13015_isi_klinsmannjurgen_usmntjd011315107_(1) John Dorton/isiphotos.com

Klinsmann Blames Player Fitness For Loss to Chile

Jurgen Klinsmann knows why the U.S. fell to Chile on Wednesday: His players weren't in sufficiently good shape to hang onto their second-half lead. But ASN contributor John D. Halloran isn't buying it.
BY John D. Halloran Posted
January 30, 2015
6:48 PM
IN THE POST-MORTEM delivered after the United States men's national team's most recent second-half collapse—this one a 3-2 loss to Chile on Wednesday night—soccer pundits everywhere did their usual thing and tried to determine what went wrong. Some blamed the loss on the U.S.’s 3-5-2 formation, some wagged their fingers at head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, while others pointed to a few poor performances among the Starting XI.

But for Klinsmann, there was no doubt whatsoever about where to lay the blame: player fitness.

Speaking after the match, the uber-confident coach made this point repeatedly: "It kind of confirms what we feel...that after minute 60-65, you could see, the players had very heavy legs." He later added, "the key moment was on the fitness side."

Considering the match took place at the end of the U.S. national team's January camp—during an off period for the MLS-heavy roster—that excuse is certainly plausible. But the fact that collapsing late has been an issue for Klinsmann’s teams regardless of the timing of matches, especially those that take place when Major League Soccer and the European leagues are in full swing, means that he is missing the point.

The U.S.’s recent failures spring from a number of issues, the least of which is fitness. Foremost, at the moment, is Klinsmann’s unwillingness to place any of the blame on his own shoulders.

The vast majority of great coaches either intrinsically know or eventually learn this unwritten rule: When your team is successful, give all of the praise to the players. When your team fails, be willing to accept at least some of the blame as your own.

There are countless examples of this—here are three.

  • Barcelona boss Luis Enrique after a loss earlier this season: "Defeat is down to all of us—and first in the line to blame is me. I am the coach and the responsibility is mine."

  • Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo on a recent defeat: "That loss falls strictly on me. My job is to get a team ready to play. That was a coaching loss and I take full responsibility for it."

  • Alabama coaching legend Bear Bryant: "If we have an intercepted pass, I threw it. I'm the head coach. If we get a punt blocked, I caused it. A bad practice, a bad game, it's up to the head coach to assume his responsibility. … If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes really good, then you did it."

    Klinsmann, apparently, has never learned this lesson and it’s one that could eventually foster resentment among his charges.

    After Wednesday’s loss, the coach pulled no punches: "The key issue is...they need to build their stamina...they need to build a foundation to the international level."

    Later, Klinsmann added, "There's a lot of work ahead of us, ahead of the players first of all."

    Not willing to let go of the point, Klinsmann finally said, "We explain to the players, it takes a lot more work—a lot more dedication off the field in order to get that foundation to play consistently with the top teams."

    Sound familiar? It should. Klinsmann's has turned to this trope many times before.

    Aside from the fact that he is indirectly throwing his players under the bus, Klinsmann’s overt focus on fitness is wrongheaded. He seems to think that his players’ fitness—not their technical ability, tactical acumen, or his coaching decisions—are the difference between the U.S. and the world’s “top teams.”

    For decades—long before Klinsmann was ever part of the U.S. setup—the United States men’s national team thrived precisely because of its fitness and the willingness of its players to push themselves to the edge and back. To think that now, under Klinsmann, the U.S. is failing simply because of its physical shortcomings is a belief bordering on delusion.

    Even in Klinsmann’s native Germany there has been a growing realization that the physical fitness aspect of the game is often overrated. In a recent interview with Sports Illustrated’s Liviu Bird, Bayern Munich club ambassador Paul Breitner had this to say:

    Our problem was—our mistake was—that we thought if we do more and more training for our physical conditioning, [nobody] would beat us. We’ve been under the best soccer countries with our 50 percent technical skill, 50 percent physical fitness. We thought if we improve our physical fitness, as I said, nobody would beat us. Within 10, 12 or 14 years, we had lost the balance—we had 75 percent physical fitness and a poor 25 percent of technical skill. We understood the mistakes, and we said, ‘Stop.’ We were able and open enough to know that we have to learn—German football had to learn.

    When Klinsmann first took over the U.S. program, he rightly identified many areas in which American soccer needed to improve, such as the “upside-down” pyramid, instituting a more proactive style of play, and improving player development.

    But on the fitness issue, he has clearly missed the mark. The gap between the U.S. and nations like Brazil, Argentina, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain is obviously larger than just fitness.

    When all three Major League Soccer teams were roundly bounced out of the CONCACAF Champions league last March, it was widely blamed on the fact that MLS was just beginning its domestic season and that the MLS sides competing in the tournament weren’t “match fit." By comparison, the Chilean side that Klinsmann seems to think won because of its superior lungs and legs was full of Chilean Primera players who are a whopping three games into their domestic season.

    This also wasn’t a typical international window. The U.S. had 17 days in camp before the loss to Chile—plenty of time for Klinsmann to get his team on a competitive level with the early-season Chileans.

    Fitness obsession aside, Klinsmann absolutely deserves credit for his formational choices. He boldly looked to test out a 3-5-2 against Chile, even if he didn’t have the patience to stick with it in the second half.

    After the game, Klinsmann rightly acknowledged that the experimental formation had little to do with the U.S.’s second-half collapse (which happened when the U.S. switched to a 4-4-2).

    "Formation had nothing to do with the fact that we then conceded two goals in the second half. We wanted [our players] to play a simple back four," Klinsmann said.

    The 3-5-2 seems to be a perfect fit for the U.S. in a number of ways and Klinsmann should be given kudos for the experiment. It takes advantage of the U.S.’s depth at center back and plays to the attacking strengths of the U.S.’s wide defenders. It also features two holding midfielders to provide cover and possession out of the back, as well as a spot for a dedicated attacking midfielder—the type of player the U.S. has desperately lacked in recent years. Finally, a 3-5-2 gives the U.S. two strikers up top and avoids the single-striker setups in which the Americans usually struggle.

    However, Klinsmann’s switch away from the three-back setup at halftime once again threw his players a curveball. In his tenure, Klinsmann has put the U.S. in nearly every conceivable formation, including 4-4-2, 4-1-2-1-2, 4-1-3-2, 4-1-2-3, 4-2-1-3, and 4-2-3-1. In addition to this week’s 3-5-2, he also played mad scientist with the off-balance formation he tried during World Cup qualifying against Honduras.

    But when it comes to recognizing the importance of consistency and letting his team settle into any one style of play, Klinsmann once again missed the point. Instead of recognizing his own lack of consistency, particularly with his roster and formational maneuverings, he once again pointed to a lack of consistency—in fitness.

    "Consistency comes from the foundation of the physical capabilities of a team when you play international football. If you don’t have that physical foundation, you can’t have consistency…which we don't have at the moment."

    Until Klinsmann is willing to look in the mirror and recognize his own shortcomings, particularly his tendency to blame his players and his failure to implement any kind of consistent system of play, the U.S.'s struggles are bound to continue.

    What do you think—is fitness to blame for the string of poor second-half showings? Is Klinsmann right? Or is he too quick to blame his players' fitness levels? Tell us in the Comments section below.

    John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
  • Post a comment