It feels like it’s been an eternity, but a year ago, Gregg Berhalter trotted his first USMNT team out for the first in a set of January camp matches. As part of those matches, Berhalter introduced a change at right back, instructing players in the position to play very different than traditional fullbacks. It was an intriguing idea, but the team has since abandoned it. Now, with Tyler Adams getting healthy and playing with RB Leipzig, the question has come up again. Adams was recently slotted in at right back for the German side.
Tyler Adams playing right back for 1st place @RBLeipzig_EN right now vs Eintracht Frankfurt on FS1. As usual, please direct outrage to Gregg Berhalter— Stu Holden (@stuholden) January 25, 2020
Since the experiment appeared to be specially designed for Adams, I figured this would be a good time to revisit the issue. Let’s go over again how it works, the logic behind it, when and why the team stopped using it, and whether it should be tried out again.
How it Works
Berhalter’s hybrid right back system depends on more than just one position. The team as a whole has a plan in different situations during games and the team’s shape changes to suit those plans. When the team doesn’t have the ball and are defending, the team looks looks like a 4-4-1-1, something like this:
This is a fairly standard defensive shape. You have two banks of four; one each in defense and midfield. And you have two advanced players, a midfielder and a forward, that press the opposition. But when the team has the ball, the players move to take up different positions:
At the back, the players shuffle around, with each of the fullbacks doing unusual things. In most high level teams, the fullbacks do one of two things. The first style is the one most clubs these days use. The fullbacks play as complete two-way players, playing very close to the sidelines and going all the way up and down the field, providing width for the team. With the fullbacks playing so high up the field and so wide, the wingers can come inside and have more attacking opportunities closer to goal. There are many examples of this kind of fullback, but Dani Alves at Barcelona was considered one of the best in history.
The second style is more conservative and is sometimes referred to as an inverted fullback. The fullback goes forward only a little bit, serving more as a defensive presence in the case of a break-away and giving the team consistent outlets to make a pass. This frees up the central midfielders to make more aggressive plays. This style is much more uncommon, but a recent example is how Mikel Arteta has used Ainsley Maitland-Niles at Arsenal.
Berhalter’s hybrid right back system mix-&-matches these elements when the team has the ball. The left back ends up playing like a third center back, keeping very deep. Meanwhile, the right back pushes forward. But instead of keeping along the sidelines, as a traditional fullback would, the right back pushes into midfield. The right back is now playing alongside a deep playmaker in midfield. The other two midfielders push forward, facilitating play and breaking into the attacking third. Meanwhile, the wingers are expected to keep very wide, serving as the source of width for the team.
In this set up, the expectation is that the team will be able to easily and quickly shift the ball from one wing to the other. Then, they will then be able to create chances by exploiting the spaces between defenders players as they try to reorganize, feeding into the striker and the on-rushing advanced midfielders. Put all together, this has come to be referred to as The System, even though there have been a number of significant tactical changes.
Altogether, it’s actually got a lot of thought put behind it and isn’t necessarily all that complicated. Formations that use three center backs can have problems managing runs from attacking players, particularly when opposing teams line up in one-striker formations like the 4-3-3. This appears to be a solution to both implement that back three and cover for those deficiencies. There’s a number of things that players have to learn and get used to, but it’s not actually all that different from systems used for years by national teams like Chile.
Why Use It on the USMNT?
So that’s how the system works. Now, why would you consider playing this instead of a different system?
Well, the first place to look is at the player pool. In January of 2019, DeAndre Yedlin was far and away the clear starter at right back. Beyond him, the position was an open question. Reggie Cannon was tried out alongside similarly young squads in 2018 and Bruce Arena favored Graham Zusi (!!!) during World Cup qualifying. Yedlin himself wasn’t considered an especially strong point of the national team due to a number of defensive miscues over his national team career. As a whole, the position was considered a weakness.
If right back was weak, that was nothing compared with left back. Left fullbacks are often very difficult for both clubs and national teams to fill. But the USMNT has never had more than a precious few satisfactory options at any point in its history, such as DaMarcus Beasley. Bruce Arena had been using Jorge Villafaña, a player who tended to play the position as if he were a winger and defending was optional. And even he had fallen out of form. The outlook for the position was grim.
On the other hand, central midfield and center back looked very well stocked with essentially most of the team’s most talented and promising players there, particularly in midfield. The team had the veteran Michael Bradley, experienced MLS player Wil Trapp, and promising youngsters in the form of Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie. While a winger at the club level, Christian Pulisic had played as a central attacking midfielder for the national team up to this point. The team also had a slew of alternatives who either could break in or serve as depth: Sebastian Lletget, Kellyn Acosta, Keaton Parks, Perry Kitchen, Alfredo Morales, the list goes on.
So the player pool was weak at fullback, but strong in midfield and center back. In that circumstance, one possible solution is to take the place where the team is deepest and strongest and use it to compensate where the team is weakest. The rationale is that, instead of having to pick two of Bradley/Trapp, McKennie, and Adams, you could have all three, and all it costs you is Adams playing a little bit awkwardly over Yedlin (or his back up).
The second part of the equation has everything to do with Tyler Adams. Adams was coming off of a great spell with the New York Red Bulls where he was the lynchpin for the team, winning the Supporter’s Shield on their way to the top of the table. He had just moved to RB Leipzig and, as it so happened, had experience at right back. Because of all that, this hybrid role wouldn't necessarily even be that big of a change for him.
Of course, that’s not exactly how things worked out.
The phase out
As I briefly mentioned above, the team doesn’t play with a hybrid right back now. When exactly did the USMNT stop using this tactic? Almost immediately.
Yeah, that answer feels wrong, doesn’t it?
Berhalter’s system has caught a lot of flack in the past year, with a lot of focus and ridicule on this tactic in particular. But the truth is, the team barely used it. Berhalter played with it with Nick Lima in the two January camp games against Costa Rica and Panama. In March, Berhalter used it again in a 1-0 victory over Ecuador, with Adams at right back. But, with Adams going back to his club before the next match, Berhalter opted for a standard back four in the friendly against Chile.
From there, the team didn’t really try the idea out again. In the next match, an extremely stale and languid 1-0 loss against Jamaica, the team played with a back 3 with two wingbacks, Antonee Robinson on the left and Paul Arriola on the right. Against Venezuela, Nick Lima returned to the line up, but his pass map shows that he plays consistently down the right.
After a few games into the Gold Cup, people (including myself) started catching on that Lima wasn’t tucking inside and that the team had abandoned the experiment. That leaves the question of why the team abandoned the hybrid right back. And it also leaves the question of whether the team should bring it back.
Should we try it again?
It looks like the team dropped the hybrid right back because Tyler Adams got hurt. The one game where he was available, the team used it. When he was gone, the tactic was also gone. With Adams returning to health, the question arises again, will the team revisit the hybrid right back?
And the answer to that appears to be “No”.
RB Leipzig been using Adams at right back -- where do you see him for the USMNT?— scuffed (@zlebmada) January 27, 2020
GB: "we've played him at right back before," a good fit there, but "we see him primarily as a central midfielder, we always have," good to have flexibility but we see him as a central midfielder
But that’s a separate question from whether the team should try it again. Answer: no, they shouldn’t.
I think the team’s move away from the hybrid right back is more complicated than just that Adams was not available. It’s hard to pin point the flaws of the tactic when there’s a sample size of three games, all against bad teams, but I think it is fair to apply the team’s other deficiencies over the past year unless playing a hybrid right back specifically addresses it (and for me, they don’t).
The first issue was that the team had a big reevaluation of the player pool and which positions were relatively strong.
As it turns out, the team looks weak at central midfield. Or, to put it more accurately, the team looks bad at winning the ball in midfield without Tyler Adams. Berhalter has put out a number of different midfield pairings over the past year, some better than others. But, without Adams, there has been a consistent problem where the team has been unable to consistently win the ball back in midfield. As promising and experienced as they respectively may be, McKennie and Bradley have both appeared insufficient and inconsistent at this. They have other very good qualities, but that specific role has gone insufficiently filled. While it looks like Jackson Yueill can put in a stiff defensive performance, he has not been very thoroughly tested. Other options either have not yet panned out, have been injured (Paxton Pomykal), or appear to be on the verge of dropping out of the program entirely (Wil Trapp).
On the other hand, Tyler Adams didn’t merely join a Bundesliga side. He walked into the team and immediately became one of their best players in one of the most important positions on the field in one of the best leagues in the world. And this meant a big reevaluation was in order. Tyler Adams now looks like he potentially will become one of the best defensive midfielders, not just for the USMNT, but in the world. Does it really make sense to shift that kind of player from arguably the most important role in the team, a rule the team is deficient in, and stick him in fullback instead?
At the same time, there has been a reevaluation at fullback. The USMNT is suddenly quite deep at right back. Reggie Cannon walked into the Gold Cup as the final man on the roster and he walked out as potentially the starting right back. Cannon showed himself as more than adept at both attacking and defending. Then, in the fall, Sergiño Dest transitioned into Ajax’s senior team and began playing consistent minutes. When he made the decision to commit permanently to the USMNT, the national locked down an attacking option for both fullback positions. Between those two and Yedlin, there’s suddenly a wealth of options to chose from at right back. And, of course, Nick Lima has been a very good depth option this whole year. It was one thing to slide Adams into the role when right back looked weak. But it doesn’t really make sense when it’s one of the most competitive and deep position on the squad.
But there’s another issue with playing the hybrid right back. The USMNT doesn’t have the wingers for it. Now, that isn’t to say that the national team is necessarily weak on the wings. Pulisic is playing on the left when healthy very well this season for Chelsea in the Premier League. And Jordon Morris put in a great year as a winger, scoring 5 goals for the USMNT and winning MLS Cup with Seattle. Further down the depth chart, we’ve got Paul Arriola and Tyler Boyd, both very useful pieces. And Tim Weah is an option, so long as he gets healthy and continues his development. The team has options. But most of these players don’t line up with how the team would need wingers to play if the squad fielded a hybrid right back.
Remember, when you play with this right back that cuts inside, you need the wingers to stay wide in order to give the team width. The way Berhalter wants to play, keeping that width is vital in order to be able to move around the opposition. The wingers use that space to create and put in chances instead of bursting into the box and getting into goal scoring opportunities themselves. However, the team’s wingers don’t play the position that way. Pulisic and Boyd both like to come inside on the dribble. Jordon Morris floats very high up and naturally tucks in to supplement the striker. Only Paul Arriola plays as Berhalter intends, but Arriola, as useful and hardworking as he is as a role player, doesn’t necessarily create a whole lot. Combined with midfield problems, this has led to the USMNT struggling at times to create against decent teams. And I think this actually forced the change. One of the worst performances Pulisic had was against Chile, playing in the middle. The team couldn’t create chances through the wingers playing so wide and Pulisic wasn’t getting the space in the middle. Adapting the system to let Pulisic play as he wanted on the wing was necessary. And that meant that the team had to find a way to generate width another way. Instead, the team developed new rotations, which helped in the Gold Cup. However, the team still has problems elsewhere on the field, specifically in midfield. The hope is that playing Adams in the middle actually fixes a lot of those issues, but that means that the hybrid right back isn’t coming back.