The United States defender Jay DeMerit recently declared, with a laugh, that Bob Bradley "has a DVD player taped to his forehead'' and it was easy to see what he meant when the nation's manager sat down yesterday to talk about England and Fabio Capello, Saturday evening's opponents in Rustenburg.
Most football people, when asked publicly about the qualities of their opponents, mutter a few general niceties, but Bradley offered a tactical retrospective on Capello that even a biographer would be proud of. He rattled through recollections of the time Capello had first taken over from Arrigo Sacchi at Milan in 1991 – "Sacchi's teams were 4-4-2; Capello managed to tweak it a little bit", to Capello's arrival at Roma eight years later – "it became more of a 4-3-1-2 and the system worked with [the Brazilian wingback] Cafu on one side." He would have probably have lingered on every formation in between if time had allowed and were Landon Donovan, another of the hugely impressive and articulate American contingent here, not sitting to his right with thoughts of his own to offer, too.
But behind the blizzard of detail, delivered by a man whose research of the Americans' World Cup opponents has led him to watch as many as 50 matches a week in recent months, was the unmistakable sense that Bradley has quizzed Capello on many occasions and emerged from those conversations with one simple piece of wisdom that has served him better than anything. "His quote to me – his coaching advice – is always something along the lines of 'when you make wine the grapes aren't always the same'," Bradley recalled. "The first few times he said that to me I actually thought he was talking about wine but I thought about it and I realised he was trying to tell me a little something about football."
The allusion, which is less obtuse than it might have sounded when Capello put it, is that there can be many routes to success, each dependent on the players at your disposal, and that overhaul is not always a requirement. Or as Bradley put it: "For me the most impressive thing when you look at Capello's career is the way that at times he has adjusted to the different teams, to the talents."
Never did Capello provide a better demonstration of the fact than when he took over at Milan and, with no money to spend and an air of deep scepticism in the city about his appointment, took virtually the same side to the scudetto in his first season. Bradley has stuck to his guns in the face of public doubts, too. He is certainly not the most popular man in the United States and not in the same charisma bracket as Jürgen Klinsmann, who turned down the US manager's job, before Bradley was approached. "Wholly analytical, glum, flirting with dour,'' is writer Filip Bondy's description of Bradley in his recent book about the US's qualification for the World Cup, Chasing the Game, and Bradley's suspicion of the media is such that the Americans' training camp at Princeton was closed to the public and windows in the press box at the football stadium were papered over, lest anyone might be spying.
But by sticking resolutely to a set bunch of players, including his son, midfielder Michael Bradley, in the face of considerable doubt, a coach who – remarkably – has never worked outside of the country now finds himself as the first coach to have led the US to the final of a major international tournament – last June's Confederations Cup here – and leading a side who are clearly buoyed by that experience.
Bradley has been watching Capello for 20 years but it is to Manchester United that he has looked for evidence of a way that a manager can imbue an entire club with the right culture. "You get a sense that often the environment on the inside of the club has to do with the personality of the manager," he said. "In that respect the times I've been at Man United I've appreciated the way Sir Alex [Ferguson] has set a tone at the club. There's a down-to-earth way. You are sitting there in the cafeteria and you see the way the players that have been there – Giggs, Scholes – and then you see young players playing for the reserves and you see the interaction. You see the way things are done. It's a big club and at the same time there's a down-to-earth quality, a realness, a part to it which is important."
That's also Bradley, for you: a manager who wants to drive out of his teams all of the extraneous detail which can contaminate football. At Princeton, where he coached from the age of 25, he liked to relate a story that was passed on to him by an experienced basketball coach at the place, about a man who carved a duck from a block of wood. Asked how he did it, the man said, "I just got rid of everything that didn't look like a duck.''
The simplicity includes a ruthless honesty, according to some of his players: "He'll tell you exactly what he's thinking, whether you like it or not,'' midfielder Clint Dempsey said last week. For a 52-year-old, he seems to exude an awful lot of wisdom, though that may have something to do with the fact that he has been working at the trade for over 30 years. He coached the Ohio University side while completing his masters degree in sports administration, undertook the same role at Princeton for two years from 1984 and after nine years as a head coach in Major League Soccer, became the coach of the national team in December 2006.
It is difficult to overstate how big Saturday's fixture is for the country and Bradley has his work cut out like never before with a side which looks fast and athletic moving forward – buoyed by the presence of Donovan and Dempsey – but highly vulnerable at the back. Many have doubts about Bradley's decision to stick with Oguchi Onyewu, the Milan squad player who has looked vulnerable in the warm-up games after seven months out of the game with ligament injury.
Bradley knows what he is up against in Capello. "Tactically he'll be right; with the mentality, he'll be right. He certainly sets a good tone with his team, how they need to play, how they go about their business." But he feels he has done his own work too. "In football we understand that success is never guaranteed so when you step back out on the pitch you have to achieve it all over again," Bradley concluded.
"Our experience [in the Confederations Cup] last summer was positive in the sense that we played against very good teams and learned from them. We take all that in. The game keeps growing in our country. To perform at the highest level and succeed again – we understand what that would mean to people."
Bob Bradley: Stars and Stripes
Bradley was appointed as US manager in December 2006. He has won 37 of his 62 matches in charge.
92 The number of US players capped by Bradley. Edson Buddle became the 92nd player to appear when he played against the Czech Republic on 25 May.