No player on the U.S. team has faced more criticism this World Cup than Bradley, who has worked tirelessly in every match defensively, but has failed to provide the spark in attack expected of him when he was moved into a more offensive-minded role by Jurgen Klinsmann earlier this year.
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After holding a more defensive-minded central midfield role for years, Bradley was moved forward by Klinsmann, starting with the April friendly against Mexico. The results of the move were immediate, with Bradley shining in the creative role. He seemed to thrive when given the freedom to spend more time operating in the attacking third of the field, and with Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones covering the space behind him, Bradley figured to have found a new home.
“I am very, very satisfied with Michael in this tournament so far,” Klinsmann said Friday when asked about Bradley’s performance at this World Cup. “I know that he has another gear in him. If he already plays on this level right now — we came through this group because of his influence on the field. Then if he steps it up another notch, it gives us with other players as well, this gives us a big hope now getting ready for the knockout stage, because we know that players have not reached their highest spot yet.
“(Bradley) is one of them, but overall I am very, very happy with him.”
Bradley acknowledged that he, like the rest of his teammates, will need to step up if the Americans are going to advance further in the World Cup, though he stopped short of agreeing that he wasn’t performing well enough.
“You get to this point in the tournament and you understand that to keep it going and to take it even further, every guy has to find more. Every guy has to look at himself and physically find more to give, mentally be that much sharper. That's what we're talking about at the moment. The ability to be excited and proud of what we're doing, but still understand that it's not anything yet. Now, if we can continue to push and if we can continue to be better and better, that now there's still a lot more in our force.”
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Bradley has struggled with maintaining his usual sharpness in possession when operating higher up the field, where there is more defensive pressure. Because of this, we have seen Bradley commit an uncharacteristic number of turnovers in the attack, and we haven’t seen him connect on as many effective attacking-third passes as we normally do.
Bradley has become a victim of his own expectations. Entering the World Cup, he was seen as a player primed to star in Brazil after having been very impressive four years earlier in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. His form in the U.S. team’s recent matches, dating back to that man of the match effort against Mexico in April, only served to increase what was expected from Bradley, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. So when he started the 2014 World Cup by committing multiple turnovers and having little effect in the attack in the win against Ghana, the criticism started to build.
Things only grew worse after the Portugal match, when Bradley once again failed to make his mark offensively, while also turning the ball over on the eventual game-tying sequence for Portugal. Against Germany, Bradley spent far more time deeper in midfield, trying to help slow down the German midfield machine led by Philipp Lahm. Bradley was excellent in keeping pressure on the likes of Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, but in putting in so much defensive work, Bradley produced little for the attack in an eventual 1-0 loss.
By the end of the group stage, Bradley had covered more ground than any player in the entire World Cup, but the U.S. attack struggled to generate chances in the two matches Klinsmann deployed a five-man midfield. That is the balancing act Klinsmann must pull off. He must have Bradley stay further up the field, but must also have players like Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman pick up more of the defensive slack when they have already been contributing so much.
“The defensive work that Michael puts in is absolutely outstanding. It is one of the reasons why we barely gave away any chances for Germany in that game, Portugal the same way,” Klinsmann said of Bradley. “We know that he can add something extra going forward, he also needs to help with the team by shifting higher up. If we can get Michael more into that role behind Clint, I think we are even more dangerous then.”
Klinsmann’s desire to have Bradley stay higher up the field goes in line with a general consensus within the U.S. team that the attack needs to be more assertive in midfield, and not sit back so much, which has allowed opponents like Ghana and Germany to dictate possession.
Against Belgium, which has a very talented central midfield, Bradley will need to try and push forward more if Klinsmann’s 4-5-1 is going to generate chances. And he will need to be significantly sharper with his passing and decision making if the Americans are going to be effective against a Belgian team that boasts impressive talent, but has yet to play its best soccer.
The same can be said of Bradley who has yet to live up to expectations in Brazil, but luckily for Bradley and the U.S. team, he has another match to do just that.