Michael Bradley has faced criticism this World Cup. His touch has seemed off. He was muscled off the ball in the 95th minute against Portugal. He has not been the best version of Michael Bradley we’ve seen. It’s important to note, however, much of that is a product of the role he is being asked to play.
We’ve heard how Jurgen Klinsmann is fielding Bradley in a more advanced role. In theory, that looks like the figure below from Zonal Marking.
In practice, that role has been far more expansive. Here are the FIFA.com heat maps for Bradley over the three group matches. In non-soccer tactic terms, he has been covering a ton of ground.
Bradley ran more than any player from any country in the 2014 World Group Stage. He averaged 7.86 miles per match. For some perspective about what that means physically, here are the NBA Playoffs distance covered stats. Jimmy Butler, playing 44 minutes per game, covered the most at 3.1 miles per game. Bradley did more than twice that, in extreme heat and humidity without a slew of TV timeouts and stoppages to rest and rehydrate.
His role has been vital. The U.S. has been better without the ball than skeptics anticipated. They have done an excellent job staying disciplined, organized and tough to break down. One Portugal goal came from a poor clearance. The other was a great play from perhaps the world’s best player. The one goal against Germany was a great finish from a rebound. They have not come through the U.S. getting shredded and giving up easy chances through the middle, which is keeping them in games (and in the tournament).
Jermaine Jones has had a great World Cup. But much of the success has been Bradley’s diligence tracking back and staying on point defensively, which you can see from the red on the heat maps. There’s a reason Klinsmann was “very satisfied” with his performance. This was not empty praise.
“The defensive work that Michael puts in is absolutely outstanding,” Klinsmann said a day after the U.S. returned from Recife, site of Thursday’s defeat. “It is one of the reasons why we barely gave away any chances for Germany in that game, and Portugal the same thing.”
That diligence has a knock-on effect. It’s exhausting. Let’s put it in basketball terms. If LeBron is guarding the other team’s best scorer for four quarters the entire playoffs, he won’t be as dominant an offensive player. Given what’s being asked of Bradley, it’s not surprising he has not been as dangerous of the ball. It’s not surprising he got muscled off the ball after playing 95 minutes in the Amazon (after playing 90 minutes in another brutal match in Natal).
Oh, and Bradley may be the best American player. He’s not the soccer equivalent of LeBron.
Bradley, undoubtedly, believes he can do better. The U.S. would not want him out there if he didn’t. But, the fact remains he is pushing himself to the absolute limit to give the U.S. a chance to succeed in Brazil and is a large reason they have one. Blaming him (for what may still become the best U.S. World Cup run?) is off base and absurd.
It’s also worth noting: soccer perceptions (even for seasoned observers) are defined by very few plays. If Bradley gets a better touch on that shot against Portugal, he scores and by all accounts he’s having a great tournament.