Player pool growth will test Berhalter's midfield tactics moving forward
August 13, 2020
THE UNITED STATES national team has goals of returning to the field in October and November this year. Once it does, it will be nearly a year since manager Gregg Berhalter has had a FIFA international date to call in his first-choice group of players. Obviously, with the U.S. team consisting of a player pool that is on the younger side, thing can change quickly. For Berhalter, things are far different now than 12 months ago.
The growth of the player pool over the past 12 months – both domestically and abroad - will indeed test Berhalter and determine if the pieces now at his disposal fit his desired approach.
Managing a national team comes with specific challenges: the manager must create a tactical scheme for a fixed pool of players and be able to implement these ideas in the very limited time frame dictated by FIFA’s international schedule. What’s more, this fixed group of players evolves over time in a way that is almost entirely outside of the control of the national team manager.
Since taking the reins of the U.S. team, Gregg Berhalter has expounded upon his “principles of play” at great length. In the last year and a half, Berhalter has tweaked his formation, player roles, attacking style, and defensive setup at times while remaining true to his core principles of play. The lengthy COVID-related layoff in international play has allowed some players to return to health and others to continue to develop, and now that the return of national team games has been announced in October, the evolution of Berhalter’s near-term tactical plans are coming into view.
In recent public comments, Berhalter signaled that he sees Tyler Adams as a box-to-box midfielder, preserving his cherished deep-lying midfield possession hub role for Jackson Yueill, Michael Bradley, or perhaps even Darlington Nagbe.
Expect the USMNT to line up in a 4-3-3 with the twin terrors of Adams and McKennie patrolling the midfield and forcing turnovers, and dynamic young fullbacks like Sergino Dest and Reggie Cannon moving forward into the attack, allowing the system’s wingers the flexibility to cut inside at the right times.
It’s certainly not the only system that would fit the current USMNT pool, but it’s one in which the roles fit together and in which players will be put into positions where they can succeed.
Like many modern managers, Berhalter likes to emphasize the importance of roles and concepts over conceptualizing a team in terms of a rigid formation drawn on a clipboard. After all, the game is fundamentally too fluid for its nuances to be captured by a series of integers like “4-2-3-1”. But while Berhalter has experimented with and adjusted player roles as well as his team’s entire defensive approach, his deep-lying, big-switch-hitting number six hasn’t changed. The bottom line is that over the medium-term, his seemingly strong preference for this deep-lying possession hub may well be headed for a collision course with the evolution of the USMNT player pool.
A deep-lying number six who isn’t a lockdown defensive stalwart can work, as long as there are a couple of central midfielders who can cover ground and close down opposing attacks. Berhalter has that at his disposal in the form of Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie. However, that situation locks the USMNT into a situation in which Berhalter can only field three true attackers: two wingers and a center forward.
Christian Pulisic should have the left wing position locked down for years to come. There are a variety of players competing for the center forward position. But the emergence of Gio Reyna, the plethora of talent on the right wing, and rising prospects at attacking midfield have the potential to make things complicated.
In the current system, Reyna will compete with Jordan Morris, Timothy Weah, Uly Llanez, and Paul Arriola for the right wing position. Meanwhile, central attacking midfielders like Brenden Aaronson and Richie Ledezma don’t quite have a position in this scheme unless Berhalter decided to bench one of McKennie or Adams in their favor — an unlikely prospect.
Not every prospect pans out the way fans hope, but with Morris playing at a high level over the last year and Reyna already on a very elite trajectory, it won’t take many more prospects to hit for the situation to get awfully crowded. Meanwhile, the deep-lying number six position relies heavily on Jackson Yueill’s continued development, and lacks depth: Michael Bradley is rapidly aging out of the pool, Darlington Nagbe’s interest in representing the USMNT is far from clear, and Wil Trapp has not been influential in the role and his future is questionable at best having appeared just once in the last 10 national team games.
The natural way to get more talent on the field in a coherent way is to switch to a 4-2-3-1, with Adams and McKennie playing deeper in the midfield, Reyna or one of the central-attacking number 10 players pulling the strings, and Reyna or one of the other wingers on the right. Doing so would allow more of the rising American attacking talent on the field, but it would come at the expense of Berhalter’s highly valued deep-lying possession hub position.If it comes to pass that strength of American attacking talent significantly outweighs the pool of available big-switch-hitting deep possession midfielders, will Berhalter have the flexibility to adjust? Can Berhalter stay true to his principles of play without the existence of the possesson-oriented six in the starting eleven? These are not questions that will need to be answered this fall, but they are questions that the manager may face sooner rather than later.