfless sharing of the ball in a tandem of total destruction.
Milan’s other prodigy, Stephan El Shaarawy, should not be overlooked, as his skill and goal-scoring rate have been keeping Milan competitive, but seeing two soccer players with the physique, size, skill, and world-class athleticism of Balotelli and Niang attacking together must have made teams around Europe nervous.
Without exaggeration, what do you do when two players who have the total package of aggressive play, fantastic technical ability, and unmatchable athleticism attack you without one of the two players playing selfishly? There is nothing really the opposition can do. There are certainly teams with the ability to almost neutralize such players working together, and Niang and Balotelli will have off nights, but players with Balotelli and Niang’s physical gifts and speed, inside of tall and strong frames, is certainly something new in the world of soccer.
As Balotelli has been around for several years, there have been tall, athletic, and skilled players before, but if more players with all of these qualities become more widespread, many elite soccer players are going to find themselves struggling to keep up with players who inevitably will beat you due to one of many qualities.
For all of the talk of Balotelli’s so-called attitude problems and Niang’s youth, both players must have shocked many people by their willingness to play together while still shining as individuals. Balotelli and Niang found a way in their first game to not compete with each other, but rather to make each other better.
Any defenders or opposing players for that matter who face Balotelli and Niang will be in for a rough outing because, even if one or both of the players do not score or have something of an off game, the constant onslaught of speed, skill, adventurous play, and strength will be a total nightmare.
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Andrea Pirlo’s movement off the ball and constant movement all over the field seems to leave space for another midfielder who plays deep in the midfield, Paul Pogba, to have plenty of space to operate without getting in Pirlo’s way or hindering Pirlo’s play.
Therefore, less attention should be focused on what position Pogba is actually playing and more attention should be focused on the qualities that he brings to Juventus.
Italians have a variety of names for all of the positions in soccer, and in the midfield, mediano, mezz’ala, centrale, trequartista, and mezzapunta are some of the position names heard the most.
Paul Pogba is hard to characterize with the exception that he is not a trequartista or mezzapunta which are two names for the same advanced-playmaker role or the proverbial number 10 role. Andrea Pirlo, who now plays as a regista or a deep-lying playmaker who lines up at kick off directly in front of the defense, was originally used as a trequartista or mezzapunta until Milan moved him back to his now favorite regista role.
Pogba is some combination of a mediano, centrale, and (maybe down the road) a regista.
A mediano is a defensive midfielder who essentially plays as a midfield destroyer with the obvious caveat that anyone playing as a midfielder at the elite-level is expected to have advanced technical ability so as to not be a passing liability.
A centrale is a box-to-box midfielder along the lines of Arturo Vidal or Kevin-Prince Boateng, even though Boateng is often forced to play out of position as a pseudo-trequartista. In the past, players like Patrick Vieira and Michael Ballack were classic centrali (plural of centrale) and certainly someone like Ramires also would be classified as a centrale. Calling Paul Pogba a regista at this point is a stretch, but he has certainly shown the passing elegance and accuracy to play the sort of balls that a regista plays with ease.
Forcing Pogba into a box or trying to classify him as one of the three midfield positions mentioned above is not as important as the diverse arsenal of qualities that he brings to a midfield even as good as Juventus’.
Nobody really knows what midfield position Paul Pogba is actually playing for Juventus, and it does not matter because he is the total package and a complete player who provides everything one could ask for in a midfielder.
Pogba is a complete midfielder who provides so many different qualities that letting him play his game as opposed to forcing him into a set midfield role is probably the best policy, especially since Pirlo covers so much territory and knows exactly where to go on the field to compliment his teammates and orchestrate play.
Pogba is special because he provides goals, two-footed play, precision passing, strong and elegant tackling (both standing challenges and slide tackles), rock solid shielding of the ball, guile and trickery on the ball, and tireless running. Pogba scores volleys from distance with both feet. He plays soft chips that meet their target in stride. He plays one-to-two touch soccer, and he recovers the ball almost as soon as he or his teammates have lost possession. Pogba’s play is causing Antonio Conte to consider making more adjustments to his line-ups than Conte even had to consider in the past.
Pogba has created debate in soccer circles about what position he plays, how good he is, and which player he plays like. There have been numerous comparisons to Patrick Vieira due to obvious physical similarities and the fact that Pogba is a French midfielder, but Pogba appears to have a more refined technical skill-set than Vieira in addition to superior athleticism that most noticeably shows up in the form of agility and gait.
Pogba is around 6’4” as a 19 year old, so it is safe to assume that Pogba will just grow taller and stronger while maintaining his lean and muscular frame. By way of a comparison to basketball, there is no reason to assume that Pogba will lose some agility or athleticism as he grows taller because basketball players of a similar age and that level of athleticism do not lose their athleticism and agility when they grow a few inches taller.
For some coaches, fans, and players, versatility in a player is sometimes viewed as a negative attribute as some people believe versatility usually means that a player is merely good in a variety of categories and in a variety of positions as opposed to being great at a certain position or at a certain aspect of soccer.
Pogba appears to excel at almost all of the fundamentals that a player is measured by, and he plays like a midfielder that can be devastating in the defense and in the attack. With a player who provides so many qualities, a coach can, to some extent, free the player up to roam the field wherever he is needed providing defense when defense is needed and attacking ability when attacking is needed. Pogba already knows how to play effectively and where to go on the field, but playing alongside Pirlo with undoubtedly numerous French and non-French legends offering him advice can only make Pogba better.
Excluding the defenders, Juventus had been utilizing Andrea Pirlo as a regista directly in front of the defense with Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal playing in front of Pirlo as something like centrali (box-to-box midfielders) or mezz’ali (outside midfielders who tuck in). With Juventus’ use of three defenders who are essentially center backs playing as right, center, and left defenders with two terzini fluidificanti or old school wingbacks playing in front of them essentially to the right and left of Marchisio and Vidal, Juventus has been playing something resembling a 3-5-2 formation.
This formation did not leave space for Paul Pogba in the starting line-up, but he has nevertheless been incorporated into the starting line-up or used as a substitute. With the rise of Paul Pogba characterized by a string of commanding performances and fabulous goals, Juventus has even more formation options than the club initially planned on using.
Now Juventus and Antonio Conte have the difficult job of deciding which regular starter or starters will be the odd men out in certain games. Perhaps the injury to Giorgio Chiellini and Kwadwo Asamoah’s participation in The African Cup of Nations increase the amount of formation options with Pogba, but Conte and Juventus still have the dilemma of deciding which of the following midfielders should start: Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio, Paul Pogba, and Sebastian Giovinco (who is both a trequartista and a second striker).
Paul Pogba’s quality and athleticism are forcing Juventus to rethink their formations, and Pogba is one of several prodigies who are popping up on the world football landscape along with M’Baye Niang and Stephen El Shaarawy, who are all playing in Serie A.
The ascension of Pogba is both a surprise and foreseeable occurrence, as France has consistently produced soccer superstars, and France has two new teenage prodigies in Paul Pogba and M’Baye Niang, who should both prove to make France a formidable opponent for many years.
With the advent of Mario Balotelli, Paul Pogba, and M’Baye Niang, European soccer is seeing athletic specimens and freaks of nature who move with dazzling grace and speed. They are too good, too strong, too fast, and too tall to leave single-marked, and they are going to be around for a long time.
Many American soccer fans seem to judge Freddy Adu with the same illogical criterion with which Jürgen Klinsmann judges him: only total domination merits a roster spot.
Klinsmann has said that he wanted to see Adu taking over games more and dominating games more before he could play for the United States, but this make little sense from a coaching standpoint.
Why does a technically-skilled playmaker with a special skill-set need to dominate every game in order to play for the United States, when no other American is subjected to this standard?
Klinsmann and American fans want the United States to score more goals, but yet they invent nonsensical reasons to exclude all of the natural playmakers from the starting line-up or roster: Freddy Adu, Benny Feilhaber, Joe Corona, and Mix Diskerud.
Klinsmann and the United States are lacking players that have the technical skill to play a brand of quick-passing soccer that Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Steve Cherundolo, Geoff Cameron, and Fabian Johnson play. Among the players listed above, none of them are playmakers that play the final passes that produces goals.
Plenty of Americans as well as Klinsmann feel that either Bradley or Dempsey should be forced to be played out of position as playmakers, but this opinion overlooks the reality that neither player is a true playmaker as Bradley thrives playing as a deep-lying defensive midfielder that has strong technical and attacking skills and Dempsey is skilled at attacking defenses and scoring goals.
While both of these players are much better than the majority of their teammates that Klinsmann has been calling up, they have never demonstrated the ability to play a constant stream of inch-perfect balls in the final third that Adu and several other playmakers have shown.
The criticism of Adu has mostly been that he has played for a lot of clubs and that his coaches at the Union this year chose to not start him multiple times.
These two pieces of criticism do not disprove the fact that Adu is the most technically-skilled player in the American player pool and that Adu has performed well for the United States, especially when he has played with players like Bradley, Dempsey, and Donovan, who have the skill level to play one-to-two touch soccer and read his passes.
Adu played most recently for the United States in Olympic qualifying where he not only scored but he also set up two crucial goals to go one goal ahead of El Salvador in the last game of Olympic qualifying.
Adu formed a good playing relationship with talented young players like Joe Corona, Juan Agudelo, Terrence Boyd, Mix Diskerud, Brek Shea, and others.
The last time Adu played for the United States’ senior team was in the 2011 Gold Cup in which Adu immediately changed the game against Panama where he not only played the killer pass to set up Donovan’s assist to Dempsey, but he also played a diagonal pass on the ground and on a silver platter for Bradley, which Bradley failed to shoot with conviction.
Additionally, in the final against Mexico, Adu was praised by both Pablo Ramirez and Hugo Sanchez of Univisión for his ability to unsettle the Mexican defense by taking defenders off the dribble and playing elegant passes and corner kicks; Adu also took the well-placed corner kick which Bradley put in the back of the net with a glancing header.
The United States only lost to Mexico once Steve Cherundolo sustained an injury, and the then-coach, Bob Bradley, made the mistake of subbing in Jonathan Bornstein, who Mexico instantly identified as the defensive weak link.
The problem that Adu comes up against is that when he goes to play overseas he has the stigma of being an American and when he plays in MLS people expect him to take over every game he plays in.
Many American fans seem to expect Adu to set up multiple goals every game and score multiple goals every game, or they do not want him to play for the United States. This line of thinking overlooks the fact that Adu has proven for five years in international play that he has the skill-set to be an effective playmaker even against teams like Brazil, Argentina, Spain, and Mexico.
This ability to be a dangerous playmaker is needed in an American midfield that has Dempsey as a free-roaming attacking midfielder and quasi-forward and Bradley as a technically-skilled defensive midfielder with the skill to play defense, pass the ball well, and to participate in the attack when needed.
While Dempsey and Bradley are the two most proven midfielders at the club level and international level for the United States, neither one has the same gift that Adu has to create goals, and this skill is the most needed quality that the United States lacks, along with a skilled center back partner for Geoff Cameron.
Adu can be used by the United States with a degree of flexibility because the United States and really Klinsmann could elect to deploy him as a second striker with an additional playmaker behind him or use him in a line of three technically-skilled midfielders with the ability to maintain possession and play one-to-two touch soccer.
Whether or not Klinsmann, American fans, American commentators, and American soccer writers think that Adu has performed well in MLS, there is nothing to suggest that Adu has ever demonstrated any difficulty being an effective attacking force for the United States in international play.
Even if the Philadelphia Union’s coaches have left Adu on the bench or off the game day roster on several occasions, these were decisions made by coaches Peter Nowak and John Hackworth, whose coaching abilities have been questioned by many.
These coaching mistakes do not change the fact that Adu has an advanced technical skill-set as a playmaker, and the United States desperately needs a playmaker to create more scoring opportunities.
As this writer has contended in other articles, the United States even has more than one playmaker; lots of observers invent perceived problems with all of them, so they advocate for the United States to force someone to play out of position.
Among many Americans there appears to be some misunderstanding of the importance and the role of a playmaker. The best teams in the world all use playmakers because goals are the most important thing in soccer, and playmakers create goals, which create victories.
The playmaker is certainly expected to pressure the opposing team’s defense when the opposition has the ball, but playmakers are not supposed to be routinely tracking all the way back deep into their own half to play defense because then they would be out of position to fulfill their role on the team, which is to control the tempo of the passing and to convert their team’s passing into goal-scoring opportunities.
No one with an advanced understanding of the game has really ever questioned Adu’s talent, but people have argued that Adu should not play for the United States if he is not starting and dominating every game in MLS.
The United States does not have the luxury of not including someone of Adu’s ability on the roster because the United States is not good enough to not need players like Adu.
Soccer is a team sport, and just having Bradley and Dempsey in the midfield is not enough technical ability and firepower against opposition with 11 technically-advanced starters; the United States needs playmakers like Freddy Adu, Benny Feilhaber, Joe Corona, and Mix Diskerud to create goal-scoring opportunities for the United States, particularly when the United States is losing.
Hugo Sanchez praised the performance of Freddy Adu against Mexico in the 2011 Gold Cup final.
One of the primary problems with the USMNT under Jürgen Klinsmann’s tenure has been his insistence on forcing Michael Bradley or Clint Dempsey to be deployed out of position as playmakers. Make no mistake; Klinsmann knows that both Bradley and Dempsey are not playmakers, but Klinsmann has forced both players to fill this role, which leaves vacuums where both players are naturally-suited to play.
Once Klinsmann deploys Bradley as a playmaker, or just in a more advanced position up-field, Klinsman is leaving the defense with a less technically-skilled defensive midfielder to whom they can pass their way out of trouble. Playing directly in front of the defense does not limit a midfielder’s ability to help to control the tempo of the game or to participate in the attack, as even Andrea Pirlo, a true master, plays directly in front of the defense.
Bradley’s role as a defensive midfielder is one of the most important roles for the team because he sees a lot of the ball when the United States is defending and when they are attacking. Additionally, playing as the defensive midfielder does not hinder Bradley’s ability to attack because he can advance up field either by stringing passes together with his teammates or simply by making dribbling forays up-field to play a quality pass to one of his teammates making a run into the final third.
Many people, particularly Americans, see the defensive midfielder as almost some sort of low-skill position that is reserved for a player with just adequate passing skills, but this is incorrect. Being able to pass with the inside and outside of both feet and play one-touch soccer does not mean that Bradley is a natural playmaker, and whomever the United States uses as a playmaker will need Bradley behind him. Bradley constantly drifts back deep into the midfield because he is needed there unless the United States is attacking an opponent through a series of passes, and Bradley should be played deep in the midfield where he naturally feels inclined to play.
For people without a lot of experience with high-level soccer, Bradley’s fluid technical skills with both feet equate to those of a playmaker, but being a playmaker requires a different and rare sort of passing mentality. A playmaker looks to constantly unlock defenses with final balls, soft chips, through-balls, and even passes with only a slim chance of threading the defense. Bradley can play final balls and score, but he would be better served by having a playmaker starting with him to give him a skilled player to combine with in the midfield. Starting Bradley as a defensive midfielder does not limit his influence on the game.
Even the Italian media refers to Bradley as a mediano, which is a defensive midfielder along the lines of Edgar Davids or Claude Makélélé (who were even more ruthless defensively than a normal mediano), but playing a mediano does not mean that the player does not have good technical ability, even at the highest level.
Although Klinsmann refers to Michael Bradley as a number 6 (a defensive midfielder that hangs back) or a number 8 (a holding or box-to-box midfielder), Klinsmann seems to view the role of Bradley as a player that can fulfill the role of playmaker when also started with Clint Dempsey. Klinsmann forces his starting line-ups into a series of numerical roles from one to eleven intended to create proactive soccer, but his line-ups are almost always devoid of a number 7,10, and 11, as he frequently starts what could be described as two to three number 6’s. In a way, Dempsey is basically used by Klinsmann as a number 11, but there is still no real number 10.
Klinsmann has been reducing the number of creative attacking midfielders in the starting line-up by not playing Bradley as the number six. By way of contrast, Brazil uses a number 5 as a defensive midfielder that does not make attacking forays along with a number 8 who is a box-to-box midfielder that does attack and play defense, but in a recent game against Japan, Brazil started two number 8’s, Ramires and Paulinho, which caused Brazil to keep possession and constantly attack.
Klinsmann would be wise to not always deploy his idea of a number 6 and a number 8, but instead he should use Bradley as the defensive midfielder which opens up a spot for a true playmaker. The United States’ line-ups should maximize the skill of the players in the player pool while making sure any starting line-up is covered on the defensive end by using a talented defensive midfielder and four defenders, unless the United States elects to use three or five defenders.
In addition to starting Bradley as a sort of playmaker, Clint Dempsey has also been utilized as a type of playmaker by Klinsmann where Dempsey either plays as a second striker or just as an attacking midfielder that has the ability to play balls to whomever Klinsmann is starting at the striker position, and Klinsmann usually just starts one out-and-out striker.
One could argue that a problem with Klinsmann’s tactics are that when he deploys Dempsey as a sort of pseudo-playmaker he is depriving Dempsey of having two targets to hit up top, so even if Klinsmann is using Dempsey out of position as a playmaker, he should be using Dempsey plus a pure striker and a second striker.
All soccer tactics hinge on the concept that whatever formation a coach uses to start the game, the formation and the location of the players on the field change as players make runs and cover for each other. Despite Klinsmann’s intention to have his best players, Dempsey and Bradley, be the focal point of the attack in the final third, he is actually preventing Dempsey from being the player to be on the receiving end of not only more but better passes in the attacking third.
Many American writers and fans support Michael Bradley playing almost as a central attacking midfielder as he has an advanced skill-set, but the United States will only see better passing and more success when Klinsmann maximizes the number of his most talented players in his starting line-ups.
Like Freddy Adu and Benny Feilhaber have shown before him, Joe Corona’s brief cameo against Guatemala along with his play in Olympic qualifying and in Mexico gave a glimpse of the passing style that makes for a talented playmaker. Whether Joe Corona is the answer as a playmaker, or Benny Feilhaber or Freddy Adu or Mix Diskerud or some other relatively unknown player in the United States player pool, is up for debate, but one if not more of these players need to be started and definitely included in the roster to allow Bradley and Dempsey to play their natural positions.
Adu has the dribbling, passing, and shooting skills to be deployed as a second striker, so the United States could start Dempsey along with someone like Feilhaber and Corona behind a striker tandem of Adu and a pure striker. Using this sort of line-up would give the United States the ability to maintain possession and create scoring chances, even against top national teams.
There is no rule that only one creative midfielder that looks to unlock the defense can be started, and the nature of the type of soccer that Klinsmann claims to want to play actually demands the constant movement of most of the players all over the field as they pass and move without the ball.
Starting about five years ago, the United States has had enough players with the ability to play quicker, one-to-two touch soccer, but playing this style requires starting technically-skilled defenders, starting Bradley, starting Dempsey, starting one or more playmakers, and starting not one but two forwards (unless the attacking midfielders provide a real and consistent scoring threat).
If the United States and specifically Klinsmann continues to not only start too many defensive midfielders but also defenders without advanced ball control skills in addition to just one striker, the United States will not play the style of soccer that Klinsmann describes as proactive, by which he essentially means actually attempting to beat your opponents by attacking them and scoring from the run of play as opposed to just trying not to lose.
Although it is not a solution for the defensive problems, starting one or more playmakers is vital to raising the skill-level of the United States national team. Contending that the United States does not have playmakers that can play international soccer is quite simply refuted by video evidence to the contrary, four playmakers were mentioned in this article and all of them have demonstrated the ability to fill the role of a playmaker against quality opponents. None of these playmakers are too young or too inexperienced.
Many American soccer fans and American soccer writers have a limited perspective about the realities of soccer at the international level. Whenever Jürgen Klinsmann selects a roster for a friendly or a World Cup qualifier, many people look at players’ statistics in Major League Soccer, as opposed to evaluating the players based on the true criteria of skill and athleticism.
By primarily watching Major League Soccer and the English Premier League, many Americans fans and soccer writers undervalue the importance of more technically skilled players and playmakers that create goals and score goals. In order to accurately judge talent, one must watch or at least keep up with the leagues where most of the best players play, which are primarily the Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1, and O Brasileirão.
American soccer fans are familiar with the soccer commentator Ray Hudson (a former English player and coach), and after England’s disappointing World Cup, Ray Hudson had this to say about England and the English Premier League.
The evidence that American soccer writers evaluate American soccer players through the lens of the English Premier League and Major League Soccer is how players like Juan Agudelo, Freddy Adu, and Benny Feilhaber are constantly criticized for their play in Major League Soccer despite the fact that all three of these players have demonstrated the ability to play creative and effective soccer at the international level.
Furthermore, these same writers undervalued Geoff Cameron for years including the last year where they seemed to not recognize the skill of Geoff Cameron as a center back and as a player in general until Cameron put in several outstanding performances in a row.
There is something to be said for proving yourself at the international level, but there is also something to be said about the writers that did not recognize that the skill and athleticism of Cameron was well beyond anything ever seen by Oguchi Onyewu, Clarence Goodson, or Carlos Bocanegra.
The example of Cameron is just one of many examples of American writers being slow to recognize the talent of players of Cameron’s quality that have a superior skill set to many of the other players that played for the United States before.
The result of this inability to evaluate talent is the undervaluing of more talented soccer players like Freddy Adu and Benny Feilhaber in favor of players that play more along the lines of the overly physical and long ball soccer seen in the English Premier League that is glorified by the English commentators and writers that write about American soccer. Many American soccer writers then parrot the opinions and soccer philosophy of the English (Ray Hudson excluded).
Performance in Major League Soccer (MLS) is not an accurate barometer of international success because many of the best players in MLS play with players well below their skill level, which inhibits the talented players’ ability to perform their best.
The best way to evaluate a soccer player is by watching a player’s touch, how the player controls the ball when passing, shooting, and dribbling, and how the player moves without the ball. Additionally, if a player has consistently played well internationally before, then this obviously demonstrates the ability to play at the international level.
While it is important how well someone happens to be playing at the time of roster selection, the actual skill, athleticism, and potential of the player is more important.
It appears that many American soccer writers have almost no real exposure to the level of club play seen every week in Italy, Germany, Spain, France, Brazil, and other countries, and this lack of exposure existed before the advent of beIN SPORT, which is unavailable to basically any American soccer viewer with cable instead of satellite.
Even worse, it appears that most American soccer writers do not even keep up with highlights or even read news about soccer played anywhere except the English Premier League and MLS.
This lack of exposure indicates that many American soccer writers view non-EPL soccer as irrelevant. Before beIN SPORT was a channel, all of the important Serie A games were on Fox Soccer, the same channel that shows the English Premier League, and yet most of the American soccer writers did not cover non-English Premier League soccer or even reference non-English soccer via social media.
For decades, there has been very strong evidence that the best players in the world and the players that perform the best in major FIFA tournaments and the Champions League play outside of England. This failure to keep up with the soccer played in Italy, Germany, Spain, Brazil, France, and other countries demonstrates that many American soccer writers do not have the perspective of seeing the skill and style of play found outside of the English Premier League.
It is important to note that many great players in the past played in the English Premier League such as Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, Eric Cantona, among others.
Additionally, there are more technically skilled players playing in the English Premier League this season possibly as a result of various English clubs trying to close the gap between themselves and all of the technically skilled players purchased by Manchester City.
If you want evidence that most of the best soccer is not being played in England, simply look up what leagues all the Champions League winners have come from over the last decade or so, and look up where all of the best and most famous soccer players in the world play.
Specifically, Brazilian soccer players by and large turn down offers to play in England. However, over the last couple of years, Manchester City has been buying more skilled players than are found on other English Premier League teams, and these purchases resulted in Manchester City winning the English Premier League last season.
If American soccer writers are going to evaluate American soccer players and write about which ones should play for the United States national team, then they should compare the touch, control, vision, and overall technical ability of American soccer players compared to the higher level of play found outside of England.
Furthermore, American soccer writers should judge American soccer players on their overall athleticism and skill irrespective of the ability of their teammates that often hold them back from showing how well they can really play.
The result of this lack of exposure or simple lack of interest in the best soccer leagues colors how American soccer writers evaluate American soccer players, and they evaluate American soccer players by parroting the opinions of English commentators that glorify fouling, blindly sending crosses into crowds in the box in the hopes of someone heading the ball, and playing soccer with no willingness to play creative, inventive soccer that unlocks defenses and results in more goals.
It is no mystery that English Premier League players (with some exceptions such as Mario Balotelli) are exposed as too slow or not skilled enough to compete against the very best players in FIFA tournaments or the Champions League.
When Chelsea knocked Barcelona out of the Champions League last season, it was because Ramires beat Barcelona with a magnificent first-time chip that can be attributed to being Brazilian and learning how to play soccer in Brazil, as opposed to playing for a famous English Premier League team like Chelsea.
If you are an American soccer writer or an American soccer fan and you do not think Benny Feilhaber and Freddy Adu have earned the right to put on the United States’ jersey, then you need to prove with evidence that the United States have better playmakers.
If Adu’s playing for Benfica or Feilhaber’s playing well in 39 international games including a Confederations Cup and a World Cup is not a good enough reason for Adu and Feilhaber to start or at least play for the United States, then all the Adu and Feilhaber critics must know some secret American playmaker out there with incredible technical ability.
These writers, with a few exceptions, seem to demonstrate an ignorance of the game, whether it is due to simply being assigned to cover soccer with no initial interest in the sport or no real exposure to top level soccer played outside of England.
They seem to have no problem watching Freddy Adu and Benny Feilhaber not play for the United States while the United States have been producing almost no goals under Jürgen Klinsmann.
Almost no American soccer writer seems willing to point out that both Freddy Adu and Benny Feilhaber are proven international caliber playmakers, and there is no evidence that any American playmaker is better than these two.
Criticism of the play of Feilhaber and Adu is a product of parroting the opinions of English commentators who never seem to understand the role of playmakers or appreciate creative players for what they do: create and score goals. The English value physicality and fouling over skill, athleticism, and creativity.
In the United States, almost no American soccer writer has written about how in a year of coaching the United States, Jürgen Klinsmann has not fielded one true playmaker in an important game with the ability to create goals and create wins, and Klinsmann has four options he can choose from: Benny Feilhaber, Freddy Adu, Joe Corona, and Mix Diskerud.
Essentially not one American soccer writer has pressured Klinsmann in the press to play the types of creative attacking players needed for the United States to take advantage of the increased level of skill of the United States’ player pool.
The obvious reason for this is that American soccer writers have standards that are too low, and they do not adjust their evaluations of players playing in Major League Soccer by the skill of the players’ teammates or the quality of their opponents.
There appears to be no realization by soccer writers in the United States that there is a direct connection between playing a creative midfielder that can control the attack and winning. Michael Bradley is a defensive midfielder and Clint Dempsey is a free-roaming attacking midfielder, and both of these players need to be played with the type of creative midfielder that is valued more outside of England and the United States.
Even Clint Dempsey comes under heavy criticism from the American soccer media at times, specifically for his creative style of play. Former player John Harkes even criticized Dempsey during the beginning of the 2009 Confederations Cup for being lazy and not producing much instead of realizing that Dempsey was being forced to play with two defensive midfielders and no playmaker. Dempsey responded with this statement made to Sports Illustrated below:
“All the f***ing experts in America, everybody who thinks they know everything about soccer, they can all look at that score tonight,” he said. “Let’s see what they say now, all right? Nobody has any respect for what we do, for what goes on in the inside. Let them all talk now.”
These two quotes from the United States’ two established world-class field players demonstrate that American soccer players do pay attention to what the American press says about them, and these two examples show that people like Clint Dempsey even question the knowledge of former professional players and World Cup veterans like John Harkes.
When American soccer writers advocate for players to play for the United States national team, they need to look at how American players soccer players play in comparison to the world’s best soccer players instead of confining their opinions of players based on English soccer commentators (Ray Hudson excluded) that constantly call for more wide play, more crosses “whipped” into the penalty box, and hard tackles that are more hacks than well-timed solid slide-tackles. Paul Gardner touched on the subject of English commentators in his most recent column for Soccer America which can be found below.
Many American soccer writers must expose themselves to more soccer instead of copying what the English say who booed Neymar in the Olympics and called him a diver. Many American soccer writers and some commentators were quick to follow suit and label Neymar overrated and a diver. Look at the Neymar video below, and see if this is a dive.
While many people will use the United States’ victories over Mexico and Italy as evidence that Jürgen Klinsmann is coaching well, the reality is that the United States has not passed well or played technically advanced soccer in any of their games under Klinsmann.
Many of the players used by Klinsmann are excellent soccer players, but as long as Klinsmann continues to use the same starting line-ups, the United States will not even be a first or second tier team in terms of international soccer. So far, the United States has played better soccer under Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley, and there is one year’s worth of video evidence of the low level of collective, team play of the United States under Klinsmann.
However, Klinsmann does have the ability to dramatically improve the quality of soccer that the United States play with just five starting line-up changes. If he makes these five starting line-up changes, then he will be able to field a starting line-up with 11 technically skilled and athletic players. He needs a right back, a center back to partner with Geoff Cameron, two attacking midfielders, and another striker, as opposed to just starting one.
Klinsmann needs to eliminate Kyle Beckerman, Maurice Edu, Danny Williams, Jermaine Jones, and José Torres from the starting line-up, but Jones should be starting if Michael Bradley is injured. Additionally, Edu and Jones should certainly be among the 23 players on the roster for the World Cup qualifiers against Jamaica, and starting Edu or Jones as a center back with Cameron would be preferable to starting Carlos Bocanegra or Clarence Goodson.
Klinsmann should continue to use Tim Howard as a goalkeeper, Geoff Cameron as a center back, Fabian Johnson as a left back, Michael Bradley as the lone defensive midfielder (unless he’s injured), Herculez Gomez or Terrence Boyd as a striker, and Clint Dempsey as a free-roaming attacking midfielder.
At forward, Klinsmann needs to start two of the following three strikers at the same time: Juan Agudelo, Terrence Boyd, and Herculez Gomez. Gomez played very well against both Brazil and Mexico, and a strong argument can be made that Gomez has earned one of the two starting line-up spots as evidenced by his play against Brazil where he forced Santos’ and Brazil’s goalkeeper, Rafael, to make several very difficult point blank saves. That being said, Klinsmann has yet to test out Agudelo and Boyd together, and they might complement each other well as Boyd is more of an out-and-out striker that goes straight to goal. Regardless of which two strikers are started, Klinsmann should start two of the three strikers mentioned above at the same time.
Klinsmann needs to introduce Benny Feilhaber and Freddy Adu as dual-playmakers and free-roaming attacking midfielders to play with Dempsey. At right back, Klinsmann needs to start Eric Lichaj, and if he is unavailable, Zach Loyd or Sheanon Williams. Finally, Klinsmann needs to start Jay DeMerit, Omar Gonzalez, or George John as the second center back to play with Geoff Cameron. Among those three, DeMerit is the one that has proven himself on the international level the most with his effective and imposing defensive performances in the 2009 Confederations Cup and the 2010 World Cup. Between Gonzalez and John, Gonzalez might be quicker and more agile that John, but Klinsmann has not tested out either Gonzalez or John with Cameron to see which center back performs the best at the international level.
The five changes to the starting line-up advocated for above should be used against Jamaica, and if those changes are made against Jamaica, the United States will have, for the first time ever, 11 technically skilled and athletic starters in their line-up. Never before has the United States had the ability to field 11 technical skilled and athletic starters, and the United States now actually have more than 11 players that fit those criteria.
Although Grandmaster Ronaldinho is currently playing very well for Atlético Mineiro in the Brasileirão where he has them in first place, Neymar is now very much the face of Brazilian soccer. While Neymar garners the majority of the headlines, players likes Ronaldinho, Diego, Robinho, or Kaká should not be considered irrelevant or ineffective players for the Brazilian national team.
Neymar has excellent passing skills, but he is not a meia-armador or central attacking midfielder or playmaker like Ronaldinho, Ganso, Oscar, or Diego are. Although some of Brazil’s more established players are in their thirties (such as Maicon, Ronaldinho, and Lúcio), Brazil has several excellent players in their mid to late twenties such as Thiago Silva, Robinho, and Diego.
Neymar has already arrived on the world stage as an elite international and club soccer player, and he is very much worthy of comparisons to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Both Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo (called this out of respect for Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima) are widely considered by all of their peers and coaches around the world as the two most skilled players in world soccer. Neymar is different than both of these players in that Neymar has no observable flaws in his game, even at 20 years old.
Unlike Messi, Neymar is a more versatile passer who does not limit his passing to short passes inside the penalty box when he can no longer dribble through traffic. Messi does play quality long passes through and over the opposing teams’ defenses, but Neymar seems to do this more often. Neymar will track back almost to his own defense at times to get the ball, and he looks to play through balls, quick first-time passes, cross-field passes, and soft chips over opposing players and over the top of the opponent’s defense. Messi has never demonstrated this same degree of passing range or skill because Messi mostly plays by dribbling through defenses after his teammates at Barcelona have played keep away from their opponents.