New USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter made his debut on Sunday night, leading a national side full of young players to a comfortable 3-0 win over a Panama side lacking in quality.
While the crowd was sparse (U.S. Soccer charging $50+ for a ticket to see an off-season friendly with a team full of youngsters borders on criminal), Berhalter did show off a tactical plan that was bold, smart, clearly defined and executed.
For USMNT fans, this is something close to a miracle. (It’s been a long time, if ever, that the national team has had an innovative tactical coach.)
And for his inspiration for the look of the national side, Berhalter leaned on an idea currently being deployed by one of the best managers in the world, Pep Guardiola of Manchester City.
It became clear early in the match that the USMNT was lining up in a pretty standard 4-4-2 (four defenders, four midfielders, two forwards) defensively. More of the same for the team, which has played some variation of the 4-4-2 for years and years. It’s the team’s base set, something every American player knows well.
When they had the ball, however, things got very interesting.
One of the two forwards, 20-year-old Djordje Mihailovic, was dropping slightly back into more of an attacking CM role to try and receive the ball in the space between Panama’s defense and midfield. The two outside midfielders pushed way up into winger roles, freeing up space.
And in a masterstroke, Berhalter had the right fullback, 24-year-old Nick Lima, push forward into the midfield. What had been a pretty standard look 4-4-2 defensively all of a sudden became a 3-4-3, or even a 3-3-4 in attack. Lima became an extra central midfielder, and all of a sudden the team had three midfielders and two #10-types (Mihailovic and Christian Roldan) to try and play the ball into.
A conservative defensive gameplan had been transformed, once the team had possession, into an aggressive, attacking formation built on getting the ball into the feet of attackers.
You can see it in the passing charts when the USMNT has the ball:
In the graphic above, #2 is the right back, Lima. He is lined up … very much not like a right back. (He drifted a lot more centrally than you can even see in the graphic there.) But you can see from the graphic what Berhalter was thinking … he was creating pockets where USMNT could outnumber Panama defenders in attack. That trio along the right wing was especially masterful, as Mihailovic, Lima and Corey Baird combining time and time again to get in behind.
This 4-4-2 to 3-4-3 concept is one that Guardiola has used masterfully at Manchester City this year, as was noted by Bobby Warshaw of MLS. Guardiola prefers doing it from the left side, with Fabian Delph as his Swiss Army player who can play left back but is also comfortable in central midfield.
The City side has rolled it out time and time again this year, so it’s been shown to be a functional tactic, but you have to give Berhalter credit for executing the game plan with a team of young players, many of them making their national team debut, and not with one of the five best club teams in the world.
After the game, Berhalter was clear with press about the tactical plan, and praised Lima as the man of the match for his ability to push forward into the midfield and receive the ball with his back to goal, not something you typically see from right backs. For those of us who follow the USMNT team closely, having a coach clearly articulate a tactical plan – both on the field and off – is something new we haven’t seen in a long time, and welcome.
Berhalter has a long way to go to cement his legacy as the USMNT coach. But at least in his first match, he showed he was willing to study from the best in the game and had the stones to try something a bit audacious in order to give his team the best chance to win.
Gregg Berhalter came out with a tactical plan the likes of which USMNT fans have not seen in a long time.