-Jason Kuenle

In economics, the concept of comparative advantage states that the most effective use of limited resources is achieved by maximizing relative advantage over absolute advantage. In soccer, the same concept can be applied to constructing a formation or lineup. The “limited resources” are the ten field players, “advantage” is measured in objective terms by goals or subjective terms by skills such as positioning, passing, dribbling, vision, covering, tackling, etc. Relative advantage is more important than absolute advantage. The goal is to field a side that maximizes the teams’ advantage. For teams fielding Michael Bradley, this presents a tactical problem in some formations; while he has two areas of absolute advantage, their juxtaposition can present issues in creating relative advantage.

Bradley’s forte is the speed at which he makes decisions. Combined with his fitness, it means he can get to places other players cannot and explains his two areas of absolute advantage. On offense, his decision speed explains his ability to pop up in perfect position in front of goal. On defense, it explains the number of passes that he breaks up. However, these two advantages are nearly impossible to maximize at the same time. In making runs on goal, Bradley puts himself out of position to defend. By taking up solid defensive positions, he puts himself too far from goal to make effective runs. In formations where he’s asked to do both, he can do neither effectively, drastically reducing Bradley’s relative advantage.

Two other characteristics of Bradley’s game create opportunity costs to a team that fields him. First, though Bradley’s two areas of advantage, goal scorer and disruptor, are both predicated on his speed of thought, there is a substantial psychological difference between them; the cost of being incorrect. Choosing the wrong offensive run usually results in nothing more than the same outcome as most possessions, a missed opportunity. On the other hand, rare is the goal that cannot be traced back to a defensive mistake. While Bradley’s decision making is quick, it is not always accurate, leading to a secondary snap decision to compensate. This leads the to running around like a chicken on defense that Bradley is occasionally guilty of. By making incorrect decisions on defense, Bradley can make benign situations into very dangerous ones. This, combined with a desire to give Bradley the freedom to get forward, has motivated coaches to often pair Bradley with a defensive midfielder as he was with Heerenveen and most often with the USMNT. However, this pairing highlights the opportunity cost of playing Bradley.

When Bradley plays as the more advanced center mid, the creation of opportunities generally must occur on the outsides. At this point in his development, Bradley has not shown to be capable of being the primary creative force for a team. In Bradley’s most successful years with Heerenveen and the USMNT, build up was largely done through the wings by Danish international, Jakob Poulson and Croatian international, Danijel Pranjic. Of course the US took its next step forward where Donovan and his creative ability was moved to the wings. Bradley is technically sound, but not a creative force. In the two-man central midfields that Bradley has predominantly played in, playing Bradley forces managers to choose between playing a defensively weak midfield (pairing Bradley with a creative attacker) or a creatively weak midfield (pairing Bradley with a defensive midfielder). Playing Bradley in combination with a younger Pirlo, a hugely creative player who is not a complete defensive liability, would be a dream pairing. But there just aren’t that many of those types of players around.

However, as the trend in formations continues away from two central midfielders to three central midfielders, the dichotomy of Bradley’s game can better be covered. If Bradley is the second best defending central midfielder, a club should have little to fear defensively in that midfield. When Bradley is matched with another central midfielder who can distribute the ball well, his goal scoring ability becomes even more dangerous. In a three player central midfield, filling those roles is a lot easier. In addition, Bradley’s scoring ability shrinks the impact of moving to a single striker set generally required with a three man central midfield.

If the 4-2-3-1 does become the dominant formation of the next five or more years, it has been projected that the 4-1-4-1 or even the reemergence of the 2-3-2-3 (the WW) will become its counter formations. By playing in the middle of the midfield 4 or 2, in these formations, Bradley’s stock could skyrocket. Bradley could be employed in a similar role to a great forechecker in hockey, create turnovers in the opponent’s half, spark counters, and score. By charging Bradley with applying pressure in advanced positions, Bradley can flourish in both of his best roles simultaneously. By surrounding him with a creative attacking midfielder, two wingers, and a striker, Bradley would have outlets to release the turnovers he creates and his positioning would leave him with a distance that could be covered in the amount of time necessary to make the secondary run into the box.

It remains to be seen what role Bradley will play with Villa. With Bradley having rarely been in a three man central midfield, prolonged exposure to that type of formation would certainly help determine if he can flourish in that role as well as his skillset suggests. There is no doubt that Bradley is a talented player, but at this point in his career, Bradley has not exhibited the ability to succeed in diverse roles. It remains to be seen where his career will take him and what type of player he will develop into. What will drive his career success is whether he can develop into a player with a comparative advantage over other top central midfielders in the world. He may end up being very lucky that the formations that best suit him will be the formations popular during his peak years.

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