After the U.S. national team’s 1-1 draw against Mexico last Sunday, you heard plenty of talk about the strong defending by the Americans and Michael Bradley’s wonder goal.
What you didn’t hear a ton about were the tactics employed by coach Bruce Arena. Those tactics allowed the Americans to generate just as many dangerous chances as El Tri and limit Mexico to just one shot on goal, which Carlos Vela converted.
If anything was clear from watching Sunday’s match when compared to the last meeting between the two CONCACAF rivals in November, it was that the current U.S. team was significantly better prepared for Mexico this time around. Whereas last November we saw Juan Carlos Osorio thoroughly outcoach Jurgen Klinsmann in the first half of the eventual Mexico victory, it was Osorio who was left making key early changes on Sunday, with a first-half substitution made in order to deal with the U.S. team’s tactical approach.
So why hasn’t Arena received more credit for his tactics at Azteca? It could be, at least in part, down to the fact he has never been one to discuss tactics very much publicly.
Arena has long been known as someone who is more likely to make fun of questions about tactics and analytics than to offer his own detailed take on the subjects. That has led to a perception in some circles that Arena’s public disdain for discussing tactics can be chalked up to his own lack of knowledge or depth in those areas.
Talk to those close to Arena, those who have worked with him and played for him, and you get a much different picture. You hear about a coach who is an expert at letting each of his players know what their tactical responsibilities are, and one whose biggest strengths is getting his team to fully understand and execute his game plans.
“Bruce will tell you that, obviously the tactical side of the game is important, but he believes the other parts of the game are just as important,” Landon Donovan told Goal . “To claim he’s not tactically intelligent is wrong, it’s just not something he’s overly focused on discussing like a lot of coaches are in the game now.”
Then why the disdain for discussing tactics publicly?
“I think it’s because I think a lot of people really don’t really understand the game,” Arena told Goal . “And they think it’s all about your formation. There are 11 players on the field, regardless of the formation you play and the starting point. And it’s how those player work together on the field. People get all caught up in formations and everything else.
“I had a very good talk with a coach in Germany. I’m not going to tell you his name, but clearly one of the better coaches, and he said basically the same thing,” Arena added. “I asked him about a couple of things he did in how he organizes his team and formations and all. He said ‘well, it could be three backs, or four backs. It really doesn’t matter. It’s just the way we play with each other.’
The U.S. boss has embraced that approach as well.
“That’s essentially what I’ve always done with my teams,” Arena said. “We don’t get real hung up in formations, so when we play 4-4-2 it might be a 4-4-2, but at times it looks different depending on the characteristics of the players, and the kind of game you’re playing. The score of the game. Your opponent. It’s constantly changing. Nobody is losing a game because they’re playing the wrong formation. They’re losing because they’re not playing well as a team.”
Pablo Mastroeni has seen Arena’s coaching evolution like few have. He was a member of Arena’s 2002 and 2006 World Cup team, then a decade later he finished up his career playing for his old national team boss with the LA Galaxy. Now coach of the Colorado Rapids, Mastroeni still marvels at Arena’s ability to simplify things that many coaches tend to over complicate.
“Every time I ever played for Bruce I knew exactly what he wanted from me in my role as an individual,” Mastroeni told Goal . “And then collectively as a team we knew what we wanted to do.
“Did he do it with power points and magnets on a white board? No, he has his own way of communicating,” Mastroeni continued. “Whether it’s pulling people aside, showing video, whether it’s walking across the field and saying, 'Hey, I want to play on that side of the field and I want to move our lines and move as a group.’ He just found simple ways to articulate exactly what we wanted, and because they were simple, everyone was on the same page and knew what he wanted.”
Arena’s approach was similar in the lead-up to Sunday’s game, as U.S. midfielder Paul Arriola revealed in comments he made after an impressive showing in a surprise start.
“We talked about it a couple days ago in breakfast,” Arriola said of his assignment. “We just had a short meeting, each person, and I think that really helps a lot, everyone really understand what their role is and what the team role is.”
Arriola also shed some light into adjustments Arena made at halftime, which helped the Americans maintain their defensive organization in the face of consistent Mexican possession.
“At halftime, we talked about a tactical switch,” Arriola said. “Their left back was coming up a lot, so how can we avoid him receiving the ball, or do we want to hold in and allow him to receive the ball? We kind of talked over that. And everything was pretty clear. Myself, I was never confused.”
Arriola helped give us all a look into how Arena works, and why his approach is so effective. Consider that the lineup he put out against Mexico was missing several first-choice starters due to the short break between Thursday’s qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago and Sunday, yet players like Arriola, Kellyn Acosta and Tim Ream still stepped up and performed despite their relative inexperience on the international level.
“Getting everyone to buy into what he’s trying to do is an art form as well,” Mastroeni said of Arena. “You can have a guy that can articulate tactics to a tee, but if you’re not willing to fight for this guy, and you don’t believe in the message that he’s selling, it doesn’t matter how well he explains the tactics.”
“(Arena) is brilliant at not complicating things and making players understand the game plan,” LA Galaxy coach and long-time Arena protege Curt Onalfo told Goal . “So he does it in a very subtle manner, and he prepares his team really well so that you don't necessarily look at it as this Guardiola-type setup.
“He’s tactically astute, and ultimately he knows how to prepare a team and he knows how to win,” Onalfo said. “Tactically he can match up with the best.”
Arena has no trouble breaking down tactics with his players, and laying out detailed instructions on how to attack and defend against an opponent, but he believes the public’s fascination with formations can lead to an incomplete view of the game, and of a team’s true tactical approach.
“How’d we play the game against Honduras (in March)? What was our formation?” Arena asked. “It was a 4-1-3-2, in our view, that’s our starting point, but how it looks during the game is different. That was what our formation was on a piece of paper. We didn’t get overwhelmed by the fact that maybe it looks a little different in the game.
“(Clint) Dempsey comes underneath. (Christian) Pulisic goes high. We’re playing a formation that takes into account the skills of the player you have. And sometimes it’s fluid and it constantly changes.”
After Sunday’s draw in Mexico, Arena actually went into more detail than he normally does about his formation of choice, admitting he had settled on what he called a 3-4-3 — and what some chose to call a 5-2-3 — two months earlier. He also detailed why he thought it would be useful against El Tri.
"I was pretty confident we could implement that (system). We have very good center backs,” Arena said. “That's a key to that system. We worked real hard preparing the team to do it.
“Mexico does an unbelievable job in their spacing. They play players on both (touch lines) so they stretch you out and like to open you up and attack the gaps between your back line if you're playing a back four, and we protected all those spaces. We call the system a 3-4-3 to a 5-2-2-1, or whatever you want to call it. But somehow, if we can add up to 10, that’s what it is.”
Arena’s willingness to explain his tactical approach after Sunday’s draw was a bit out of character for a coach who told Goal a few weeks earlier that he felt like he was wasting his time when publicly discussing the matter. Whether this is a sign of Arena softening up his stance on sharing his insights with the public remains to be seen.
If so, that might just help diminish the notion that he isn’t a tactician, though his coaching resume, and his recent results with the U.S., should already put that idea to rest.