Van der Sar enjoying his retirement
Former Man United GK Edwin van der Sar is involved with the Laureus Foundation
Van der Sar feels United need to change their style to compete with Barcelona
Jurgen Klinsmann is trying to radically reshape the U.S. team's philosophy
NEW YORK -- It's a cold afternoon in Harlem with various groups of little kids running around screaming and giggling in makeshift soccer games. It would appear that most are oblivious to the presence of Dutch royalty in their midst. That would be actual Dutch royalty, as in Prince Pieter-Christiaan van Oranje and Dutch soccer royalty in the form of the now retired legendary goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar -- both acting as referees for the day.
The pair were recently in New York on behalf of the Laureus Sport For Good Foundation, a foundation that promotes and supports community initiatives on every continent to address social problems such as substance abuse, gang violence, racial and religious intolerance and a lack of educational and employment opportunities.
"This event is designed to highlight the impact sport has on these kids," said Ned Wills, global director of the Laureus Sport For Good Foundation. "Having Edwin van de Sar, Prince Pieter-Christiaan van Oranje, and Robby Naish helps raise awareness of the issues facing youth sports in this country and hopefully inspires these kids to stay active, healthy, and playing sports."
When Van der Sar retired from Manchester United following the 2010-2011 season, one of the reasons he cited was that he felt there was more to life. "I've been involved [with Laureus] for 2-3 years," said Van der Sar. "Now I've got some more time to do more projects with them, to help kids and help educate them through sports."
Helping disadvantaged kids is just one facet of his new post-soccer life. Nowadays Van der Sar is simply enjoying spending more time with his family and also trained for the New York Marathon on behalf of the Laureus foundation (he would finish in a time of 4 hours, 19 minutes).
There's no doubt Van der Sar is as fit as ever. It's not hard to imagine that some teams have tried to lure him out of retirement, a fact he confirms by indicating that he's had several concrete offers to return the game. Van der Sar feels he's still capable of playing at the highest level, but is content away from the game -- though he admits to missing some of the perks, "It's different of course, but it's a great life to be a professional athlete, " said Van der Sar. "Everything is taken care of, everybody is nice to you, they get all your clothes for you in the dressing room. Now for example when you go for a workout you have to get your own bag and pick your own towels. "
Though he has no real desire to return the game, Van der Sar still pays close attention to what's going on in the Premier League, "I try to watch United's games when I can. The other week I also saw Arsenal against Chelsea, what a great game." He sees Man City as the most formidable challenger to Man United's hold on the Premier League title. "Chelsea are in a transition period," adds Van der Sar. "Newcastle are doing well, but I don't think it's sustainable and Liverpool have bought a lot of new players, but I don't think they've improved that much."
Personnel-wise Van der Sar has been impressed by the form of several newcomers (City's Sergio Aguero among them), but when pressed on who he considers the league's current top three players to be (in no particular order), there's little hesitation, "[Wayne] Rooney should be in there, Van Persie's been on fire and Steven Gerrard."
Furthermore, when asked to assess Man United's form this season, Van der Sar notes the team's change in style," [United] play more short football than they did last year. They keep the ball more on the ground, more touches." Does he feel the change in style is designed with Barcelona in mind? "Yes. [Barcelona] are a great, great team. They've beaten us twice in the final. To beat them I think you need more passing, more possession, instead of more power."
Tuesday's 3-2 win over Slovenia brought some welcome relief to coach Jurgen Klinsmann as his first seven games in charge of the U.S. national team have yielded some decidedly mixed results. Klinsmann has argued that results at this stage don't or shouldn't matter and he's right (though the cynics will of course note that he made several defensive substitutions in the game against Slovenia precisely to preserve that one-goal margin). The reality is that outside of simply identifying which players will have a role to play, at present Klinsmann is trying to reshape the U.S. team's identity and mindset and such a change takes time.
Historically the U.S. has been more of a defend-first and counterattacking team, and heavily reliant on set pieces to score. This of course is not unique to the U.S. -- it's a common tactic used by teams when faced with stronger opponents (see Ireland's entire Euro 2012 qualifying campaign). It is however, a philosophy that Klinsmann disdains, indicating in Paris recently that teams that try to win in this fashion would succeed in "maybe only one of 10 games" this way.
Instead, Klinsmann wants to fashion the U.S. in a different mold. He wants to press the opposition high in its half, play with more possession and maintain a more attacking mindset. Against France, the U.S. was criticized in some quarters for being overly defensive-minded. However, there was actually a marked difference in that the team pressed France high up the field as opposed to defending deep as it often did under his predecessor Bob Bradley. Offensively the U.S. faltered in possession against France, but against a weaker opponent, Slovenia, the U.S. showed it can at times play with a more fluid attacking approach and utilize a vantage point higher up the field, as opposed to relying on the open spaces that counter attacks typically provide.
The long-term question that Klinsmann must answer is whether the U.S.' personnel can adapt comfortably to this change in philosophy. It remains to be seen whether or not the U.S. has the correct players for such a style or whether the U.S. is ultimately more suited to a counterattacking system.
However, I think the bigger immediate concern for the U.S. is finding the right center-back pairing (I'd advocate giving Houston's Geoff Cameron a look) for Klinsmann's system. Teams that employ aggressive pressing and a high line need center backs that read the game well and have pace, or run the risk of being repeatedly exposed by through balls. This was seen in the alarming frequency in which both France and Slovenia tore through the U.S. back line at times, either via a simple long ball over the top or more measured passing in the final third. (Bear in mind also that Slovenia was poor throughout Euro 2012 qualifying and failed to register even a solitary goal in two games against Northern Ireland.)
An additional note of caution is that while Klinsmann has an admirably progressive philosophy, the only time he's installed it effectively as a coach was for Germany during the 2006 World Cup when Jogi Low was his No. 2 and helped provide that equilibrium between attack and defense. In contrast, at Bayern (with Martin Vasquez as his No. 2), Klinsmann's team was noted for its attacking prowess while being extremely vulnerable defensively. Against Slovenia (again with Vasquez as his current No. 2), the U.S. looked reminiscent of Klinsmann's Bayern -- good going forward, but very shaky at the back. The challenge for Klinsmann will be to find and maintain that balance.
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