Few managers can boast having successful careers both at national sides and at clubs. International football and club football have kept evolving along so diverging lines that now they seem entirely different jobs (ask Mexican critics of Juan Carlos Osorio’s rotation policy with Mexico, a policy meticulously developed at club level).
Judging from his last seasons at Los Angeles Galaxy, Bruce Arena is someone who understands the important differences between clubs and national sides. For although having daily training sessions vastly improves the play seen with clubs (better drilled and cohesive), compared to that seen with national teams (somewhat more chaotic and disjointed), club managers are quite more dependent on the available players than national side ones.
Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane arguably formed the most impressive strike partnership in Major League Soccer. This made life easier for Arena, whose main task was about ensuring his squad was well-balanced in order to accommodate these two very clever forwards. Unsurprisingly, a standard 4-4-2 was all it took him to lift three almost successive MLS Cups.
However, watching LA Galaxy play, one could get a wrong idea of Arena as an apathetic tactician, satisfied with his fielding Donovan and Keane, waiting for victories, arms crossed beside the line.
But it is indeed a wrong idea. Twice as national coach of the Team USA, he has unsettled Mexico with unexpected tactics. The first time was during that fateful and historic ‘Dos a Cero’ in the last 16 of the 2002 World Cup; the second, during the recent visit to Estadio Azteca gaining an away point without much suffering. Both times he used formations far more complex than 4-4-2.
And that is because, in international football, coaches are less dependent on the available players: on one hand they can change their rosters almost at will. On the other, the more players a national coach can use, the more options he has at playing chess (think of Joachim Löw, who can now handpick from a pool of at least 33 top-quality men, and thus switches between different formations game in game out).
Against Mexico in 2002 and 2017, Arena became the Garry Kasparov of Concacaf. In Jeonju, South Korea, Donovan was not fielded as an orthodox forward and Claudio Reyna was not an orthodox midfielder either. Fifteen years later, in Mexico City, he switched to a backline of three which neutralized the goalscoring threat of Javier Hernandez.
Yes, Arena’s Team USA won’t be nearly as dominant as his Galaxy. International football is different from club football. What we certainly can expect from him is his most astute and fascinating version: that of the old diehard player at the international chessboard. Welcome back, sir.