Every coach — every parent, teacher, and boss — has a decision to make: How much guidance is the right amount?
Some parents watch their kids closely. Others let them roam. Some teachers lecture, others prefer the Socratic method. And some coaches create detailed instructions for the players, while others — United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann, for instance — don’t give much at all. It’s all in the same mindset: Get the best outcome possible. What’s the right amount of help to achieve maximum performance?
Even with those varied approaches in mind, we’ve all demonstrated our desire to see Klinsmann do more from the sideline. We’ve had smart people discuss Klinsmann’s lack of a tactical acumen. At the same time, we’ve had him as coach (and technical director) for five years now. We know how he thinks a team should be run, and it has next to nothing to do with tactics.
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As Raphael Honigstein explains in his book, Das Reboot, "Football, [Klinsmann] believes, remains a ‘player-driven game.’ Americans sometimes find that hard to understand, [Klinsmann] says, because most team sports are considered coaching-driven there. ‘You’ll often see players look to the coach for direction. But football doesn’t work like that, because it’s too fluid. You need players to take charge.’"
We’ve gotten mad and called him stupid. Klinsmann does not care. He thinks we’re barking up the wrong tree. We say he should have better tactics; he says we should learn more about soccer. You think tactics are the way to win a game, Klinsmann doesn’t. You’re right that it’s kind of annoying that U.S. Soccer chased this guy for years and gave him a big contract and he turns out to set up the team like a playground crew. C’est la vie.
Klinsmann, rather than all this tactics mumbo jumbo, wants his players to take charge. The players are on the field, so the players solve the problems. No restrictions from the sidelines to hold them back. He wants to give them the freedom to step up. Go show the world what you’re made of. Go express yourself.
Klinsmann doesn’t obsess over how players pass or where they press. He doesn’t harp on the lanes to cover or the angles to destruct. He doesn’t, it seems, tell his players much about what to do on the field at all. He appears to say a lot about off-the-field things — where to play, how to prepare — but not so much on it. Some coaches dictate a lot of the actions on the pitch, but Klinsmann doesn’t. It’s a bit retro in a time when most coaches today show up in their fresh skinny jeans ready to dictate every movement on the field, but it isn’t inherently wrong.
There are a lot of questions that need answers during the game, but it doesn’t matter if the answers comes from the coach or the players, just as long as the issues get resolved. It all makes sense, in a way. It’s a "teach a man how to fish" kind of thing.
Every coach takes a different place on that spectrum. Every coach handles his players and the team’s approach in a distinct manner. Michael Cox recently described the contrast between Arsene Wenger and Louis van Gaal as "guided discovery" vs. "strict discipline." Both men are wildly successful even with those divergent methods. There’s no definitive point that works every time.
When Klinsmann took the job, we thought he’d outline for us how to play out of the back and combine in the final third, but he doesn’t teach that way. He challenges and inspires. He gives you whimsical metaphors about playing out of the back, hoping it seeps into your heart and soul. The team might yet learn how to play on the front foot, but only because he nudges them gently in the right direction.
There’s a question worth asking at this point: Is there a minimum amount of guidance — of coaching — required to be sufficient? Line of confrontation, pressure? Passing style or set pieces? It’s okay to give players the freedom to make decisions, but are you leaving them helpless if you don’t give them a starting point, some baseline to bind them together?
When Klinsmann was at his best, with Germany at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, he had Joachim Low to balance out his approach. Low handled all of the tactical and structural details. A head coach has a lot of his plate — man management being the first and most important duty. It’s fine for the assistant to take over the actual instruction. Klinsmann gave his romantic lectures of revolution and adaption and attacking, then Low went out and actually implemented it. Now Klinsmann is riding solo and needs to sort out the balance on his own.
It doesn’t take much to realize that the balance of instruction is wrong right now. Maybe it is because Low is coaching Germany instead of assisting Klinsmann, maybe it’s the U.S. players. Either way, Klinsmann’s style and his place on the spectrum of guidance isn’t producing results at the moment. It’s not about whether Klinsmann is a good coach or not. It’s about what he can do to improve the team right now.
Klinsmann has a lot of good qualities. I like his bullheaded belief in what he thinks is right. I envy leaders that don’t question their own decisions. One of those abilities, though, doesn’t appear to be able to figure out this proper balance of instruction as a coach. There’s a time to have strength in conviction and there’s a time to grow. He wouldn’t be the first coach or parent or teacher to get it wrong.
To riot or not to riot isn’t the question. Klinsmann will keep his job. And this is our national team and I can’t think of many things worse than cheering against guys fighting for your country’s colors. Rather, we should hope — demand — that Klinsmann either hires an assistant who can create the balance or adapt himself.
How much guidance is the right amount? I don’t have the right answer, nor is there a right answer. But whatever Klinsmann is doing right now isn’t working. Hopefully he figures it out before either he or American soccer pays the price.