Football

Jurgen Klinsmann: Why the USA manager should not be on the FA’s England shortlist

The FA has done its homework, consulted an arbitrary selection of ex-pros, and produced a carefully crafted shortlist to succeed Roy Hodgson. The end result of this high-level strategising? A list comprising nearly every available English option, plus Arsene Wenger.

But, it’s the other name on the list that has captured some people’s imagination. Jurgen Klinsmann, the wildcard in the deck, whose candidacy has garnered its fair share of support.

So, what are the German’s credentials?

Some have pointed to his season with Tottenham as being in his favour – though quite what the relevance is of a year in the Premier League, over 20 years ago, is anyone’s guess.

More persuasively, Klinsmann was in charge of a newly resurgent Germany side that reached the semi-finals of the 2006 World Cup. This was followed by a brief and largely unsuccessful spell with former club, Bayern Munich.

But, it is his time in charge of the US national side that has really put him in the frame as a serious candidate. His team won plenty of admirers in Brazil two years ago, with their adventurous play, and relentless, never-say-die attitude – most typified in their thrilling last 16 encounter against Belgium.

The logic behind a Klinsmann recruitment therefore goes a little something like this: ‘look at what he has done with the USA, they don’t even play football! Imagine what he could do with England.’

However, there is one gaping hole in this CV highlight. Klinsmann hasn’t really done any better than either of the previous two US managers this century.

After 91 games, Klinsmann boasts a winning percentage of 56%. Bruce Arena, who took charge of 130 games from 1998-2006 has a slightly better winning percentage, and only two more defeats than the German.

Even Klinsmann’s predecessor, Bob Bradley, whose record at first glance appears inferior, fared almost identically. Excluding results from the 2007 Copa America, when the US sent a youthful, mostly MLS based second string, and lost all three games, Bradley’s winning percentage is less than half a percent worse than Klinsmann’s.

Yet, neither Arena or Bradley made that FA shortlist. So, why is Klinsmann under consideration for “the biggest job in football”?

First, is the game’s bias towards status. Thanks to his stellar playing career, Klinsmann is a name. He’s European, and even better, German. Anything he does is going to attract more attention than a pair of coaches who had never worked outside the US before.

Second, and more important, is a combination of an innate bias towards according recent events more weight when making decisions – known as the availability heuristic – and an outdated and patronising view of US football on these shores.

The availability heuristic is, simply, the mental trap that humans fall into, of making judgements based on the most recent information, rather than taking a longer term view – a familiar problem in football. In this instance, the FA have based their decision to shortlist Klinsmann on the US’ 2014 World Cup performance – the perception being that they did exceptionally well.

But, in reality, their performance was nothing remarkable. The US have been competitive at international level for well over decade. In fact, 2014 arguably compares unfavourably with their efforts at earlier tournaments.

Arena’s 2002 side were in the ascendancy at 1-0 down in their quarter-final with Germany, when, late on, a clear hand ball on the goal line by Torsten Frings went unpunished. A World Cup semi-final between the US and South Korea was closer to becoming a reality than most people remember.

Then, in 2010, under Bradley, they were the superior side in their last 16 extra-time defeat against Ghana. At both tournaments, the US played better than they did in 2014. Even in 2006, when they were knocked out at the group stage, they were unfortunate to only draw with eventual winners, Italy.

The (over)reaction to their 2014 campaign, and Klinsmann’s subsequent association with the England job, stems from a strangely persistent, patronising attitude towards US football. Every four years, between snarky comments about ‘soccerball’,  there is collective surprise among fans and pundits that they are actually quite useful, as if it were some new development.

Perhaps it’s a question of familiarity, or lack of it, with very few US players plying their trade in the Premier League. Maybe it’s the perception that they have yet to fully embrace football, which, despite massive participation numbers, remains a second tier sport in the US. Whatever the reason, expect more of the same politely surprised condescension in Russia in two years time, when the US turn up and perform well. Again.

The FA have been adamant that in their search for a new manager, they will recruit the best possible candidate. Though it increasingly looks like they will go native, it would be an indictment on the other candidates if they decided that Klinsmann fit that billing.

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