“What if,” you ask yourself, “there were someone who 1) is incredibly intelligent and analytical about soccer 2) spends a good portion of that analysis on the team from which the USMNT hired Gregg Berhalter, and 3) he even lives in Nashville, thus having an additional connection to the subject matter of this blog?” You ask yourself weird things.
Fortunately for you, the weird thing has come together. Eliot McKinley has been a Columbus Crew SC fan since 1996, lives in the Music City, and writes about (and even pioneers!) soccer analytics at American Soccer Analysis, the Columbus Crew at Massive Report, and both on his Twitter account, @etmckinley. I asked him questions about what the United States Men’s National Team is getting in head coach Gregg Berhalter, and he was kind enough to not only answer, but include links to more in-depth resources.
Follow him on Twitter for tons more about American soccer, soccer analytics, and much more.
For Club and Country: If you could boil down Berhalter’s style to one distinct principle or phrase, what would it be? What are the statistical markers that indicate that style?
Eliot McKinley: Gregg Berhalter’s style can be boiled down to one sentence that he has used countless times during his time in Columbus: “Our aim is to disorganize the opponent through ball possession to create goal-scoring opportunities, and it will always be that.”
The simplest way to look at this philosophy is possession percentage. Since Berhalter took over in Columbus, the Crew have been near the top of MLS in possession. You can’t disorganize the defense with possession if you don’t have possession.
FCAC: He’s been well-known for his 4-2-3-1 formation. What sort of flexibility – both within that formation and using others – allows him to accomplish game-specific goals? Are there other ways in which he’s shown to not be married to a system (or maybe ways in which he’s proven to be stubborn)? [I merged these]
EM: Berhalter has his possession based philosophy that is typically based upon a 4-2-3-1 formation which he used almost 90% of the time since 2015. However, formation does not equal tactics (see New York Red Bull’s pressing in a 4-2-3-1). Within the 4-2-3-1 Berhalter has many tactics, and if you ask him, he’ll be sure to tell you (correctly) that they change every game. Typically his team will play out of the back, but will go more direct against teams that press high. He has fielded his right back as a false fullback, depending on the winger he can have them play wide (Ethan Finlay) or tuck in as inverted wingers). Multiple times this season he has played a 4-4-2, despite the boxscore saying 4-2-3-1, most famously in the first half of the Crew’s home playoff game against Red Bulls. Without a good option at right winger in 2017 after the trade of Ethan Finlay he even shifted to a three center back formation for a run of games. While early in his time in Columbus he was criticized for being too married to his tactics, recent seasons have shown much more flexibility. This will come in handy at the international level where the quality of opponent varies widely and the tactics needed to succeed can be very different.
FCAC: He’s been known as a striker-whisperer for a few years now, and the 2018 season for Gyasi Zardes seemed to indicate there’s a little something to that. What is it in Berhalter’s scheme that allows for so much success at that position?
EM: In Berhalter’s primary system, the striker’s offensive utility is there to finish off the attacking movement from the rest of the team, usually a one touch shot. Columbus’ strikers over the last few years are near the bottom of the league in expected buildup [https://www.americansocceranalysis.com/asa-xgoals/], so are not asked to create chances but to get into dangerous spots and get a shot off. Zardes has been widely maligned (unfairly in my opinion) for having a bad first touch, but if that touch is a shot it matters a bit less.
FCAC: The Crew’s attack has tended to be heavily dependent on Federico Higuaín since he joined the team. Do you see someone in the US player pool who can take on that role, or can Berhalter’s teams score without it?
EM: Pipa has be integral to Columbus’ success since he arrived in 2012. When Pipa is playing well, the Crew played well. The only time Columbus missed the playoffs was 2016 when Higuain missed time due to injury. Finding a 10 for the national team may be problematic if Berhalter wants to play a similar system as he did in Columbus. Finding a creative attacking midfielder has been a long term problem for USMNT, and perhaps Christian Pulisic can slot in there, but if not Berhalter may have to change his system a bit, something he hasn’t had to do over the long term in Columbus.
FCAC: One of the biggest feathers in Berhalter’s cap has been more about overachieving compared to roster spend than it has been actually winning the big one. Is there part of his style that gives you pause about potentially scaling up to one of the most resource-heavy teams in Concacaf, or is it all just added value for a guy who has done it with less before?
EM: Given that the Crew have consistently had one of the lowest payrolls in MLS, the narrative about Berhalter overachieving is not wrong. Given his success, despite financial limitations, I don’t see any reason why scaling up to the resources of US Soccer should be any problem. Additionally, Berhalter has plenty of experience operating within a turbulent organization and that can only help with the national team.