How Bob Bradley explains soccer (pt. 3)
SI.com: I wanted to ask you to take two previous games and get into how you prepared a strategy for those games that you decided on. I wanted to pick the Spain game from the Confederations Cup (a 2-0 U.S. victory) and the most recent Mexico game in Estadio Azteca (a 2-1 U.S. loss). Could we talk about leading up to those games what was going through your head in preparing a strategy for your team, and how that worked out?
Bradley: So we played Spain in '08 in Santander. It was their last friendly before the Euros. And when we were preparing for that game, I showed our players the video from the same day that we played Poland, two months before the U.S.-Spain game, Spain played Italy. So here's a team like Italy, the defending World Cup champions, they're playing Spain and, on that day, Italy has to defend a lot because Spain is so good with the ball that there are periods in that game where now Italy has to stay as a unit, work hard, but the bar in terms of which team has the ball is tilted for sure for Spain. That is also something that has been very obvious at times in Champions League, especially when teams play Barcelona. And so there are a few things that you are hoping for.
You always want to give your team a picture of what the game might look like. So in that regard, in many of the games Spain had played, they have possession for anywhere from 55 to, who knows, 70 percent of the time. That happened throughout the entire European Championship. And quite honestly, when even our players saw some of the games where Spain played the Netherlands, Spain played Russia, Spain played Germany in the final, I think our guys realized we played pretty well in Santander [a 1-0 Spain victory]. So as you prepare for them again, you have that experience. And then you know their players and you know their team. So what you're trying to do is to find a way that now gives your team a sense that when Spain has the ball what their movements are like, which guys are most important.
Xavi is a key. Xavi is not a guy that any team could ever really mark with one player. We don't typically mark with one man, because in modern soccer, you see a guy like Xavi and he's moving all over the place. He's always available and he's getting the ball. So the number of times in every game when he receives the ball and passes the ball, the numbers are almost higher than any other player. If you went back to the statistics in '08 you would see he's completing 80, 90, 100 passes in almost every game.
So now you prepare that as they move around your sense of now how to stay tight as a unit, obviously with a guy like Xavi what you're trying to do is to see if you can make it more difficult for him to play the ball forward, make him play more balls square, more balls backwards, not allow him to receive the balls in the most dangerous areas where his penetrating passes are going to cause you trouble. So that's a big thought. You try to make sure there's a sense, to use an example, of the movement of a guy like Fernando Torres, who's very clever moving along the line. And so you try to have a picture of how they play and how you will move as a team and trying to deal with certain things.
Then you try to make sure that when we have the ball that we are going to also play quickly, try to make it so that if Spain -- like Barcelona, at times -- wants to pressure right away, then can you play out of that first pressure? Can you make them defend a little bit more? And then what kind of situations can you create? So you try to do all that. On the day against Spain, it's a great team, but our overall ability to do some of those things was good. We took advantage of some of the situations we created.
We felt that in the right situations athletically, Charlie Davies and Jozy Altidore could cause them some trouble. Landon is an athletic player, quick, his speed in the right moments is a threat to even the best teams in the world. Clint Dempsey has shown that he can still make attacking plays against good teams. So you have a balance, you understand what the game is going to be like, you understand their strengths and then you make sure everybody understands that to win a game like that you need a lot of our guys to have good games. That's one of the most basic things. To beat a good team you need six, seven, eight guys to play really well. That's always part of it.
SI.com: So let's take the game against Mexico at the Azteca last month.
Bradley: You try to find a balance because at Azteca when you consider everything, it's still likely that they're going to certainly, at times, have the ball. And so your ability to understand how important it is to stay tight as a group, your ability then when you get the ball to make sure that you're threatening them, you're causing them trouble, making them defend.
In any game when you score, then in that moment the game will typically change. So when we took the lead against Mexico in Azteca, when it's a very important game for them, with the crowd, with the altitude, with the need for them to win, there's going to be a real push at that point. The urgency that they're going to have in their game, you're going to feel that right away. I think we had a good start to the game, we got a goal, and now they start pushing at us.
In that moment, you can't get stretched out all over the place. In that moment, you have to understand that the one thing going in when you only have a short amount of time to deal with the altitude and you go in late -- I think our players who had been there before said that's the best they had felt -- but nonetheless, the one area that you feel it a little bit is just when you make a hard run, then how quickly do you recover before you make another hard run? There are going to be periods in that game where now they have the ball and you have to be able to defend.
In any of these games, you always try to prepare a team to understand what the game will be like. You don't want to paint it black and white. On the one hand, when we have the ball, it's always the challenge to move well enough, to pass well enough, so that now we're a threat. And then when you lose the ball, it's the challenge to defend, to win it back as quickly as you can, and if it's deeper make sure now that everybody understands for this part of the game we've got to defend as a team.
Going back to using Barcelona as an example, they understood that to be a really great team that it was also going to take efforts when they lost the ball. This is true at all the different levels. At the end when you look at the game against Mexico, we got into the second half, we made two changes [bringing on Altidore and Stuart Holden]. I think having some fresh energy meant that now there were some opportunities for us. So down the stretch of that game, there's a feeling within our team that maybe there's the chance for us to still win this game.
But at the same time, if we stick to what we've done well, they're not getting many opportunities, so there's a real chance if nothing else to take a point. We had a few moments that didn't quite pan out attacking-wise, and now at the end of it, as is the case in most games, the combination of them seeing an opening, us as a team not reacting well, these are the moments that you get determined on.
You go to the Champions League final last year and you have a team like Man. United, and in the first five, six, seven minutes of the game they get four or five shots. And now there's one moment in the game, and it just starts off a ball that got hit by Edwin van der Sar up the field, it's headed back, and now it comes to Michael Carrick. If I remember right, Carrick tried to head it down for somebody. He could have headed it back up the field, but when he headed it down it went to Andrés Iniesta. Then there's a series of slow reactions: Carrick, Anderson, and now, all of the sudden, Iniesta is still dribbling and Eto'o cuts inside of Nemanja Vidic.
This is what happens in soccer at all levels, where you can have a great game plan, you can have your team very tactically prepared for what's going to happen, but then it can be five to 10 seconds where all of the sudden, you have one, two or three reactions, or on the flip-side, a player gets a little bit of an opening and then there's a quick reaction by the next player and how they're able to capitalize on something. And then that will change the game quickly.
So once that happened, the ability for Man. United on the day to respond to that, both mentally and physically, in terms of playing against a team that's so good with the ball. And now as the day wore on, even great competitors like Wayne Rooney on that day looked like they had given up. No one has more respect for Rooney in terms of how he plays every game than me. But that was a result on that day when that play happened, Barcelona got the lead. That's the part of it being a combination of all these different things.
So we were disappointed after the Mexico game because knowing what the game was going to be like, we still felt that we had given ourselves a real chance, and there's a period when we thought, 'OK, we can still get the second goal, and even if we don't, then we're not going to give one up.' And all it took was a quick little succession of plays, and now you're down. So it's a disappointment.
SI.com: Are there any trends in the game today around the world that you're seeing?
Bradley: Certainly the athleticism. The speed of the game, the constant ability now for players to be able to execute plays, think, concentrate in games where physically it's just going faster from start to finish. And once again, I think that probably fits in with what we see in other sports. So why is it that when you watch Björn Borg play John McEnroe, you don't think they're playing the same game as when you watch Roger Federer play Rafael Nadal? So that ability physically in these games, and yet this is what makes Barcelona such a great example, is that with all that going on, now they're still able to play such a high level of soccer. But don't mistake it. It still includes all the ability to physically compete as well.
SI.com: I was going to ask if all this athleticism is actually good for the game of soccer. But even though tennis has had all these advances in athleticism and equipment, people still think Federer and Nadal are good for the game. It seems like you could say the same thing about Barcelona.
Bradley: Yeah, 100 percent. Barcelona, United, Chelsea, it doesn't matter. When you see teams that now have everything, when they have great players, when they play as a team, when they impose their style on the other team, when they're good with the ball but make it very hard for the other team when they don't have the ball, this is what sets the standard. That's what makes the moments when certain teams come up against each other special. What wins out on the day? Does Barcelona's technical ability and skill win? Or does Chelsea with the power of Didier Drogba and now the ability as a team to make it hard for Barcelona, does that win? It was up for grabs [in the second leg of the Champions League semifinal] until a late goal by Iniesta.
So with everything that has happened, it was still in that moment a ball that was a Dani Alves, cross if I remember right. Michael Essien, who played a really good game, just didn't clear very well, and Iniesta nailed one in the corner. And so again, with everything that we look at, it still does come down to these moments in the game, these plays, an individual making a special play at a moment when it really counts, a team that doesn't give up. You never know what will hold up or what will win out. I think that's what makes it exciting. That pits all the different aspects of the game together all the time.