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Chasing the narrative: What the numbers tell us (if anything) about Michael Bradley’s World Cup

Jun 30, 2014, 5:08 PM EDT

JACKSONVILLE, FL - JUNE 07: Midfielder Michael Bradley #4 of the United States dribbles during the international friendly match against Nigeria at EverBank Field on June 7, 2014 in Jacksonville, Florida. Getty Images

After the U.S.’s third group game, the counter-narrative hit full steam, with Major League Soccer’s official website putting its weight behind the rosy view of Michael Bradley‘s play. According to FIFA, the United States central midfielder covered more ground in group stage than anybody in the tournament, a factoid that got a full writeup as the league lauded one of its biggest stars. It’d be nice if Bradley’s other numbers got the same attention, but it’s understandable why MLS is trying to promote Bradley’s cause.

So why don’t we do that? Why don’t we give the full statistical record some attention? If the “Bradley’s been awful” narrative is already out there and the counter-narrative’s gaining steam, why don’t we try to take a broader look at Bradley’s production? Let’s collect the numbers, provide some context, and see if there really is anything that confirms the general assessment. Is there anything in the broader statistical record that says Bradley’s been bad?

The subtext of that assessment is more complicated, though. It’s not that Bradley has been bad in the absolute sense (some people are saying this, though). It’s that he hasn’t come close to meeting expectations. This is a player around whom head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has built his formation. It’s not only fair to judge him against a normal player’s expectations but against the performance his coach wants from his most important player. Klinsmann and the U.S. have incurred a type of opportunity cost by setting up as they do.

For his part, Klinsmann has weighed in on the issue, but that’s not the point, here. The point is to see if the statistics, as flawed and limited as they are, offer any support to either claim. What numbers say Bradley’s failed to meet expectations? Or, what statistics support the opposing view, that Bradley’s been fine and has become a scapegoat?

Some numbers we won’t discuss here: Goals (Bradley doesn’t have any, though he should); assists (again, none); distance covered (it speaks to effort, not efficacy). Those numbers are pretty self-evident. We don’t need to dig deeper.

Instead, we’ll look at some of the secondary statistics, though these numbers don’t mean much independent of their context. So we’ve done our best to give that to you. Not only do you get the raw number, but you see where Bradley ranked within the team and within the game.

Of course, that’s only part of the context. The team’s style of play has also been a big factor in Bradley’s numbers. It’s hard to lead a game in passing when your team’s willing to play without the ball. For the most part, that’s what the U.S. has done.

There’s also Bradley’s role within the team to consider, one which establishes some expectations for his performance. As the highest man in the U.S.’s central midfield, we should expect Bradley to be among the team’s leaders in key passes, touches, and passes every game.  As a focal point for the U.S. in transition, Bradley should see more contested time on the ball than his teammates, meaning he’ll likely lead the U.S. in times dispossessed and turnovers, even on good days.

What we’re really looking for here are outlying numbers – something that supports the notion Bradley has been particularly poor:

(All numbers are available via WhoScored.com.)

Opponent Key Passes Touches Dispossessed Passes Turnovers
Ghana (W, 2-1)  0  52  3  43  2
Ranks (Team/Game)  T6/T16  4th/11th  1st/T1  1st/T6  2nd/T4
Portugal (D, 2-2)  1  82  1  69  0
Ranks (Team/Game)  T4/T8  1st/3rd  T1/T3  1st/2nd  T7/T11
Germany (L, 0-1)  1  61  2  49  2
Ranks (Team/Game)  T1/T3  1st/9th  T2/T3  1st/9th  T3/T3

 

There are other numbers we can look at, like passes completed, through balls, and dribbles. I chose these because they require the fewest caveats, whether those caveats be based on the nature of the data, context dependence, or other, more philosophical issues.

The numbers that stand out: The lack of chances creates (key passes – passes that lead to shots), and two games where the overall pass numbers are low. That Bradley had three ‘dispossessions’ and two turnovers against Ghana (when his passes and touches were both low) supports the idea he was far below his standards in the opener. The larger body of data only supports one other claim: Bradley hasn’t been creating changes. The degree to wish you can separate that from the U.S.’s tactics is up to you.

The defensive numbers, where, given the U.S.’s deficits in possession, you’d expect Bradley to be among his team’s as well as the game’s leaders:

Opponent Tackles Interceptions Fouls
Ghana (W, 2-1)  1  1  2
Ranks (Team/Game)  T7/T13  T3/T5  T3/T4
Portugal (D, 2-2)  1  2  2
Ranks (Team/Game)  T4/T9  T4/T8  T1/T3
Germany (L, 0-1)  4  0  3
Ranks (Team/Game)  1st/1st  T8/T13  2nd/2nd

 

Again, what’s our goal here: To find something that clearly highlights Bradley’s struggles. Among the defensive numbers, there’s nothing convincing in either direction. Bradley had a good night in tackles against Germany, but he only generated one more turnover than he did against Portugal.

All of the in-team and in-game ranks look decent enough, considering players like Kyle Beckerman are better positioned to rack up tackles, while Matt Besler would be the best bet to lead the team in interceptions.

Even in the fouls number, there’s nothing eye-catchingly bad. While there’s little here that tells us how Bradley actually played, the description the numbers offer doesn’t support many conclusions.

source: Getty Images

Michael Bradley speaks to the media during training at Sao Paulo FC in Brazil. Through three games at the World Cup, the U.S. central midfielder has no goals and no assists while leading the tournament in distance covered. (Source: Getty Images)

So we’re left back where we started: Relying on our eyes, our analysis, and the more obvious numbers. The extent to which any of that’s reliable is unclear. He missed an easy goal against Portugal and has failed to generate many chances for his teammates, but it’s reasonable to assume the absence of Jozy Altidore and the U.S.’s tactics are heavily skewing those results (at least, the chance creation). People may be seeing what they want, judging Bradley against what they hope will happen instead of a more equitable benchmark.

Me? I tend to agree with the broader opinion. This is as bad as I’ve seen Bradley play in a long time. I think Bradley’s been below average compared to other midfielders in the tournament, and I think it’s completely fair to judge him against a higher standard, given his coach has made decisions to put him in advantageous positions. Though I think, given his track record, it’s highly unlikely Bradley’s poor performances will continue, I think his first 270 minutes in Brazil speak for themselves.

How do I back that up, though? Persuasive language, mostly. I can also highlight particularly poor touches, appeal to my own self-inflated authority, or rely on the wisdom of crowds, however “wise” that may be. Sometimes, I actually manage a complete, cogent argument, though it’s pretty rare.

What I can’t do is rely on the numbers. I can’t lean on distance covered. I can’t build a case on chances created. In context, there’s little in the statistical record that tells us anything about Bradley’s World Cup, whether I’m trying to trumpet the counter-narrative or pile on.

  1. kellybeck15 - Jun 30, 2014 at 5:23 PM

    How about goal, assists and team wins? Do those factor in anywhere in the analysis of your attacking mid/offensive focal point?

  2. tariencole - Jun 30, 2014 at 5:26 PM

    I would say Bradley hasn’t been up to his best. I would not say he’s been ‘bad.’ I do think the Ghana stats are grossly skewed by the injuries around him. Altidore out, Dempsey perhaps 50% much of the game. Bedoya dinged. It was a disaster around him. Why would it *not* affect his passing stats?

    The Portugal game I thought he played well, on the whole. The ‘turnover’ to me is a bit bogus. The defense wasn’t caught out, there were 8 back. Ronaldo ought to have been picked up. And there was absolutely no excuse for Cameron to go on walkabout w/ Varela storming down the center. Not to mention every time we’ve tried the 3 CB formation, Gonzalez has gotten lost. So there’s lots of fingers to point there before ‘the turnover.’

    Germany? I think they played entirely too conservative that match. Though to be fair, Germany’s tactics are designed specifically to disrupt creation in the middle of the pitch…just like ours are.

  3. lostintransocean - Jun 30, 2014 at 5:41 PM

    What I see is Bradley’s first touch being way, way off form. That does appear in stats.

  4. mith242 - Jun 30, 2014 at 6:06 PM

    Seems like the formation being used to pushing Bradley forward more. While he tends to be further back and it’s affected his game. So I wonder if the point isn’t that he’s playing so ‘badly’ or more that he’s simply being utilized differently. It just seems that he’s playing badly because he’s not really playing the role we’re used to seeing.

    • nottinghamforest12 - Jun 30, 2014 at 11:53 PM

      When have we seen him rip it up against world class talent?

    • lyleoross - Jul 1, 2014 at 12:42 PM

      I’m not sure that sells. He did fine in that role in qualifying, and in the WC warm up. So, it doesn’t seem that simple.

  5. tridecagon - Jun 30, 2014 at 6:48 PM

    In soccer, the numbers give supporting information, but they rarely tell the whole story. The eye test says that Bradley hasn’t been himself and hasn’t been the player Klinsmann and the team need him to be. Will that continue? I doubt it. Looking for him to make some things happen against the Belgians.

    • nottinghamforest12 - Jun 30, 2014 at 11:51 PM

      What evidence do we have that Bradley has ever been capable of dominant play at this level?

      • packfaninthehook - Jul 1, 2014 at 7:52 AM

        I dunno… that he was a playmaker for Roma for years, that he was our engine in qualifiers and played pretty well in South Africa. He is absolutely capable of it.

      • nottinghamforest13 - Jul 1, 2014 at 10:08 AM

        By playmaker for Roma you mean 4th on the depth chart at his position & left the team b/c he couldn’t crack the lineup?

      • lyleoross - Jul 1, 2014 at 12:44 PM

        No, by play maker at Roma the poster means that up until he was hurt, he was the starter in that role, and the club had great confidence in him. The problem was that when he got hurt, a great player took his place, and Bradley became redundant. That happens.

    • lyleoross - Jul 1, 2014 at 12:54 PM

      Numbers only don’t tell the story when they are incomplete or misinterpreted. The eye test tells you to go look, the numbers tell you what is going on, if anything. This is science 101, and the mythology that numbers don’t give answers is a killer. Enough bad decisions have been made on eye evidence to fill up the National Mall. Your gut is only right 24/7 if you’re George Bush.

      The problem here is that the author has done a bad job in his analysis, no surprise, he’s neither a scientist, nor a statistitian. First, give your numbers some relevance, go to qualification, or perhaps his Roma play and pull the same numbers, see if they match up, or heaven forbid, are statistically different. Second, look at his movement in those games, did he run as far in those games as he has in these games? Third, look at his positioning in those games vs these games, is he in similar positions, or is he playing outside the position that he is in when he has success? Forth, who is marking him in the WC, and how do those players do against players in the role MB is playing in similar games? Are they successful?

      Now, I can list a dozen other significant comparisons to be made, and a good sports numbers guy can too. Wanna bet JK has someone doing exactly that?

  6. braxtonrob - Jun 30, 2014 at 7:09 PM

    We need more 1-2 passing in front of Bradley, and it seems our wings are getting stretched, so that isn’t happening.
    Therefore, Bradley plays long balls, and we pseudo-counter attack up the sides with no true heading striker up front. On the attack, we look like we’re playing with 10 men. THAT has to change. and that is JK’s job (when he constructs the lineup). If Dempsey is alone up top, that’s just the excuse he needs to overly-optimistic and he stays up there without helping in the midfield at all.

    If JK refuses to get Mix out there to help in midfield, I’d rather have a crippled Jozy up top, than a selfish Dempsey. (I’m not saying Dempsey isn’t world class, but in games he doesn’t score while playing striker, he usually contributes VERY little.)

  7. geejon - Jun 30, 2014 at 7:22 PM

    And watching how many chances Algeria was able to create against Germany today just confirms how awful the U.S. was in that game where stringing 2 passes together was a minor miracle for us.

    Soccer isn’t baseball. Stats will only tell you so much. You know what you’re watching and Bradley’s been below average. Period.

    Klinnsman needs to develop a true #10 in the worst way in the coming years. For years he’s said he wanted more of a possession-type team rather than the kick and run U.S. style of years past but with no #10 that plan is dead in the water.

  8. heelfans - Jun 30, 2014 at 7:29 PM

    Most interesting comments on Bradley that I have read have pointed to his running as being excessive, trying to do too much. He seems to show up much further back than his primary function would seem to require. If his tackles and interceptions don’t show higher numbers then maybe his appearances in the back aren’t that helpful??? Whatever! I only hope that whatever the cause the old MB is back tomorrow.
    One comment on Bedoya. I believe that he is a much better player than has appeared to date. He has been asked to provide cover for DMB and has done a great job but in the course of emphasizing his defense, his technical and creative skills have gone unused. I hope that he is let loose against the Red Devils.

  9. psuhoffman - Jun 30, 2014 at 10:55 PM

    I don’t buy the idea that Bradley is struggling due to tactics. He looked fine against Nigeria playing there and if it was just his final passing in the attacking third that was off that would make sense but his first touch has been awful in all 3 games. He repeatedly receives balls in good spots only to let a bad touch take him out of position to make a play. That’s just sloppy play not his position. He needs to get his head back right.

  10. nottinghamforest12 - Jun 30, 2014 at 11:49 PM

    Bradley has been a disappointment in the context of what he means to this team, but if we are honest with ourselves he is simply playing to his modest abilities. He is a medicore midfielder and hasn’t been able to cut it in Europe which is why he landed back in the MLS. People can romanticize his return any number of ways but the fact of the matter is he lacks the same vision and skill that world class midfielders possess. Muntari isn’t anything special and he ran all over Bradley. The Belgians are stacked from top to bottom and Bradley needs to step up in a major way.

  11. teamperkins11 - Jun 30, 2014 at 11:57 PM

    I think that the loss of Jozy has impacted MB the most. He has extended his pressure much higher than we are accustomed to seeing him pressure, at times pressuring the highest on the field. This appears to have been done out of necessity, but the result is that he is logging a lot of distance on those legs. I think my touch would be a bit off given these circumstances. Our best hope is that a healthy Jozy allows MB to drop a little deeper in the MF, thus logging less distance and having fresher legs throughout the game.

  12. grogansheroes - Jul 1, 2014 at 9:45 AM

    When i see Bradley attempt a pass to a winger, open by twenty yards, and he puts the ball ten yards over his head, it makes you wonder.

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