Win, lose or draw on Friday afternoon against England in the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the US men’s national team were going to need a result against Iran in the final Group B game on Tuesday. The only question was whether they’d need to win outright, or if they’d have enough margin for error where a draw would be enough.
And you’ve got to hand it to Gregg Berhalter and his squad: They really, really went for the win. They wanted that margin for error, and they wanted the scalp that a Black Friday World Cup win over England would give them.
They didn’t get it. The scoreless draw provided few thrills, though it was a delight for tactics-minded sickos like yours truly. And they need a win now in order to get out of the group.
Let’s see what we saw:
Above and beyond anything else, when Berhalter took over in 2018 he had to fix this team’s defense. It wasn’t just a matter of personnel (though that was clearly a part of it), but a matter of shape both with and without the ball, as well as clarity of purpose and roles. From there it becomes a question of tactical approach – whether to press or not, and whether to come with two or three if you do; whether to play with three or four in the back; single or double pivot, etc.
Give Berhalter his flowers, because the man has solved all of the above. England had five shots in the first half; they didn’t get their first shot of the second half until the 85th minute. Through two games, the US have allowed one goal, and only one good open-play chance.
There is still work to be done, as the must-win matchup with Team Melli looms. But after so many years of either vibes or “oh crap, we’re putting out fires all over the field!” defense… it is damn nice to see a team so smart, well-drilled, and fearless.
Ok, the 25% of me that’s Italian just wrote that blurb. Let’s dive into the rest.
The US came out in a basic, bog-standard 4-4-2. Haji Wright and Tim Weah were up top, Yunus Musah and Tyler Adams operated as a double pivot, while Weston McKennie was wider and deeper on the right than Christian Pulisic was on the left (I’ll get to this in more detail in a minute).
Understand this: The basic reason the 4-4-2 has fallen out of favor on the world stage is that you can’t compete in midfield a man down, and that’s basically what we saw against England’s 4-3-3. The numbers differential just clearly favors one team over the other.
But “fallen out of favor” isn’t “disappeared completely,” and the reason the 4-4-2 hasn’t disappeared completely is because it provides you with immediate verticality in transition – and it’s verticality with support because you have two outlets up top.
That was clearly the game plan. The tactics informed the formation and vice versa, and that is a big chunk of why the US looked so cohesive for so long in a formation that they’ve played so infrequently since, like, 2011.
To be entirely fair, I’m not sure why England weren’t able to solve it. But I think it maybe came down to two things:
- Gareth Southgate just isn’t a gifted problem-solver as a manager.
- Adams covers the entire globe.
A lot of US players were very good on the day. Adams was GREAT.
It’s easy, sometimes, to get hung up on his limitations as a distributor (the first half against Wales was a good example of that). But there’s a bare handful of players in the world who cover so much ground, and do it so intelligently.
All those comparisons to N'Golo Kanté that felt overly flattering a few years ago? They didn’t feel that way tonight.
While McKennie and Pulisic were both “wide” players in the US shape, their roles were vastly different:
The US press out of the mid-block was very drilled, with Pulisic taking up the same exact hedged position every time – i.e., inverted on the left and not so high as if he was playing as an actual winger, but not as deep as McKennie on the right.
This was Berhalter’s concession to the truth we all saw on the field against Wales: The US are a lot more fun & dangerous when they use Pulisic as a runner/box-arriver than when they try to build through him.
And of course, that meant that when they did build, they went through McKennie on the right. He became something of a right-sided playmaker as the US created these little three-man actions with him, Weah and right back Sergiño Dest, which produced the best US moments of the night:
This was fun, good soccer. It didn’t produce a win, but given how well they played… well, we should all be able to live with that.