Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Against the Jermaine Jones Experiment

I have a longer, more thorough thought-piece for the fate and future of the U.S Men’s National Team (USMNT*) in mind, but I'll get that up tomorrow, or over the weekend, because, involved. (*Sorry I keep doing the legal thing with abbreviations...but what if someone doesn't know the acronym?)

For now, I want to dig into the latest proposed major shift to the USMNT set-up – i.e. the decision to play Jermaine Jones in the center of defense. Why? Because this is, without question, one of the weirder debates I’ve followed concerning the U.S. Men. It's not the idea that’s weird – as everyone points out, it has its merits...but the larger, related point is that it also has highly apparent drawbacks.

Soccer By Ives' podcast, the one posted today, I think, offered the sternest defense of his I've heard so far. The general discussion begins with the U.S. experimenting with the 3-5-2 (that's around the 33-minute mark), but it turns to Jones' switch to center back around the 35.30 mark. The key line, or one of them, was this:
“...seriously, why are people having a problem with Klinsmann wanting to build his defense and, potentially, his entire system, around Jermaine Jones in that slot? Like, why is that a problem?"
Ives Galarcep goes on to call opposition to the experiment “bizarre.” He questions whether such people exist, if only because he hasn’t actually heard anyone defend the opinion in word or writing (he’s taking said people’s existence on the word of his youthful ward, Gareth Cleverley). So, I’d just like to say, even understanding that Mr. Galarcep will never read, hi. I see more downside than up in playing Jermaine Jones at center back. And I say that with a lifetime's worth of respect for Galarcep, his knowledge and his work.

Matt Doyle, along with a couple tweets he pastes to his "Three Things" article, captures a couple reasons why: 1) Jones' penchant for the "hero ball" (e.g. the pass so sublime that it may not be an viable option); 2) his tendency to "search for the game," (e.g. to wander out of position in search of the ball); 3) the limits of his aerial game. Now, take any soccer fan you know, and explain to him/her how you’ve got this simply incredible player you think will do really well at center back, possessed of heart and experience and savvy to spare, sure, he's older, but there are these further drawbacks, e.g. #1-3 listed above.

How convincing is that argument? Not enough? Does Jones more than occasional trouble with cards tip the scales? No? OK, OK, let’s throw in his age.

I list age last for a reason. Jones will be 36 (and closer to 37) when World Cup 2018 comes around. As a number, that doesn't matter enormously to me. It does matter, however, when understood as a collection of tendencies in how someone plays the game. With the exception of his problems with cards, all of Jones' handicaps as a central defender aren't problems in a midfielder; they're actually net strengths where Jones is used to playing...and that's the point. The man is a midfielder, and a very good one. But it's one thing to retrain, say, a 25-year-old midfielder versus one entering his mid-30s.

Overall, the discussion about shifting Jones to central defense underrates defending as a skill and a mind-set. Playing without a net requires an understanding of timing and circumstances that too many people dismiss too readily. (What do you mean, "who is this strawman?" I've known him all my life!) More to the point, the U.S. player pool includes several players who are solid defenders and they're better in the air and reasonably good at passing out of the back. Without looking, I'd suggest Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron and Michael Parkhurst. Now, turning to a web-page with a list of current U.S. defenders, I feel comfortable adding...well, OK, that didn't produce the list I imagined, but I’d be willing to try Tim Ream or, to pull from a little farther up the field, Kyle Beckerman or Maurice Edu. Even when talking converted midfielders, the latter two are more disciplined at holding their position than Jones. And both pass very well, if not better in the relevant circumstances (That said, I bet it’s a seriously sad push for aerial weakness if one pitted Jones against Beckerman.)

The point isn't that everything about the Jones Experiment sucks. And it's his age as a number matters less than his willingness and capacity to retrain after nearly a lifetime of playing a certain way. Word that he went wandering earlier today – something you emphatically don't want from a centerback - isn’t encouraging. The larger point is that the U.S. pool contains options who do some things better than Jones, even if they do some things worse (and I didn’t even mention Chris Hedges!). But when defending and staying home are key parts of the role, it strikes me as wise to pay attention.

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