Graham Ruthven on the USA's drastic managerial change and what it really means
If US Soccer was looking for the anti-Jurgen Klinsmann, someone to go against the grain of everything the German has done as their national team manager over the past five years, they have probably found that in Bruce Arena.
As is the case with any managerial change, Klinsmann’s dismissal presented the opportunity not just to find a new coach but to impose a new identity on the USA. Look at how England replaced Roy Hodgson, a learned coach who liked nothing better than to settle down with a good book, with Sam Allardyce, a coach who knew only how to circumvent the rule book.
So often there is the temptation to perform an ideological U-turn when it comes to changing manager and so it proved in the appointment of Arena as Klinsmann’s replacement. The difference between the two men is stark with the hiring of the LA Galaxy boss an acceptance from US Soccer that they never got what they wanted from Klinsmann.
Stylistically, Arena and Klinsmann are very different coaches. While the latter professed grand ambitions, appointed on the promise that he would lead technical development of the American game, the former is more of a pragmatist. Arena has no trademark formation or system, instead he does whatever it takes to get results. And with qualification for the 2018 World Cup on the line that’s exactly what the USA have hired him to achieve.
But perhaps the biggest difference between Arena and Klinsmann will come in his handling of the US’s best players. The German developed a rather self-defeating habit of rubbing up his greatest talents the wrong way. He did it most famously with Landon Donovan and the performance of his team in the 4-0 defeat to Costa Rica, when Michael Bradley clashed with Klinsmann on the touchline, suggests he did it with a few others behind closed doors too.
Man management isn’t something Arena will likely struggle at as USA manager. It’s a quality he honed at the LA Galaxy, where without the big names on side he wouldn’t have lasted eight weeks let alone eight years. Whether it was David Beckham, Donovan or latterly Robbie Keane, Arena found a way to get the most from the best.
Keane and Donovan in particular seemed to form a strong relationship with Arena. The Irishman even hailed the LA Galaxy boss as the Sir Alex Ferguson of America.
"As a coach, you're judged on how many championships you've won, how many trophies you've won," Keane gushed in an interview earlier this year. "Bruce is the most successful manager in America. That speaks for itself.
"In terms of America and England, Bruce would be the Alex Ferguson in America, and that's the highest compliment I can give him."
While it’s undoubtedly harder to cultivate such relationships at international level, Arena must seek to re-establish an understanding with his players in his second stint as USA boss.
Klinsmann failed in part due to his chopping and changing of his starting lineup, his lack of consistency and lack of coaching identity, but fundamentally he failed because he couldn’t find a way to get his players to perform. That’s essentially what it came down to.
"We need to build the chemistry of this team and have a common goal and really work on a team concept," Arena said following the announcement of his appointment on Tuesday. "I really believe individually and positionally we have good players and we just got to get them working together as a team. There are no real secrets on how you build good teams. It takes a lot of hard work, it takes communication, it takes discipline and it takes some talent. And I think we have enough talent to build a good team and end up in Russia in 2018."
Of course as any American football fan will know, Arena can be a prickly figure. Just because he is popular with his players doesn’t mean he is necessarily popular with supporters or even the media. In fact, the opposite is often true. Comments he made in 2013, for instance, called into question some of his views, specifically those concerning the number of naturalised Americans brought into the national team set up by Klinsmann. "Players on the national team should be–and this is my own feeling–they should be Americans," he said. "If they’re all born in other countries, I don’t think we can say we are making progress."
He sought to clarify those comments on Tuesday when questioned about them, underlining his belief that "anyone that has a [U.S.] passport is certainly eligible to play for our national team and I embrace all players that are eligible to play."
Nonetheless, his first meeting with some of the players he was talking about could be rather testy.
Arena’s track record is proven. Keane, along with plenty more, will attest to just how effective he is as a man manager. He is a better tactical and technical coach now than he was 10 years when he last held the USA job, but that’s not what he has been hired on the basis of. Arena is a players’ manager and that’s what the American game needs right now.