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Two Years of Berhalter: Tactical Evolution

We return to our series on Gregg Berhalter with an overview on how the tactics have changed over the last two years. Spoiler: there have been growing pains.

Panama v USMNT Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images

We just hit the two year point for Gregg Berhalter’s term in charge of the United States Men’s National team, and to mark the occasion, I’m doing a comprehensive review of the team since he took charge. This is part three of that series, and today, we will be talking about tactics. Part one covered roster selections, and part two focused on dual nationals. The series will conclude next week with a discussion on the player pool.

In a way, the tactics section of this series was always going to be the most difficult for me to write. It’s one thing to describe and critique the tactics of a single game. It’s another to look at a series of games and reach a conclusion about the whole thing. The core problem is sample size.

In 2019, the USMNT played a total of 18 games: 8 friendlies, 6 Gold Cup matches, and 4 Nations League matches. In 2020, the team played only 4 matches, all of them friendlies, while so far in 2021, they’ve played just one at the end of January Camp. That gives us a mere 14 competitive matches to judge from over two years. And quality is a factor. Of those competitive matches, only 4 came against nations ranked in the top 75 according to FIFA’s rankings: Jamaica, Mexico, and Canada (twice). As a result, we are forced to evaluate the team based on friendlies and the potentially experimental approaches brought to them. The way Berhalter had the USMNT play versus Mexico in the Gold Cup final was very different from how he had them play in a friendly. Because of this, some of the conclusions will necessarily be extrapolations. That said, there’s still a clear and interesting story here, a set of changes in Berhalter’s tactics from when he first took charge to the present.

Under Berhalter, tactics have taken a far more central stage than under either Arena or Klinsmann before him. Both Arena and Klinsmann generally played a version of the 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield, with the fullbacks expected to play aggressively up the field. However, in hindsight it seems that the tactics and formation choices were more about being able to put the best players on the field at the same time rather than a deliberate plan to control particular aspects of the game. The flaws were clear and were identified by the opposition. Against strong teams, the US could successfully sit back and attack on the counter. But weak CONCACAF teams realized that they themselves could sit back and force the USMNT to hold a lot of possession. Then, by selectively pressing specific players, they could effectively shut down the American attack, and they could suck the center backs into taking positions they were uncomfortable with and where they could be exploited. And that’s exactly what happened, with the US struggling in most of their qualifying matches, until, ultimately, they failed to make it to the World Cup.

Given that context, Berhalter came in with a mandate: modernize the USMNT.

But what is modern anyway?

Of course, you have to ask what the hell modernizing actually means. Ahead of him actually taking the job, the speculation was that Berhalter would try to have the USMNT play like the Columbus Crew had in MLS while he was in charge. Berhalter himself talked at length about “disorganizing the opposition through possession.” When the games actually started, the focus seemed to be about experimentation.

The big attraction in terms of tactics was the prospect of Gregg Berhalter playing Tyler Adams as a hybrid right back. I already explored the hybrid right back scheme pretty thoroughly last year, and, quite frankly, I think it’s way over-emphasized. We saw the tactic in 3 friendlies, all victories, before it was shelved. And, as I explained in that linked piece, it’s very unlikely to be coming back.

It’s a shame that the hybrid right back gets so much attention because there was a lot of structural stuff there in that first January Camp that has had a more enduring influence. The players looked more comfortable with the ball. Instead of everything going through Michael Bradley, there were alternative options to progress the ball forward. Almost all the positions were structured; in any given line up, almost nobody had anything close to a free-roaming role. There was the deep lying midfielder who shuttles the ball across. There were the long balls to players out on the wings. And, of course, there was the insistence on playing accurate passes to maintain possession, even when pressed. All of these things have been mainstays.

We can also throw in the 4-3-3 formation. While it disappeared for much of 2019 in favor of a 4-2-3-1, it was there at Berhalter’s start and came back in 2020. Berhalter has been nothing if not consistent. What’s more, I would say that these changes actually do represent steps towards modernization and they are likely irreversible. Even if Berhalter were fired tomorrow, we should expect these things to stick around under his successor.

Many Trials and Tribulations

Which brings us to the fact that in 2019, I actually did suggest sacking Berhalter. That position was hedged on events that did not come to pass, but I think the point still stands. There came a point where performances warranted that conversation.

For the most part, this series has been generally positive towards Berhalter’s decisions. I tried to take a more neutral position in the first part and merely state the fact that Berhalter was trying out a lot of young players, but I am not about to pretend like I don’t support those decisions. Meanwhile, I outright praised Berhalter for his handling of dual nationals, though I perhaps should have spread more of that love to Earnie Stewart and Brian McBride.

But I can’t legitimately talk about tactics in the same way. From a strict results perspective, in competitive play, Berhalter met (but did not exceed) expectations. My standards going into 2019 were to get to the Gold Cup final and then not be humiliated by Mexico, and to top the group on Nations League. Lo and behold, that’s what happened. The team mostly strolled to the Gold Cup final, falling 1-0 against a better Mexican team in a game that the US perhaps should have won. And then the team topped their Nations League group. Like I said, strictly meets expectations.

But looking at the competitive results belies the fact that the actual experience was much more dire. Soccer fans, perhaps particularly Americans fans, tend to equate possession with beautiful play. Given that Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team glorified (I would say fetishized) possession and happened to be, from 2009 to 2012, the best club team in history, at least by my reckoning, it’s understandable that people would associate possession with excitement and success. However, Berhalter’s MNT side of 2019 demonstrated that, all too often, possession soccer is tepid and stale. But I don’t watch the USMNT for beautiful play. No, I want to see the US win. For me, anything else is merely extra. So how did results go? Well, the team was extremely successful at stomping minnows. But they largely struggled to score goals against decent teams, scoring only 12 goals in the 11 games against teams ranked in FIFA’s top 75, and of those goals, 7 were scored in only two games. Ok, so the team struggled offensively. What about defensively? In those same 11 games, the team conceded 14 goals. So, erm, not so good.

Look, if a team neither succeeds in consistently scoring, nor in consistently defending, that team is dysfunctional. You can talk all about important players who are missing and growing pains, and perhaps those concerns are valid. But the point still stands, something was not working. When the team looks like this, you have to make changes. And, indeed, after the defeats against Mexico in the Gold Cup, some changes were made. Berhalter shuffled Christian Pulisic to the wing and pushed Weston McKennie into the most advanced midfield slot. Over the course of the next 4 games, those changes would help drive the MNT to win ... [checks notes] ... one game... against an extra-bad Cuba. That brings us to the lowest point in the past two years, the abysmal 2-0 loss against Canada in Nations League.

It’s difficult to make sweeping declarations about that dreadful game in Toronto. It’s a datapoint of one. Maybe the players really just had an off day. But I think it’s more likely that the disconnect between the midfield and defense, the inability to consistently advance the ball up the field, the empty possession, the struggle to win the ball back in midfield, and the failure of the midfield to contest second balls were all systemic issues. Likewise, it’s difficult to say that the solid 4-1 victory on the return fixture was a result of Berhalter being forced into pragmatism, or something else. We've not had a competitive match since, and the team appears to now be on a completely different tactical direction entirely, deviating both from that victory and the bad play that came before.

Press the On Switch

I spent 2019 bloviating about how badly the USMNT missed Tyler Adams (chronic injury) and how the team couldn’t win the ball back. But if you want to take a tactical analysis of the problem, as well as a look at how the team has changed (I tentatively say for the better), then you want to look at the press. In the modern game, everything revolves around how, where, and when to press.

A press is where a team makes a decision to try and actively win the ball back in an organized manner. If you have a high press, the team generally is always trying to win the ball back. Alternatively, you can decide to press only when the goal is in danger, usually called a low-block. Finally, you have the middle ground, where the team doesn’t always press, but also is also more proactive than merely trying to park the bus.

3 pressing scenarios

The big difference between most pressing systems is where the defending team actively tries to press the opposition and win the ball back. That place on the field is called the line of confrontation. I’ve got three different defensive postures depicted here, with the line of confrontation in each scenario depicted as a dotted line. In each picture, the blue team is defending in a 4-4-2, while the red team is attacking with a rough approximation of a 4-3-3. These match up with what the USMNT play in defense and attack respectively. Notice, in the low block, the line of confrontation is very close to the defending team’s goal, and the defending players are bunched very tightly together. In the mid block, the line of confrontation is higher up the field and the defensive players are not as bunched together. In the high press, the line is almost at the attacking team’s goal and every defending player is very close to an attacking player.

Each of these defensive set ups have their own positives and benefits. Low blocks tend to be defensively solid because they clog up the area in front of goal, but come with the downside of severely hampering the attack and can be physically and mentally exhausting when playing against high quality opposition. Examples of good teams that play low blocks include Atletico Madrid and Jill Ellis’ USWNT. The high press is good at suffocating the opposition and forcing turnovers in dangerous places. The drawbacks are that teams have space in the back to attack if they can get around or over the press and playing in this style tends to also be physically exhausting against good opposition. Chile won a series of Copa Americas with the high press. The high press is also associated with Bayern Munich and Liverpool. The mid block tends to be more flexible than the other two, but lacks the offensive or defensive upsides. It also tends to be less energy intensive than the other two. It’s important to note that teams don’t have to always pick one of these defensive styles. Teams may start a game in a high press, grab a goal, and then sit in a low block. Or the decision to press or not to press can be based on in-game context. Jurgen Klopp coined the phrase gegenpress, which is where a team presses aggressively when they immediately lose the ball, but, after a few seconds, switches to a less aggressive defensive shape. There’s lots of versions of this: press if there’s a back pass, press on throw ins, etc.

For most of 2019, Berhalter had the US in a mid block. And it sucked. The team ended up disconnected and disjointed. And those problems were exploited in the 3-0 friendly against Mexico and the 2-0 loss versus Canada. But after that, Berhalter decided to change things. In the 4-1 win over Canada, the team actually fielded a low block. McKennie returned to the midfield pivot and let Canada have over 60% of the ball. The tables had been turned; Canada was feeling powerful but found themselves unable to do anything. The MNT counter-punched their way to an easy victory. Perhaps this low-block style was the way forward for the US? That’s doesn’t appear to be what happened.

In a kind of weird way, Berhalter’s tactics have matched the broader steps of tactical change over the last decade. Both Klinsmann and Arena’s 4-4-2 resembled the kinds of play of the late 1990s and early 2000s, an era where attacking players were given loads of freedom to drift across the field. Can you imagine David Beckham at right mid in today’s game? Absurd! Berhalter represented a step towards the kind of possession-focused positional play that Barcelona team made so popular with tiki-taka. But the thing is, tiki-taka died a very violent death in 2013, when Bayern Munich decimated Barcelona 7-0 over both legs of the UEFA Champions League semifinals. The consequences of that game trickled down to the rest of the world, with everyone realizing that you could kill a possession game with dogged defending and heavy pressing. What happened to the USMNT in 2019? They lost to a Canada side dedicated to dogged defending, and they lost to a Mexico side comfortable with heavy pressing.

Which brings us to the next stage, and to the present. In November 2020, Berhalter trotted out a 4-3-3 against Wales, with a midfield of McKennie, Adams, and Yunus Musah. The team wasn’t able to get a goal, but they completely throttled the Welsh attack through a high press. And this showed signs of where the US was going. The team was still a possession- heavy side. But now, they were also a counter-pressing side. When the US lost the ball, they would try and win it back immediately. No more of this mid-block nonsense. No, the team, specifically the midfield, would attempt to win the ball back as soon as possible. Winning those turn overs in turn would create openings to attack. This would catch the opposing team off guard — after all, they were just about to attack — and leave their defense disorganized. The team wasn’t able to quite pull this off against Wales. But we did see goals from this kind of play in the subsequent matches against Panama, El Salvador, and Trinidad and Tobago.

The Big Mac

Switching to a counter-pressing style has suddenly thrust Weston McKennie into the central role for the team. I spent 2019 complaining about how we needed Weston McKennie to play deeper and to win the ball back on behalf of the team. Well, McKennie’s winning the ball back, but he isn’t playing deeper. In fact, he’s clearly become one of the key attacking weapons for the USMNT. Indeed, based on McKennie’s club performances, it seems Berhalter was on to something before anyone had caught on.

The job of both central midfielders is essentially to do everything. They need to be able to cover ground and quickly press opposing players to win the ball back. They need to be able to burst into the attack. They need to be able to link up in the final third with other players. And they need to be able to make late runs into the box and score goals. Weston McKennie happens to be an exceptionally well rounded player who can do all of these things. On top of that, since joining Juventus, it’s clear his awareness and concentration have also improved. At just 22, I’d have to say he’s become the lynchpin for the USMNT.

The thing is, the USA really needs two McKennies. There’s two spots in that midfield, after all. Of course, we won’t need literally the exact same skill set at the other midfield spot. It’s okay if McKennie’s partner is a little bit more of a dribbler or a creative passer. But that player still needs to be well rounded enough to participate in both attack and defense. There’s a number of prospects for that spot: Yunus Musah, Brendan Aaronson, Sebastian Lletget, maybe Owen Otasowie, or even Paxton Pomykal if he can get and stay healthy. But it also means that a number of players are not going to be considered. Defensive-minded players like Alfredo Morales aren’t gong to be considered for that spot, nor will pure attackers. That rules out shifting Pulisic or Gio Reyna back to midfield, and possibly precludes Duane Holmes entirely. Alternatively, I could be extrapolating without enough information. But I don’t really think so.

It’s early days in terms of whether the current tactical set up will work; we’ll have to see how the team does in the March international window with the full national team. So far, we are playing Northern Ireland. Keep an eye out for an announcement of a second match. While the tactics over the last few years have not been smooth sailing, I’m feeling optimistic about the team going forward. But that’s enough from me. What do you think? Was there a tactical wrinkle that I missed, something a got wrong? Let me know in the comments below. We’ll be back next time to finish up the series with an evaluation of the player pool.

Stay safe.