FIFA.com caught up with Jurgen Klinsmann to discuss his first six months in charge of USA. A legendary former player who dazzled for Germany, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and Tottenham Hotspur, the 47-year-old spoke candidly about his hopes to transform American soccer from floor to ceiling.
Calling Southern California home for the past 13 years, the ex-Germany coach talks affectionately of his “special relationship” with the USA and his hopes to overhaul the country’s football. Tactics, individual responsibility, technique, nutrition, fitness, philosophy – it is all on the table for the energetic Klinsmann, who pulls no punches. “No spot is guaranteed” in his team, he warned in the first instalment of this exclusive two-part interview.
FIFA.com: Jurgen, can you describe your first six months in charge?
Jurgen Klinsmann: This is a transition period. We are moving away from a reactive style of play to a proactive style. We want to play with the big teams; we want to take on the bigger nations and play like they play. This requires a different way of working from the top to the bottom. There is the physical side, the technical side, the fitness side, and the tactical side. We need to improve all areas of the game and this doesn’t happen overnight.
This seems a tough task. How are the players reacting to your new approach?
I think they’re getting the message. They’re taking to the idea of training harder, doing double sessions. I ask a lot of them from a tactical perspective, but also things like nutrition and lifestyle. It’s important to show them that they need to go further all the time, that it is up to them to drive themselves forward.
Can you talk about your friendly results so far? Two wins, four losses, one draw and only five goals scored - this can't have been exactly what you were hoping for?
The results have not all been great, but changes like the ones we’re talking about take time. Here and there we have been unlucky, but that’s OK. It’s part of the process, part of the transition. Also, I would say that we've put in some very good performances so far and are working toward something bigger.
You’ve taken over from Bob Bradley, who had his own approach. How do you make changes in a national team?
The most important part is to work and train the way you want to play. It’s not done in words or on a blackboard, but out on the training pitch. You have to work on the fast transitions, getting back behind the ball when you lose it. [You have to] bang these impulses home so that they become second nature.
What is the philosophy behind the way you coach?
This is not something I have come up with in my brain, or on a wish list. It is something dictated by the global game and those teams that play at the highest levels in Europe. Spain are a prime example, and FC Barcelona perhaps the best example. Germany and Holland are doing it to a lesser extent – they are driving the game forward, changing the way it’s played. I was in Brazil recently and it’s amazing that there is this sense that maybe they missed the boat a little bit in the kind of development that is going on in places like Spain. And here we’re talking about a five-time World Cup winner. The trends are set in Europe and especially in the Champions League. Now we must analyse that and figure out how best to get to that level and that way of playing.
So the theory is to not just bunker in and hope for results against the bigger teams, but to be one of the bigger teams?
If you play Spain or Barcelona ten times and try to stay back and defend, you might win one out of those ten games and maybe get one draw, but they will beat you, probably badly, seven or eight times. Maybe they will have a bad day and you will get lucky, but this is what I mean when I say the USA needs to be more proactive and less reactive. My goal is to show the players that the way to compete with this kind of football is to improve every element of our game.
Your best result so far was a 3-2 win in Slovenia in November. Did you see the kind of football you’re talking about then?
It’s not good enough to have a 45 good minutes like we did against the Slovenians. We need to be tactically more aware and awake all the time, to play the game the same way, totally tuned in, for a full 90 minutes. Little mistakes are not allowed at the top level, and we saw that against Ecuador (a 1-0 loss in which the Americans looked decidedly flat).
Can you keep players from making mistakes?
All the elements need to improve. As the players get better and hungrier, the team gets better. There’s more competition. Along the way we will lose some players. When I was a player, there were countless times when a team-mate had more skill than anyone out on the training pitch, but you just knew that he wouldn’t make it because his mentality was wrong.
You spoke in an early press conference about trying to unearth new talent in this very large country. How do you do that?
There’s still a long way to go in finding the best kids at an early age. This is crucial. Technical development of players happens in many ways between the ages of six and 12, and we’re not there yet. We need to get the young ones to play more soccer, every day, in a fun and positive environment, to develop like they do in Europe and South America.
There are not many American players, aside from goalkeepers, playing in big-name European clubs. Does this need to change?
Yes. A decade or so ago, you had American players playing overseas, but they were at much smaller clubs and they weren’t playing. They were sitting on the bench. Now 80 per cent of my team is overseas, and playing too, not sitting on the sidelines. Now we need to connect the dots, to find players in different backgrounds, to tap the immigrant communities. I see the US team as a team that will represent the United States as a whole entity, as a country of variations and different influences.
Perhaps a USA national team that is a little more diverse?
My job is about finding an American style, an exciting style that is American in its essence, and then allying it with the methods used by the biggest and best teams in the world. There is a blend that we need to get right.
Are there many differences between American players and those produced in the rest of the world?
The American player grows up in a country that is driven by the big three sports (baseball, basketball and American football). Soccer is not a social binder here like it is in other countries. This is important to understand. If you have a bad game for your MLS club, no-one will come up to you in the supermarket the next day and [criticise] you about it. This happens in Europe, in Germany and Italy for sure, I know from experience. It is from this that you get a sense of responsibility. I want my players to experience this.
Is it possible that some of the players in the national team feel a little too safe in their position?
It’s even more important as a national team player to feel the responsibility, the weight. As a national team player, you have to work harder and do more than any other player at your club. You need to get to training 30 minutes early. I push my players to adopt this attitude. It is about today and tomorrow, not yesterday and yesterday’s triumphs. My players have to work for their places and no-one is guaranteed a spot.
How have the players reacted to this?
They’re curious about the new approach. It’s a lot of training for them, a lot of change and a lot of work. But they are beginning to notice that the harder they train, the fresher they feel.
You seem very focused on more intense and rigorous training for your players…
We are teaching their bodies to work hard and teaching them to eat right. Think about it from a nutritional standpoint - junk food and fast food are the enemy. You wouldn’t put diesel in your Ferrari, would you?
What is the next step for the top American players?
I want them to get to the next level, the highest levels. The Champions League is where the music is played, and I want my players to feel that and to know it and be a part of it. The players need to get to the big clubs, get to the Champions League. I tell them that they have the skills and they have the ability. But now it is only about their hunger and their drive. No coach can teach that. No coach ever taught me that. I had to work myself and have the desire to get to places like Inter Milan. You have to do the work. You have to run more, score more goals, fight more and be more consistent.